Everyone knows the risk of developing skin cancer is increased when we spend too much time sunbathing. And tanning beds are an even worse choice, since the tanner's close proximity to the UVA/UVB light source increases the rate of damage. So it's a good thing there are natural-looking options such as spray tanning to give us a safer alternative when we want to look sun-kissed. Or are there dangers of spray tanning? Research that reveals new tanning facts now show that spray tanning may be just as dangerous as every other form of tanning, but for different reasons.1
ABC News compiled 10 of the most recent studies conducted on the chemicals used in tanning sprays and asked a panel of medical specialists in fields such as dermatology, pulmonary medicine, and toxicology to provide an analysis. The news was not good for those who enjoy getting bronzed the spray-on way. The problems stem from the active ingredient used in these tanning products, a chemical called dihydroxyacetone (DHA -- not to be confused with docosahexaenoic acid, the beneficial DHA fatty acid found in fish oil).2
In several studies, DHA was shown to affect the genes within the animals tested once it was absorbed through the skin or breathed into the lungs and internalized. DHA received FDA approval in 1977, back in the days when it was used primarily for tanning lotions. It was not believed to be absorbed below the outer layers of skin, so it was thought to pose no danger. Plus, tanning lotions were never a very popular item, as they tended to turn the skin a streaky orange hue. However, now that the formulations have been improved to provide more of the golden tan most consumers are seeking, along with the updated spray method of application that offers more even coverage, the use of this chemical is much more widespread. Unfortunately, it is now known that DHA can be absorbed beyond the outermost layers of skin, and the fact that it has been aerosolized ups the danger of spray tanning exponentially.
As the tanning product is being sprayed onto your body, you are breathing it in. Once the DHA is in your lungs, it is easily distributed throughout the body via the bloodstream. This grants this potentially cancer-causing agent access to billions of cells throughout your body. In various experiments at different university-based laboratories, DHA has been tested on a multitude of bacteria and the skin cells of mice. The chemical caused mutations within the DNA of the cells, which can lead to cancer. In fact, an FDA report from 1999 found that, even when not inhaled, DHA was reaching deeper skin levels and being absorbed into the body.
Now, think about all of the people who consider this to be the "safe" method of getting a tan. There are many who are regular customers interested in keeping their skin tanned and glowing all year round. And pregnant women go spray tanning, which is bad news for the fetus! Some people even have their children get spray tans as a treat before a big occasion. Every one of these scenarios presents an even higher risk of doing serious damage at a cellular level.
Incredibly, no long-term studies have been undertaken to examine the health effects of regular use of DHA-based tanning products on people. But it would seem that enough evidence is in from nonhuman research that should scare most of us with any sense away from sunless tanning products. Yes, maybe it doesn't do major damage to get a spray tan a couple of times a year for special occasions, but why risk it? However, if you do insist on going, make sure you are provided with as many safety precautions as possible. Ask for eyewear, nose plugs, and a mouth covering to ensure you are not giving the chemical a direct entryway into your mucus membranes and lungs.
Ahh! But is it healthy?
Oh, and even if you've never gone for a spray tan, chances are at some point you spent time at the beach, pool, or backyard lounge chair trying to get that perfect tan. More than likely, you've probably gotten a nasty sunburn at least once in your lifetime. Maybe you even used tanning beds before they were known to be seriously harmful. To combat some of the free radical damage already inflicted, you might want to consider supplementing with a full-spectrum antioxidant.
And maybe it's time we start rethinking our definition of beauty. After all, no one looks at a 50-year-old with wrinkled, leathery skin and believes that's attractive. So why should we think that tanned skin looks better than pale skin at any age? Note: tanning is not required to generate adequate supplies of vitamin D, which can easily be done in the early morning and late afternoon sun. If we keep the potential dangers and possible end results in mind of any type of tanning, we really should start the pendulum swinging back toward the Elizabethan ideals of unblemished, fair skin as the goal to strive for. Then again, you probably want to avoid the lead white makeup that was popular with the Greeks, Romans, and Elizabethans back in the day to achieve that fair-skinned look.3
1 Greenblatt, Mark and Ahuja, Gitika. "Are 'Spray-On' Tans Safe? Experts Raise Questions as Industry Puts Out Warnings." ABC News. 12 June 2012. Accessed 17 June 2012. <http://abcnews.go.com/Health/safety-popular-spray-tans-question-protected/story?id=16542918#.T-IlMRzQLtQ>.
2 "Dihydroxyacetone." National Toxicology Program. Department of Health and Human Services. January 1998. Accessed 19 June 2012. <http://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/index.cfm?objectid=6F5E9EA5-F1F6-975E-767789EB9C7FA03C>.
3 April Long. "The History of Beauty." Elle. 25 January 2010. (Accessed 20 June 2012.) <http://www.elle.com/Beauty/Makeup-Skin-Care/The-History-of-Beauty>