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Sunless tanning products contain a chemical called dihydroxyacetone. This interacts with surface cells of the skin to turn the skin brown. The effect lasts only for about one week however, as these cells naturally slough off, and repeat applications are necessary. There are now several fake tan brands on the market as well as a number of salons offering airbrush tanning.
Dihyroxyacetone is a lot safer than tanning beds or sun-bathing. This is because sunlight or tanning beds can damage the DNA in skin cells deep under the skin surface. While suntans can fade after a few days, the harm done to the skin may be permanent and accumulates. In contrast, self-tanners do not cause any known DNA damage. At worst, sunless tanning products present a minimal risk of irritant or allergic reactions.
A fake tan, at most, provides a SPF of 3-4 and should not be considered an effective means of sun protection. Only sun avoidance, sunprotective clothing and sunscreen are considered effective means of protection against UV radiation.
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