This is a legacy post that was given a facelift. Here’s why: With a gift card, I recently purchased a facial sunless tanning serum that I can mix in with my normal moisturizer (yes, it is awesome, yes more is coming on that). While researching which one to purchase, I came across a few rather acrimonious reviews on one such product (not the one I purchased). The reviewers were somewhat-justifiably upset because the product claimed to be free of smells. Well, sure – the product is fragrance free. That doesn’t mean it won’t cause a smell, however.
It really blows my mind that SO MANY people, including self-described self-tan aficionados, have no idea what actually causes the telltale sunless tanner smell.
I’ve talked about sunless tanners (my favorite is Million Dollar Tan) quite a bit before. Many posts mention, but do not focus on sunless tanner smell, however; the occasionally annoying odor that follow sunless tanning product usage. It isn’t limited to lotions: spray tans and even tanning bed (boo, do not use these) products are affected.
How Do Sunless Tanners Work?
There are three kinds of sunless tanners. Some products only temporarily deposit color that is washed away in 1-3 showers. Other products are intended to develop color over time; in those, the main, active ingredient in sunless tanners is DHA (dihydroxyacetone). The third type does a bit of both.
DHA & Melanin
When applied, DHA prompts your skin to produce melanin. Melanin is what gives our skin its color; people with darker skin tones naturally have more of it regardless of sun or DHA exposure. For lighter skin tones, stimulating melanin production causes us to appear tan.
Sunless Tanner Smell Free (So they Claim)
Nearly all sunless tanning products claim to be free of sunless tanner smell. Here’s the funny thing: none of the lotions CONTAIN that odor. Their label isn’t technically wrong! Unfortunately, though, most people will get some sort odor with nearly every one.
Sunless tanner smell is a side-effect of the melanin-producing process. When we leverage chemical means to accelerate this, we tend to notice the smell more.
How to Avoid or Limit
Products with a lesser concentration of DHA will generally not produce as evident a sunless tanner smell. Using gradual sunless tanners, like L’Oreal Sublime Glow, Jergens Natural Glow, or Ocean Potion Ever Glow is a good way to slowly build up color without dealing with smells you find unpleasant. The smell is far less noticeable with these products.
Products marketed to develop color quickly, like, “express,” or four-hour products run the risk of prompting a more obvious smell. If you can’t stand the sunless tanner smell, you should avoid the quick-fix products.
The Bottom Line
There isn’t a fragrance ingredient causing sunless tanner smell. The smell is ultimately a side effect of the body’s biological process to produce melanin. Because the possibility is always there with any DHA-containing products, if the smell repulses you, you need to stick to color-depositing-only products to help you build your tan.