With the ozone layer still very thin, it’s more important than ever to protect your skin from the sun. But there’s just something about a sun-kissed glow that says “summertime.” Many companies are marketing organic or botanical-based self-tanners as natural ways to give your skin a glow without the risk of UV exposure, yet the active ingredient in these products is still a chemical — dihydroxyacetone (or DHA), a colorless sugar that interacts with the amino acids in your skin cells to give you a tanned look. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, it’s nontoxic and the most effective chemical compound for sunless tanning. “DHA is very safe. It works with the superficial layers of the skin and doesn’t get absorbed,” says Jeannette Graf, dermatologist and author of the book Stop Aging, Start Living.

The naming and labeling of these products can be misleading, however. The “natural” or “organic” label refers to some of their ingredients, but the products aren’t completely natural, according to Graf. These added natural ingredients usually serve as moisturizing agents, since self-tanners often contain alcohol, which can dry out skin. 

So if you want to look like you’ve been laying out at the beach all day, what are your options? Environmental Working Group, a public-interest watchdog group that runs the Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database, has tested more than 150 sunless tanners for safety and has ranked Lyphazome Inside Tan ($23.80, dermazone.com) as one of the safest of them. It’s chock-full of natural moisturizers, like sesame seed and jojoba oils and time-released ingredients mean you have to reapply less often. Alba Botanica Golden Tan Sunless Tanning Lotion ($8.23, springvalleyherbs.com), which has aloe vera to moisturize, and Kiss My Face Instant Sunless Tanner ($10, kissmyface.com), which utilizes walnut-shell extract to darken the lotion so you don’t get streaks, are two other good options.

If the thought of slathering on a chemical-laced cream still worries you, go for a truly fake tan. Try a tinted face and body moisturizer like Nature’s Gate Happy Glow Lucky Bronzing Creme ($15.49, natures-gate.com), a caramel-colored lotion that you smooth on to darken your skin tone; it washes right off with soap and water. For the face, bronzing powder is also a good bet. The Colorescience Face Colore Retractable Brush ($49.95, coolibar.com) has the powder right in the brush and contains the natural sunblocking minerals titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. Either way, there are safe options, chemical and non, to take the glare off pasty skin.

Story by Carol Kim. This article originally appeared in Plenty in August 2007. The story was added to MNN.com in June 2009.

Copyright Environ Press 2007.