Is Spray Tan Safe? What to Know About Them and Self Tanners
Is Spray Tan Safe? What to Know About Them and Self Tanners
Fake tans may be preferable to the real thing because they don’t involve harmful UV exposure, but that doesn’t mean they’re completely free of risk.
The proteins in the upper layers of your skin chemically interact with the sugars in a compound called DHA to produce a faux tan.
With summer long gone and winter already here, many of us are swapping our swimsuits for sweaters. While many welcome cooler temperatures and the festive activities that can come with it, our imminent pale complexions may not have the same appeal.
If you’re looking for ways to maintain your summer glow through the most frigid of days, you may be considering a faux tan. Before you get your bronze on, here’s what you need to know about spray tans and over-the-counter self-tanners, including how they work and their pros and cons.
How Do Spray Tans and Self-Tanners Work?The main active ingredient in self-tanners that is responsible for producing the desired golden brown appearance is a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)–approved compound called dihydroxyacetone (DHA), according to Mayo Clinic. Contrary to popular belief, DHA is not a stain or paint-like substance. Rather, it is actually a colorless sugar compound, says Patricia Malerich, MD, a Columbus, Ohio–based physician and a clinical assistant professor of dermatology at Ohio State University.
The tan is the end result of a chemical reaction between the proteins in the upper layers of your skin and the sugars in DHA, Dr. Malerich says. The two components react, forming a rusty brown protein that is tightly bound to the top of your skin, which is why spray tans aren’t easily washed off, she adds.
That said, it isn’t uncommon to find your sheets discolored the day after applying either a self-tanner or getting a spray tan. Malerich says that this is because the products also use a temporary dye in their formulas, as an easy way to see where the product is being applied.
Normally, a fake tan lasts about a week, she says, because our top layer of skin is constantly being shed every 7 to 10 days. The brown-colored proteins formed on those top layers of skin are shed at the same time.
The Pros of Getting a Fake TanSpray tans and self-tanners allow you to look fresh off the beach all year long, but the benefits go beyond the effortless glow they provide.
One perk: If you’re skipping real ultraviolet (UV) rays in favor of getting a fake tan, your skin health and appearance will benefit in the long run. Radiation from the sun, tanning beds, and even nail-drying lamps all contains UV rays, and UV rays are the biggest known contributor to the development of melanomas and other skin cancers, says Beth Buchbinder, MD, senior physician at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
The skin’s resiliency weakens over time with repeated sun damage, Dr. Buchbinder says. There are two types of UV rays: UVA rays, which accelerate skin aging (think fine lines and wrinkles), and UVB rays, which cause sunburns, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). The biggest health concern is that UVA and UVB rays can alter a cell’s DNA, and eventually the cell becomes extremely abnormal and cancerous.
“Part of a cancer developing is that it doesn’t follow the rules,” Buchbinder says. “It doesn’t just grow when it’s not supposed to; it doesn’t let normal cells regenerate. So, instead of healing, the cancer develops.”
Wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 can help protect your skin against the harmful effects of UVA and UVB rays, as the AAD notes, but limiting sun exposure is another key tactic for protecting your skin.
Another advantage of spray tans and self-tanners: If you are pregnant, a faux glow may be a better alternative to baking in the sun. The skin is usually more photosensitive during pregnancy, putting women at higher risk of burns, rashes, and irregular pigmentation, says John Smulian, MD, chair and professor at the University of Florida’s department of obstetrics and gynecology in Gainesville.
Natural tanning can cause overheating and dehydration, and overheating the body during the first trimester, specifically, has been linked to certain birth defects like spina bifida, he says. Dr. Smulian recommends limiting UV exposure during pregnancy.
DHA, on the other hand, which is also used in many other cosmetic products, is presumed to be safe during pregnancy because it primarily interacts at the level of the skin. That said, Smulian urges caution here as well: “As a matter of general principle, any products that contain chemicals and cover large surface areas of the skin should only be used if considered necessary during pregnancy,” he says. So, if you’re pregnant, be sure to check with your ob-gyn about whether faux tans are right for you.
The Cons of Getting a Fake TanDespite the many possible pros of faux tans, there are a few cons to take into consideration before hopping into a spray-tanning booth in particular.
While DHA is FDA approved as a safe topical application, your lung health may suffer if you inhale the aerosols from a spray tan, Malerich says.
