These products are safer than sun exposure—but only if you avoid the sprays.
To bake, or to fake? It’s a classic tanning conundrum. Sitting under the sun causes skin damage and cellular changes that raise your risk for skin cancer, and even among adults under 40, melanoma rates are on the rise.
In order to get a natural tan from ultraviolet light, your skin has to be injured. You know this, and you worry about it. But unlike ultraviolet rays, sunless self-tanners don’t mean you have to damage your skin. These products contain an ingredient that stains the outermost layer or your skin.
HOW DO SELF TANNERS WORK?
In most cases, that ingredient is dihydroxyacetone (DHA). When it combines with amino acids in your skin, DHA causes a browning reaction—the same type of reaction that occurs when you make toast or grill meat.
That may sound scary. But the browning only takes place in your skin’s “stratum corneum”—the topmost layer composed of dead cells. Our bodies make a form of this stuff – when used topically, it’s a safe way to have a tan appearance.
A few years ago, a much-cited report from ABC News raised concerns about spray-tanning salons and the risks of inhaling DHA and other self-tanning ingredients. Subsequent research supported the idea that inhaling spray-on tanning chemicals could potentially raise your risk for asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or cancer.
But what about self-tanner LOTIONS you spread on your skin? The ABC News report cited Food & Drug Administration data suggesting that small amounts of DHA might seep through your skin and into your bloodstream. If true, that could also raise health concerns. But since that FDA data came to light, follow-up studies have failed to find evidence that DHA penetrates your skin’s protective barriers.
Based on what we know today, DHA is really pretty safe when applied to the skin correctly. Correct application means avoiding the sensitive skin around your eyes and on your lips, as well as cuts or abrasions—more reasons to be wary of spray-on options. Panettieri says rubbing DHA into very thin or broken skin could let it enter your system. Even if DHA got beyond the skin, any risk is hypothetical.
The main point still remains that compared to the well-established risks of sun exposure, topical self-tanning lotions are a safer option. Aside from the concern that some people might have an allergic reaction to DHA or other ingredients in self-tanners—a risk that comes with almost any cosmetic, the benefits seem to far exceed the possible risks.
SIDE NOTE: Self-tanners do not offer your skin any protection from sun damage. Some people incorrectly think these self-tanners act like sunscreen – they don’t.
Of course, new research could always surface new risks. And not as much is known about less-common tanning chemicals. But for now, if you’re craving a little color, self-tanning lotions with DHA seem to be your safest option.
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