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Myth Busters

Better to Fake than Bake? Self Tanner Safety

Posted on: September 13th, 2017 by Dr. Jennifer Herrmann

Sitting in the sun may bronze your skin, but any tan caused by the sun signals skin damage. “A tan is really a sign that one of your body’s defense mechanisms is at work,” says Dr. Jennifer Herrmann. “Your skin cells are smart, and when they recognize harmful ultraviolet rays, they produce color to help protect their DNA or genetic code. Over time and with enough ultraviolet exposure, tanned skin starts to wrinkle, thin, be littered with brown spots, and even grow skin cancers.”

So what about the alternative? Are self-tanners any better and how exactly do these products work?

Self-tanners are cosmetic products that can be sprayed or applied topically on the skin. Their active ingredient is dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a sugar-like compound, which stains the top layer of the skin. DHA forms a chemical reaction with skin proteins and “browns” the skin much like toasting bread or grilling a steak does. Yep, this raised my eyebrows too, but the good news is that “this browning process only occurs in the outermost layer of the skin called the stratum corneum,” reassures Dr. Herrmann. This layer is made up of compacted dead skin cells that continually shed off each week, which is why self-tanners start to fade after a few days. To date, research has not shown any convincing evidence that these products are harmful long-term, if used correctly.

Still, there are important safety concerns to consider before slathering one of these cosmetic products head-to-toe:

1. Don’t inhale self-tanners.

Although the FDA approved the use of “external” DHA in 1977, they have issued warnings about self-tanner sprays. Accidental inhalation of DHA can injure the lungs and potentially increase the risk for asthma or obstructive lung disease1 Moreover, inhalation could also facilitate DHA’s entry into the blood stream, where it could harm internal cells, and in the right context accelerate the risk for cancer. To best protect yourself, use eye, nose, and mouth protection before jumping into a spray-tanning booth.

2. Avoid application of self-tanner on thin or injured skin.

Similar to inhalation, DHA is not considered safe if it penetrates the skin’s outer barrier and makes its way into the blood stream. To stay safe, avoid applying self-tanners on lips, eyelids, or the groin, where skin is thin. Dr. Herrmann adds, “it’s equally important to avoid areas where the skin is injured or inflamed. Open cuts or wounds or conditions like eczema or rosacea where the skin barrier is compromised could allow easier penetration of DHA into the body.”

3. Watch out for allergic reactions.

Because self-tanners are considered cosmetic, their ingredients are more loosely regulated. Many contain masking fragrances and perfumes to negate the less than pleasing odor produced by the browning reaction. These chemicals along with added preservatives are potential skin allergens. In fact, over the past year, the number of reported allergic reactions to cosmetic products has sky-rocketed, up by 300%.2 To avoid allergic reactions, it’s a good idea to apply a small amount of self-tanner on your forearm to detect any problems before coating your entire skin.

4. Self-tanners don’t protect from UV exposure.

Although self-tanners may give you a soft glow, they do NOT offer any protection against damaging UV radiation. “The tanned color gives some wearers a sense of false security, and I see too many sunburns on top of self-tanned skin,” laments Dr. Herrmann. “It’s critical to wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen over DHA tanned skin to help protect against early aging and skin cancer.” Some research has even suggested that self-tanners in the presence of UV light can generate 180% more free-radicals than skin without self-tanner.3 Why care about free-radicals? Because these unstable molecules contribute to accelerated wrinkling, skin aging, and have even been linked to melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. The bottom line is that sun protection is essential, especially when wearing self tanner.

In general, self-tanners using DHA are considered safe, if precautions are taken and they are used with sun protection. But, when asked if she ever uses one, Dr. Herrmann says, “No, I think celebrating my own skin color is most beautiful. Yes, I’m fair, but it’s a reminder of my heritage, and I personally avoid putting extra chemicals on my skin.”

  1. Fabrkant et al. A Review of common tanning methods. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2015 Feb; 8(2): 43–47.
  2. Xu  S et al.  Adverse events reported to the US Food and Drug Administration for cosmetics and personal care products.  JAMA Intern Med. June 26, 2017.
  3. K. Jung et al. UV-generated free radicals (FR) in skin: Their prevention by sunscreens and their induction by self-tanning agents. Spectrochimica Acta Part A 69 (2008) 1423–1428.

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