Even though basking in the sun’s rays may feel glorious, the risk of developing skin cancer has many of us reaching for sunless tanners to get our summer glow. But do we really know they’re safe?
The main active ingredient in the most sunless tanning sprays and lotions — what makes your skin look darker — is something called dihydroxyacetone, DHA, a chemical derived from beet or cane sugar.
DHA works by reacting to the amino acids present in the top layer of the skin, the dead cells of the stratum corneum, to create a browning effect. (That process is the Maillard reaction.) The use of DHA in cosmetic products is approved by the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, though it is restricted to external applications, not including the body’s mucous membranes (mouth, eyes, ears, inside the nose, urethral opening and anus). Because tanners and bronzers are cosmetics, they do not require FDA approval.
So what are the potential risks?
Medical experts have raised concerns about potential health risks associated with DHA, particularly what happens if it is absorbed into the bloodstream. Studies have looked at whether DHA, when inhaled, as it might be at a spray tan salon, could increase one’s risk for asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or cancer.
Dr. Anita Cela, a dermatologist based in New York City, said that if you apply DHA in a lotion and you have no open wounds, you don’t need to be concerned about the chemical reaching your bloodstream. Additionally, according to Time, there isn’t enough evidence that shows DHA can penetrate the skin.
“If the chemical stays on the skin and doesn’t get inhaled with the sprayer and you put it on in a lotion form and the skin is intact, in general, we feel like it’s safe,” Cela said. “I think the chemical itself we wouldn’t vouch for if it was going internally, but externally, I think we’re good with that.”
Dr. Angela Lamb, the director of the Westside Mount Sinai Dermatology Faculty Practice in New York City, agreed, saying, “DHA has been studied for quite some time and has been shown to be safe.”
She added, however, that there is always a possibility of being allergic to DHA or any of the other ingredients in sunless tanners, which could irritate or cause a reaction on the skin.
Aside from the effects of inhaling DHA, other studies have looked at the possible connection between DHA and increased susceptibility to free radical damage when the skin is exposed to UV rays. One study published earlier this year noted, however, that using an antioxidant with a DHA-containing product could help minimize free radical damage.
Applying sunless tanner at night may also help prevent free radical damage, as the risk for oxidation is much lower without sunlight.
Then, of course, there’s the smell.
DHA is responsible for the terrible smell most self tanners have. Artesian Tan, a distributor of instant and gradual tan products, says on its website, “It may be inoffensive, like the yeasty smell of biscuits or dinner rolls. Although in worse cases, it can remind you of the odor of old gym socks or smelly cats and dogs.”
Thankfully, more and more brands are producing formulas that mask the smell of DHA with other scents or use technology such as AromaGuard to reduce our perception of a bad odor and replace it with something better.
So are sunless tanners doing terrible things to us?
In short, it’s tough to definitively say that sunless tanning products are dangerous, as further research on potentially harmful effects of DHA still needs to be done.
Still, when applying self tanner or getting a spray tan, it’s good practice to avoid areas like the mouth, eyes and other mucous membranes, in order to minimize any inhalation or deep absorption.
In Cela’s opinion, using a sunless tanner lotion is safer than getting a spray tan. “When you get a spray tan, you’re obviously going to inhale some of that, and there is theoretical evidence that it could worsen asthma or lung diseases,” she said.
If you’re still worried, you can always avoid sunless tanning altogether and embrace the skin you’re in. And whatever you do, always, always, wear sunscreen.