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Jewish World Review
Are sunless tanning products safe?
Harvard Health Letters
Q. I like to look tanned, but I'm somewhat fair-skinned and can't be in the sun much. Are self-tanning lotions and sprays a good idea? Are they safe?
A. Sunless tanning sprays and lotions can make your skin look tanned without exposing it to the sun's harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation. When you sunbathe, UV rays cause the skin to increase its production of the protective pigment melanin, which manifests itself as a tan.
Despite its association with good health and good looks, a tan is actually a sign of skin cell damage, which can increase the risk for skin cancer and accelerate skin aging. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends self-tanning products as an alternative to tanning in UV light from the sun or an indoor tanning bed.
You can buy self-tanning products over the counter and apply them yourself, or you can go to a salon that offers spray-on or airbrush tans. The active ingredient in all of these products is dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a color additive often derived from plant sources that's approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for tanning purposes. DHA binds to proteins in the top layer of skin, causing it to darken or stain.
Thicker, protein-rich areas of your skin will stain more, so for more even results, you should exfoliate the skin of the elbows, knees, and ankles beforehand, using a washcloth, sponge, or loofah, for example. Because the coloring process takes place only in the surface layers of the skin, your "tan" lasts only as long as those layers stay on your body--five to seven days. After they slough off, you'll need a reapplication.
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While self-tanning is generally considered safe, there have been few safety studies. Allergic reactions are rare, but the long-term effects remain largely unknown. One study found that DHA added to skin cells damaged the cells' DNA, which suggests that more research is needed before DHA can be declared safe for long-term use. DHA is currently approved for external use only, excluding the lips, eyes, ears, nose, and mucus membranes.
One concern is that many people who use self-tanners don't practice proper sun protection. Unlike a natural tan, self-tanning doesn't confer any significant UV protection. So even if you're sporting a faux glow, you still need to use plenty of sunscreen or sunblock when you're out in the sun.
If you opt for self-tanning at a salon, spa, or gym, be aware that the self-tanning industry is largely unregulated. During a spray-on tanning session, make sure your eyes, lips, ears, nose, and mucous membranes are covered, and hold your breath to avoid inhaling the product while it's being applied.
Some self-tanning products are sold in the form of pills containing canthaxanthin, a color additive used in foods. These pills are not safe. When taken in the amount recommended for tanning, canthaxanthin can turn the skin an orange-brown color, and it's been known to deposit color elsewhere in the body, such as the retina of the eye. Canthaxanthin can also cause diarrhea, nausea, and stomach cramps, and it has been linked to liver problems. -- Celeste Robb-Nicholson, M.D., Editor in Chief, Harvard Women's Health Watch
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