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Spray Tans: Know Before You Glow

Since warmer weather and everyone’s spring break is coming up soon, today I’d like to start with a quick survey. If you had to describe yourself vis a vis sun exposure, would you say:

A. I don’t go outside unless I’m covered from head to toe. (Why don’t they make those SPF 100 suits for adults?)

B. I will sit in the sun for about an hour but always apply some sunscreen. (ok, you caught me with my SPF 8 in my bag, but I have 30 on.)

C. I love the sun! (& I don’t mind a good tan.)

D. Is the aluminum foil reflector positioned correctly under my chin? (Pass the Tropicana oil, please)

E. Forget alllll of that, I spray tan and/or use sunless tanning creams.

While I was never quite a D and not at all an E, I have fluctuated between A, B, and C for a lot of my life. Recently, I’ve decided that my middle aged self can’t afford one more sun-induced wrinkle, much less skin cancer, so I’ve buckled down on always wearing a hat out in the sun and applying sunscreen, although I’m not going to give myself an award that I’m great about reapplying every 2 hours as recommended by most dermatologists. My kids, though, that’s a different story. I smugly barrel down with the discipline I used when studying for the MCAT exam and cover my 2 like clockwork. But as they get older, I wonder if they’ll want to get that sunny glow like so many teenagers and young adults do. I know that “sunless tanning,” especially the spray tans have become more popular and are well accepted with the millennial generation, and so I thought I’d look into them a little bit and just make sure I think they’re ok to use, so that if my daughter wants to turn her skin a vaguely pumpkin-bronzy color, she’ll be doing it safely.

These paragraphs would not be complete without a one-liner reminding everyone that going to those tanning salons that use the artificial UV rays is neither wise nor safe. At all. End of story. There’s now even legislation banning their use in children.

red cross out on tanning machine illustration

But what about those spray-on tans?

Seems sort of slick, right? You go to the spray place and they do their magic and you come out of there a little while later looking like you just spent 10 days in an orange-hued Antigua. But what’s in the spray? And how does it work?

The key ingredient in the spray is a chemical called dihydroxyacetone (DHA), which interacts with cells on the surface of the skin layers to yield a change in color. Interestingly, I read that this same chemical causes brown discoloration when it interacts with surface amino acids on some foods that are kept in storage as well. DHA itself is mostly thought to be safe on the skin. I can’t find any good medical evidence that indicates that it is hazardous to be applied topically (on the skin), and the FDA has stated that DHA can be safely used when applied externally. There are no rigorous safety conclusions about DHA when it is inhaled or ingested, and some small studies cite concern over bloodstream absorption as a potential cause of cancerous change in some cell types. Most commercial preparations of sunless tanner contain 3-5% DHA, with the higher concentration producing darker shading. Color change can usually be seen in about an hour after application and it lasts for about 5-7 days.

tan and natural skin woman illustration

But there are a few caveats to using this substance in spray form, which should be taken seriously.

First, some people falsely think that because they have a spray tan, they are protected from the sun’s harmful rays. This is not true. You can still get sunburned through the sunless tan. Additionally, from my first pass at research into this topic it seems that most people don’t take advantage of covering their eyes and nose during the spray process, and it’s not clear whether getting DHA in the eyes is safe. Similar situation with inhaling it, and you can’t stop breathing while applying it, so there’s some theoretical risk of ill effect from getting DHA into the lungs during its use.

So what’s important to know about making spray tans as safe as possible?

  1. Apply lip balm to cover your lips and do not swallow the chemical as it sprays.
  2. Use protective eye covering- the salon should offer a plastic eye protector. Wear it.
  3. Don’t spray ALL OVER. Make sure the genitals do not get sprayed by wearing underwear.
  4. Use nose plugs if possible, although the spray gets in the air, and it’s nearly impossible to avoid breathing it.
  5. There should be good ventilation in the place where the spray is done.

And here’s my conclusion based on what small body of evidence I could find and review:

I’ll take the occasional spray tan over real UV damage from sun exposure any day. That being said, it’s probably worth it to ensure that the safeguards listed #1-5 above actually occur if you or your kids go get a spray tan, just to minimize any potential harmful effect of inhalation or ingested exposure. This area of cosmetic dermatology needs more vigorous research for sure, and until then, maybe it’s worth retaking the survey above and committing to answers A and sometimes B.

Feeling academic? Read more here.