Sunless tans are great, but how will they react to the sauna or steam room? Image via Flickr.
It is winter, and if you are like me, your skin now is as white as the snow. I have no problem with my white skin that comes with my northern European heritage. Many people, though, would rather have more color on their skin, especially when you are planning to bare most of it on a spa day. Dozens of bottles of sunless tanning lotions are waiting for you at your local drugstore that promise to make you look like you just returned from the beaches of Aruba. If you’re willing to spend more, you might opt for a session in a spray-tan booth or an airbrush tan from your local salon.
But what happens when you go in the sauna with a new sunless tan? Will it end up streaked? Will it wash off in one large oil slick when you get into the hot tub? Will it change to an odd shade of orange, making you look more like a Muppet? Let’s take a look at sunless tans and what happens to them in the sauna.
Before you can guess what will happen to your tan, you have to figure out what you are using to make your skin look tanned. There are two major types of product available today, sunless tanners and bronzers. Manufacturers can put any name they want on their bottle, so unless you read the instructions and ingredients, you may not know what you are really getting.
A true suntan
The look that sunless tanners try to simulate is that of a real suntan. When you lay in the sun or on a tanning bed, you are exposing your skin to ultra-violet (UV) rays. Inside your skin is a chemical called melanin. When the UV rays hit melanin molecules in your skin, they immediately turn brown. This process stimulates your body to produce more melanin, which darkens your skin in the areas exposed to the sun.
A true suntan affects all the layers of your skin. In most areas of your you have about five layers of skin cells. Approximately every week your skin makes a new layer of skin cells inside your body, which push the older layers to the surface. The oldest layer, which is on the outside of your skin is about a month old. To protect your body from dirt and disease, these skin cells eventually wear off as you exfoliate. Since a real suntan occurs through all the layers in your skin, it can last for about a month after you’ve last seen the sun. Sunless tanners try to simulate this look, but cannot penetrate deep inside your skin.
A sauna or steam room will not affect a regular suntan. Saunas and steam rooms do not give off any UV radiation. So using a sauna or steam room will not give you a suntan or increase the body’s production of melanin. A sauna will help promote exfoliation, so if you haven’t seen the sun in a while, a sauna or steam bath can speed up the loss of your bronzed color by a few days as that outer layer of tanned skin cells goes away. However, that loss of color was going to happen anyway.
Bronzers are the quickest way to get a tanned look. These are usually just a skin lotion with some dye in them. You can tell you have a bottle of bronzer when the instructions tell you not to wear clothing over your tanned skin. Many “airbrush” tans done at salons and spas are also done with bronzers. Here are some examples of bronzers on Amazon.
Many bronzers are nothing more than makeup. If you wash the area where you’ve used them, the color will come off. Others have a more permanent dye in them to change the color of your skin’s surface. As this outside layer of skin comes off, so does all the color. These can give your fake tan a blotchy appearance as the outside layer of your skin comes off unevenly.
You definitely don’t want to use a bronzer if your plans include a sauna. If your bronzer is the makeup type, your sweat from the sauna can cause it to run like mascara, leaving you with unattractive streaks in your tan and causing you to leave strange brown stains on everything you touch. Strange brown stains are definitely not welcome on the towel you wrap around your body. If you jump into the hot tub after your sauna bath, you could end up leaving your whole “tan” behind as an oily slick on top of the water. All of these options are much less attractive than pasty white skin.
If your bottle of bronzer is the dye type, it might not embarrass you, but as you go through the exfoliating process of the sauna, your “tan” will come off unevenly. You’ll have a patchy look as your “tan” goes away in some places, but stays dark in others.
Sunless tanning products
A true sunless tanning product usually has a chemical called dihydroxyacetone or DHA, though a few other compounds are used. Chemicals like DHA react with the outer layers of your skin and causes a chemical reaction that makes it change color over the course of a few hours. The reaction is similar to what happens to the flesh of a cut apple when you leave it exposed to the air. Here are some examples of sunless tanning lotions on Amazon.
You don’t have to worry about a sunless tanner washing off once it sets. The change to your skin color is permanent. However, some sunless tanning lotions also include a bronzer. This serves two purposes. The bronzer gives you an instant “tan” so you don’t have to wait for the reaction to take place. It also helps you see what parts of your skin you’ve covered and which ones you haven’t. All sunless tanning products take several hours for the reaction to take place. You definitely want to stay out of the sauna until the reaction is complete and wash away all the remaining bronzer on your skin to avoid leaving mysterious brown stains on everything you touch.
As we discussed above, the outside layers of your skin only stay on your body for about a week. Most sunless tanning products recommend you fully exfoliate the areas where you plan to use them before applying. This ensures you get the longest and most even “tan” possible. Since the outside skin layer will be “tanned” the most, when you lose this layer of your skin, you’ll also lose most of your “tan.”
Getting a good sweat going in the sauna or steam room, then rubbing your body with a loofah, brush, or getting a Korean body scrub are great ways to get a full body exfoliation in preparation for a sunless tanner. Of course, it is also a great way to quickly remove a sunless tan. Again, since these products affect just the outside layers of your skin, using a sauna or steam room can make a fresh sunless tan appear blotchy as different areas of your skin, like those that are regularly in contact with waistbands, bra straps and other clothing, are thicker and exfoliate more quickly than other areas.
Another problem with sunless tanning lotions is they do not work equally well on all areas of your body. The skin on your face, hands, feet, elbows, knees and pubic area is different from the skin on the rest of your body. These areas do not respond well to the sunless tanning lotion, leaving you with unnatural “tan lines” or they discolor your skin in those areas unevenly making it look dirty instead of tanned. Sunless tanning products also do not work well on stretch marks and other areas of scar tissue, so they can highlight these problem areas. Keep this in mind if you want an all-over “tan” before you go naked in your sauna.
So if you really feel you need to darken your skin and you can’t lay out or get to a tanning bed, a sunless tanner is a better option than a bronzer. Make sure you exfoliate very well before you use it, or else your sauna or steam room will make it go away quickly. Better still is to use your sunless tanning product right after a good exfoliating session in the sauna or steam room. Your “tan” will last the longest and should have the most even appearance as it ages.