Smells like teen spirit? That’ll be the DHA… Lauren Bravo investigates exactly what makes fake tan stink
I remember when I finally worked out exactly what fake tan smells of. It came to me in a flash, like a song from childhood or someone’s name on the way home when you’ve spent an hour avoiding them at a party.
Everyone says it smells like biscuits, but it doesn’t. Not quite. After all, biscuits smell delicious. If I could douse myself in Eau de Custard Cream every morning I’m pretty sure I’d be at least 32% more successful in life. “Why, what’s that intriguing, crumbly musk?” they would ask as I wafted by. “She must be mine!”
No, it isn’t biscuits. What it smells like is: the milk at the bottom of a bowl of cereal. When you’ve finished your Crunchy Nut Cornflakes and there’s just a puddle of lukewarm, grainy beige milk left, that’s the smell. A bit sweet, a bit wheaty, a bit lactic, a bit sour, a lot cloying. We’re basically walking round wearing the equivalent of a week’s breakfast remnants rubbed over our limbs, and then we wonder why no one wants to sit next to us on the bus*.
But of course, if tanned is your look of choice then honking like a Frosties factory is still a million times preferable to skin cancer. And with each year bringing new, better bronzing formulations in every conceivable format – no streaking, no orange eyebrows, no mucky bedsheets – sometimes it feels like the smell is now the only obstacle.
So when Marissa Carter’s Cocoa Brown express tan mousse landed in my inbox, claiming to give a deep brown tan in an hour with “no fake tan smell!”, I leapt on it. I had high hopes. At best it would live up to its promise, at worst it might smell of Nesquik instead, which would be a nice change.
Nose factor aside, the colour is fantastic. Despite the name sparking what I believe is known in the business as “RossfromFriendsaphobia”, it was actually very subtle – golden, building up to a warm nut brown if left to develop longer, without a hint of orange or sallowness, and it lasted well. Going on, it smelt pleasantly of Tahitian gardinia (or ‘flowers’ if you’re not reading the back of the bottle). I waited. I rinsed. I sniffed. Same old pong.
It seems to me the weird thing about fake tan isn’t the smell, it’s that so many brands are in denial about it. “This smells of apricots!” they tell you. “This smells like the exact meadow Laurie Lee romped through in Cider With Rosie!” And they do, when you’re applying them – then three hours later, WHOOMP. There it is. I suspected this might just be a non-negotiable, so I did some research (*asked on Twitter) and found out I was right.
“The active ingredient in self-tan is DHA (dihydroxyacetone), which reacts with the amino acids in the very top layer of skin to create a “tan”. It is this chemical reaction that produces the distinctive “fake-tan smell”, the intensity of which can vary from brand to brand depending on the quality of the DHA used, and, to a certain extent, from person to person.” says Dawn McDaid in a refreshing burst of brand honesty. She’s Marketing Director of Britsh-made St. Moriz Tan, which in four years has become the UK and Ireland’s biggest selling self-tanner.
So the smell is actually the thing that’s tanning you. It can be masked, it can be less strong if you’re using the good stuff, and it varies from person to person according to whether you’ve lucked out in the pheromone lottery – but basically it’s a keeper. It’s the price we pay for a yacht-fresh glow without the UV damage.
Now I’ve made my peace with the truth, I’m willing to forgive their gardinia-addled delusions and give Cocoa Brown another go, because it did a bloody good job. But come winter, when my limbs have returned to their natural off-blue, the only food smells about me will be the ones I spill down myself at the Rib Man pork truck.
*Of course, I am perfectly happy never sitting next to anyone on the bus. One day I might go the whole hog and empty a Kellog’s Variety Pack into my lap so I can read my book without Elbows McGee getting up in my personal space.