DHA should never be “inhaled, ingested, or exposed to areas covered by mucous membranes, including the lips, nose, and areas in and around the eye (from the top of the cheek to above the eyebrow), because the risks, if any, are unknown,” according to FDA regulations.
The aerosols in the products can further exacerbate issues for people with lung conditions such as asthma, Malerich says.
Pregnant women may want to consider avoiding spray tans and stick to self-tanners during pregnancy due to the greater risk of absorption from inhalation, Smulian says. Less is known about the impact if the products are inhaled, he adds.
Human research on the safety of fake-tanning methods is limited, but preliminary lab research on melanoma cells found that DHA exposure from topical sunless tanning products and aerosol inhalation appeared to be harmful to the cells. Specifically, DHA exposure was linked with oxidative stress, which is associated with chronic diseases such as cancer, and the creation of advanced glycation end products, or AGEs, which are associated with skin aging. But more rigorous research in humans is needed to confirm those results.
Another concern to be aware of is the added fragrance in fake-tanning products, which can offer a pleasant smell but irritate the skin, Malerich says. People with eczema in particular may be sensitive to fragrances. If you’re managing this skin condition, Malerich advises doing a skin patch test, where you apply a small amount of the product to one area of your skin, such as behind your ear, and observe how your skin reacts.
Different brands also include additives that increase proteins on the skin to create a darker complexion, she says. Many people with thickened eczema or psoriasis patches often don’t like to use spray tans because the scaly skin texture caused by these skin conditions becomes darker when using fake tanners, creating a blotchy appearance, she says. The darkening additives and fragrances, not DHA itself, are the factors that can cause irritation and reactions to fake tans, Malerich says.
Also, many people are under the false impression that because a fake tan lends the skin a darker shade, it also gives the skin increased resistance to UV rays and prevents it from burning as fast or as much, Malerich says. But neither spray tans nor self-tanners offer protection against UV rays, unless the product label explicitly notes that it provides SPF.
Wearing self-tanning products in the sun may even accelerate skin aging, some research suggests. The authors wrote that with UV exposure, DHA and skin proteins interact and create free radicals, promoting oxidative damage. The authors observed a greater breakdown of collagen and elastin fibers in skin with DHA that was exposed to sunlight.
Are Fake Tans Actually Healthier Than Real Tans?In the sense that fake tans don’t expose the skin to UV rays like the real sun does, yes, they are the healthier of these two tanning options, Malerich says.
Some people may be concerned about how much of the faux-tanning product is absorbed, she adds, but because it happens very quickly on the top layers of the skin, the ingredients have not been found to get absorbed into the body. For example, the FDA did a few studies checking participants’ blood and urine for DHA concentration after topical application, and it was not detected, Malerich says.
So, if a tan is what you desire, the faux route is recommended — though Buchbinder says that she believes we should all learn to love our skin at the color that it is. “While tanning is thought to be beautiful, if we can accept the different colors we all are, it would be such a great thing.”
If You Choose to Get a Fake Tan, Here’s How to Choose the Best Option for YouWhen deciding which shade is for you, ask yourself what the reason is that you are getting the tan, says Abby Reid, founder and general manager of the Sun Tan Van, a spray tan salon in Boston.
“If someone is traveling to a tropical location, I wouldn’t typically use the same shade I would for their wedding,” Reid says. “It’s best to start light and make them darker after if they aren’t sure.”
The Sun Tan Van uses Aviva, an organic, vegan, sugar-based spray tan solution. It is doctor-formulated and hypoallergenic.
Reid explains that the length of your spray tan depends on factors such as activity level, skin chemistry, and lifestyle. A darker tan will typically last longer; however, it runs the risk of being more noticeable when it fades if it is noticeably darker than your true complexion.
Fake Tanning Dos and Don’tsBefore you book a faux-tanning appointment or choose your DIY self-tanner, here are a few tips Reid recommends for the getting the most out of your spray tan glow:
Before Your Fake TanShave and exfoliate.Remove all topical creams or substances, like deodorant or lotion, from the skin.After You Apply Your Fake TanStay hydrated.Use proper aftercare products (some offered at spray tan salons, for example, even contain DHA to get a few extra days out of your tan).If swimming in a pool or ocean, always rinse off right away to keep the chlorine or salt water from eating away at the tan.