Are Self-Tanners Safe?

Mar 15 2017 self tanner skincare sunscreen tanning

Are Self-Tanners Safe?

Your days of slathering on coconut oil and baking in the sun to achieve the perfect tan are over. You know the risks of skin cancer and are diligent about using sunscreen, but you still long for a little color especially as you're getting ready for a spring break trip to the Caribbean. 

How can you safely achieve that sun-kissed glow?

There are a number of self-tanning products on the market available as lotions, creams, sprays and pills to help you achieve that golden tan without going out in the sun. But are they safe?

Self-tanning products most commonly contain the active ingredient dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a color additive that binds to proteins in the top layer of the skin and causes it to darken. DHA can be manufactured synthetically, or it can be derived from natural substances, like beet sugar or cane sugar. It was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for topical use in 1977 and is the only such agent approved for use by the FDA.

There is no clear evidence that DHA is harmful if it is used as directed. DHA is approved for external use only and should not be inhaled, ingested or used on the lips or any surfaces covered by a mucus membrane. Do not use self tanners on children without checking with your pediatrician.

Concern about DHA arose when a study correlated use of highly concentrated amounts of DHA with production of free radicals, which can damage cells. However, commercial sunless tanning products typically contain between 3 and 5 percent DHA concentrations and are considered non-toxic and non-carcinogenic.

However, while DHA has been approved by the FDA for use in self-tanning lotions, it hasn’t been approved for use in spray tans -- whether they are at-home self-tanning sprays or sunless spray “tanning” booths at a salon. Primary concerns about self-tanning sprays relate to the risk of inhalation and ingestion of DHA, which is not recommended. When you get a spray tan, it can be difficult to prevent excess mist from making contact with your eyes, nose and mouth. Further research is needed to determine the risks — if any — of this type of exposure. In the meantime, protect your eyes, mouth and nose when spray tanning and avoid inhaling the product.

You may also see self-tanning products sold in the form of pills containing canthaxanthin, a color additive used in foods. These pills are NOT safe. According to the Mayo Clinic, when taken in large amounts, canthaxanthin can turn your skin orange or brown and cause hives, liver damage and impaired vision.

If you choose to use a self-tanner, make sure you still practice proper sun protection as well. Self-tanning does not offer any significant UV protection, so even if you're sporting a faux tan, be sure to still use a broad-spectrum sunscreen of SPF 30 when you’re out in the sun.