Just How Safe are Sunless Tans?

If you’re one of the pale ones – like me - then you probably love sunless tanners.

But if you pay attention to chemicals like I do, you’ll wonder just how safe sunless tanning is.

The active ingredient in most sunless tanners is the colouring agent DHA, which stands for dihydroxyacetone. It combines with the amino acids in our skin and the result is browning of the outermost dead cell layer of the skin. This is why sunless tanners don’t last very long – your skin is always shedding and, with it, your bottled bronze.

Pale is just as beautiful as bronzed skin.

Pale is just as beautiful as bronzed skin.

What is a little concerning, though, is this: about 11 percent of the applied DHA can penetrate into the living cells of the epidermis and dermis, according to a report released by the United States Food and Drug Administration. The same study cites another, previous one done on cultured mouse cells that showed that DHA can induce DNA damage, cell-cycle block, and apoptosis in living cells (speeds up the death of cells). This is something to consider.

We’ve explored some so-called natural-based tanners and what we’ve found so far is most of them contain DHA. The “natural” part comes when they replace other chemicals found in commercial self tanners with shea butter and green tea leaf extract. This is why we always need to read the labels.

There are different categories of those who use sunless tanners. Some people only bother with getting one when they have a big event such as a wedding or a photo shoot which means it’s not a regular thing for them so any adverse effects will hopefully be kept to a minimum. They’ll hit up the local tanning salon (these places usually offer both UV tanning beds and spray tans. UV tanning beds are, as you likely know, unsafe! The World Health Organization classified tanning beds as a known carcinogen. It even warns that indoor tanning equipment use before age 35 increases risk of melanoma. Last year, there were about 6,800 new cases of melanoma diagnosed in Canada, according to the society.).

Many regular tanning salons also offer automated sunless tanning booths where a machine sprays the bronzing substance on your body. They’ll sometimes also have somebody on staff who specializes in spraying via an airbrush. (A note on which is more effective: either work just fine although my experience has been having a human apply the lotion is more accurate. In either case, just watch out for the bottom of your feet as, more times than not in my experience, they’ll also tan to a very dark brown.)

Be safe in the sun (and out of the sun, too)!

Be safe in the sun (and out of the sun, too)!

It’s known that it’s best to protect your eyes, nose and mouth as a precaution while getting sprayed. Just becasuse there is no evidence to date that breathing in the spray tan is toxic, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is completely safe. While the FDA and Canada Health has approved DHA for topical application, it has not been approved for use in spray tanning booths. Reported side effects, according to one study, include rashes, coughing, dizziness, and fainting. Some doctors have even expressed concern that chronic exposure may increase the risk of pulmonary disease (including asthma and cancer).

Another concern, according to the same study, is that some of these concoctions used in spray tanning salons contain parabens, that nasty preservative that can not only cause rosacea, allergic contact dermatitis, but also shown to be weak estrogens.

As for the rest of us, we apply the bronzer at home. Boy, does it take practice to apply evenly. I still haven’t quite mastered this trick (knees and elbows always end up looking blotchy) and applying lotion/mouse/spray to the back is a total pain. I use a gradual tanner lotion which seems to work better as multiple applications over time seem to get all the areas I missed during the previous application.

While I’m not inhaling any nasties while applying lotion or mousse, I’m not cool with this new-found knowledge that there are potential health risks surrounding the use of DHA.

My search for DHA-free products turned up something called Glow Oil. This body oil is made by The Chemistry Brand and is made in Canada by the Deciem Abnormal Company. It claims to be DHA-free and is raspberry-based. Interesting! I will do some more research on DHA-free self-tanners and post the results soon.

In the meantime, play it safe in the sun and out of the sun!