There are plenty of fake tan products out there. Fake tans are easy to formulate and not too expensive to manufacture. The active ingredient, dihydroxyacetone, is very effective. So the big problem facing the manufacturers of fake tans is how to differentiate their product from the competitors. So they need to find ways to speed up the tanning process or to give a superior end result.
This sounds obvious, and even easy. Just take a standard fake tan and add something to speed up the tanning process and/or give a better final result. Then you can just sit back and wait for a grateful public to buy large quantities of your product. The problem is that it actually isn’t all that easy. The fake tan is actually produced by a chemical reaction between the proteins in your skin and the dihydroxyacetone. That is why the results are a bit different on different people. We all have a subtly different set of proteins in our skin which tan up in different ways.
The process is one where the active is absorbed through the skin and a chemical reaction takes place. There aren’t many options for getting this to go any quicker. You can include ingredients to speed up the penetration of DHA through the skin. Having worked on projects trying to get pharmaceutical actives through the skin I am very well aware of just how good the skin is as a barrier to penetration. But there are a few things that work tolerably well.
The other option is to include some protein in the formulation that can get the reaction going a bit quicker, and the most obvious protein to use is melanin itself. This sounds good, but in practice the melanin isn’t going to penetrate much either so although it might have a small benefit it is unlikely to have a big enough impact to be noticeable.
The biggest way of accelerating and improving the tanning process is simply through careful and thorough attention to the details of the formulation. You need a formulation that spreads evenly and is easy to apply. This applies to all creams and lotions of course, but in the case of tanning lotions it is absolutely critical otherwise you end up with an uneven tan or even worse, the appearance of streaks. The large scale effects of this are obvious, but they also apply at the small scale. The formulation needs to stay where it is put – you don’t want it to migrate into pores and create local areas of higher tan depth. These might well detract from the appearance without it being obvious what the problem is. To get the reaction going as quickly as possible you need a strong moisturising effect so as to ensure that the skin is fully hydrated and do give the optimum conditions for the reaction to work.
So there are a couple of ways that tanning can be improved, but no magic ingredient that improves the process on its own.
While on the subject there’s one approach that has been popular, and though interest seems to have faded it hasn’t yet entirely gone away. There is a theoretical reason to suppose that adding tyrosine to the skin would help with tanning. Tyrosine is one of the main ingredients the body uses to produce melanin. So adding it to the skin to encourage the production of melanin sounds logical. Unfortunately it just doesn’t work. It has been tried in both lotions and taken as pills. It basically doesn’t work. The same can be said for L-Dopa, which is one of the steps in the production of melanin.
One very tempting approach is to identify some plant extract that is rich in one of these ingredients and add that. This gives the extra fillip of adding a natural angle – and we all love that. Sometimes the science bit is dispensed with and the whole story revolves around some plant that is supposed to create a tanning effect. As far as I have heard, there is no plant extract currently available that accelerates tanning in any meaningful way. I’d be happy to hear of one if, and only if, there is evidence to back the claim up.
So if you are looking for this kind of product I’d advise avoiding ones that include tyrosine or L-Dopa on the ingredient list. If the claimed efficacy relies on a plant extract I’d avoid it too. The best guide is probably what online reviews are saying about it. People don’t know the ins and outs of formulating cosmetic products, but they can certainly tell a good one from a bad one when they try it.