how not to f*ck up your face

How to Make Your Self-Tanner Situation Less of a Mess

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

This column first ran in Valerie Monroe’s newsletter, How Not to F*ck Up Your Face, which you can subscribe to on Substack.

Turning to the department of Roads to Hell Paved With Good Intentions, a query from a reader who finds herself, after letting her natural gray hair grow in, facing a different shady predicament.

Q: I’m a former brunette with fair skin who’s used self-tanner most of my adult life to give my face some warmth. I let my gray hair grow in two years ago — and with the loss of pigment, I find the need for warmth in my face is greater than ever. The problem is that when self-tanner comes into contact with gray hair, it leaves a stain that won’t lift in spite of my stylist’s valiant attempts. I try to keep hair off my face, but I still see staining.
I can opt for daily bronzer to avoid the staining, I know. But I find that regardless of the formulation, bronzers fade or grow muddy, especially given the hot flashes I deal with on the regular (I’m 56 and postmenopausal). Throwing in the towel on self-tanner seems like a nonstarter. How can I avoid looking washed out?

A: Congratulations on going natural! (At least with your hair.) I have an idea about what you might do to solve your dilemma, but I first wanted to ask cosmetic chemist Perry Rowanowski, of the Beauty Brains podcast, if he knew why you’re having a problem and if he had some advice.

“Here’s what’s going on,” he says, whacking into the weeds right away. “The self-tanner ingredient DHA (dihydroxyacetone) chemically reacts with amino acids in the skin protein in a way that changes skin to a brown (really orange-ish) color. Hair is also made of amino acid-containing proteins. So the DHA in the self-tanner undergoes the same chemical reaction on your hair as on your face. If your hair were colored (either naturally or dyed), you likely wouldn’t see any staining. But gray hair is absent of any color, so even a small stain is noticeable.”

As you, dear reader, have meticulously pointed out. “Now, about a way to stop it,” Perry continues. “I’m not sure how — beyond preventing DHA from coming into contact with your hair. You might try applying the self-tanner at night with your hair pulled back. DHA gets used up over the course of an hour, so hair touching your face after that probably isn’t going to be a problem.”

Something tells me, though, you may have already tried this. Have you also tried applying a thin layer of Vaseline around your hairline to create a barrier between the self-tanner and your hair? But now we’re getting pretty labor-intensive. So I want to give you an alternative idea.

You say you’ve been using self-tanner your entire adult life. Maybe there’s no health-related reason to stop that; I don’t know. But since you’ve allowed yourself to surrender to the natural glory of your gray hair, I wonder if you might also consider surrendering to the natural glory of your complexion.

“But I’m washed out!” you say. A few strategically placed highlights and lowlights, silver or white, around the hairline can zhuzh you up enough for just a tinted moisturizer and a pop of blush to take your complexion from vexing to vibrant. Tinted moisturizer, IMHO, is the best invention since the high-waisted jean. It’s easy to find a suitable, natural-looking shade; many contain sunscreen; and you’re not likely to sweat it off.

Maybe do throw in the towel on the fake tan for now. You might find yourself with a new appreciation for what you’ve been covering up so long.

Originally published on January 3, 2023.

Valerie Monroe was beauty director at O, The Oprah Magazine, where she wrote the monthly “Ask Val” column for nearly 16 years. Now she writes the weekly newsletter How Not to F*ck Up Your Face. Her goal continues to be to shift our thinking in the beauty arena from self-criticism to self-compassion and to learn how to be loving witnesses to ourselves and one another as we age.

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How to Make Your Self-Tanner Situation Less of a Mess