Lotion, towel, and flower for spray tans
Photo by Camille / Kmile

Hi, my name is Alexandra and I plead guilty to the maltreatment of my skin. Yes, I have gotten spray tans before. Tanning beds? Yes, I’ve used those a few times too. Sunscreen? Who needs it. For those of you who don’t know me, I tan very easily. A few hours spent in the sun usually means bronzed skin for the rest of the summer. Why would I use sunscreen when I don’t burn?

However, I live in sunless Minnesota. Therefore, sometimes my skin lacks its usual tan quality. Which means I fake tan sometimes. Shh. Don’t tell anyone. So, today’s question is how much do we really know about these artificial tanning processes? I’m here to tell you the answer: not much.

Background on Spray Tans

Spray tans have risen in popularity as a great alternative to tanning beds, which expose skin to harmful UV rays and significantly increase one’s chance of cancer development. Using a tanning bed before the age of 35 increases the risk of cancer by 75 percent, according to the Center for Disease Control. That’s crazy! I’ve heard these statistics my whole life, but never really paid much attention to them. I had that whole “I’m young and invincible” mentality. However, due to the increased awareness of the relationship between skin cancer and tanning beds, people have been turning to sunless tanning. This type of tanning only colors the skin through the outer layer of dead skin cells.

Let’s Look at the Research

Are spray tans better than tanning beds? The research says, probably not. For example, the active ingredient used in spray tans is Dihydroxyacetone (DHA). This chemical is actually derived from sugar and is a coloring agent that combines with the skin’s amino acids. The FDA permits the external use of DHA, but little research has been done on the internal effects of this ingredient. The FDA recommends avoiding the ingestion, inhalation, and application to nose, lips, and in or around the eyes. These areas are covered by mucous membranes, and the dangers of DHA application are unknown.

Let me repeat that, the dangers are unknown. Does that make anybody else’s mind wander to extreme depths?

More Facts

According to the Journal of the Dermatology Nurses’ Association, the use of DHA causes a Maillard reaction, which is basically when the sugars in DHA and keratinocyte proteins react causing oxidation of the sugar and leading to chain reactions. These chain reactions then lead to “free radical injury of the skin.” Further investigations from this study also showed the propensity of DHA to cause damage to DNA. Wow. Let that sink in. That beautiful (albeit fake) golden summer look can actually alter DNA.

Another important note about UV and sunless tanning is the risk of combining the two. Most sunless coloring products don’t contain UV protection and the risks of applying a sunless tanner before or after being exposed to UV rays are also not cited.

Researching the effects of what we expose to our bodies and becoming knowledgeable consumers is crucial. The FDA provides its recommendations, and salons provide these products. Now it’s up to us to make our decisions about what we’re comfortable with, and what we will and will not choose to use.

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