Are Spray Tans Safe? | Health Blog

Date: 06/26/2012    Written by: Beth Levine

Spray Tan Dangers

spray tan safety

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.

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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. <>.

2 "Dihydroxyacetone." National Toxicology Program. Department of Health and Human Services. January 1998. Accessed 19 June 2012. <>.

3 April Long. "The History of Beauty." Elle. 25 January 2010. (Accessed 20 June 2012.) <>


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    Submitted by Shar on
    July 19, 2012 - 10:32am

    I agree with Deborah M's comment. I think you may find more correct information by visiting and also checking out Krispin Sullivan's work "Naked at Noon". Please have a look at this latest research. It states that "tanned women live longer".  I spend about 15 mins. in the summer months and 30 mins. in the winter months around the noon hour (in Phoenix) and avoid burning. I wear a bikini and try to expose as much skin as possible. Yes, I do get some tanning, but I avoid the UVA rays which is believed to cause deeper damage. UVB rays produce vitamin D. This is solid research.

    Submitted by Andrés on
    June 27, 2012 - 8:20am

    "Note: tanning is not required to generate adequate supplies of vitamin D,": Certainly. "which can easily be done in the early morning and late afternoon sun." I prefer to sunbath half the time to sunburn at noon, ten minutes today. Best regards.

    Submitted by Patrick Timpone on
    June 27, 2012 - 12:51pm

    John thank you for posting on your site. Beth I completely agree, it's about time we start rethinking beauty in our culture. Long term damage isn't worth the risk of skin damage or even cancer. Thanks for sharing. Patrick Timpone

    Submitted by Rebecca on
    July 19, 2012 - 2:43pm

    Please don't assume that any woman over fifty who tans regularly has leathery skin. I am 56 and have soft, smooth healthy skin and I get out in the sun as much as possible and get a very dark tan in the summer. It is the POISONS we slather all over the skin as well as the POISONS we ingest that cause the damage, not the sun, unless of course one is stupid enough to let their skin get burned repeatedly. I do not use chemical infused water on my skin, only deep well water, and I certainly don't use soaps of any kind or cosmetics, just pure organic shea butter or some other organic oil. Toxins damage the skin, not the sun so stop fearing the sun.

    Submitted by Deborah M on
    July 18, 2012 - 8:46am

    According to a recent article on Mercola's website, Vitamin D is generated from UVB rays, which can only penetrate the atmosphere when the sun is at about 50 degrees or higher from the horizon. The longer UVA rays are what penetrate in the early morning or evening, which cause skin damage, but do not generate vitamin D. What do you think about this?

    Submitted by BaselineFoundation on
    July 18, 2012 - 3:02pm

    Actually, the angle where maximum vitamin D production begins to drop off is 37 degrees, which means you will still get maximum production at 10:00 AM and 3:00 PM. At 9:00 and 4:00 you will still get reasonable production, but will have to remain outside a bit longer.

    Submitted by Mike McQueen on
    July 24, 2012 - 11:14pm

    I have to say, I was never really aware of the dangers of spray tanning. I thought it was the safest way of achieving a sun-kissed glow, and that only tanning beds and too much exposure to the sun were capable of causing damage. But reading this article, I think it may be time to junk the cans for good and embrace my natural complexion. Thank you so much for sharing this!

    Submitted by Amity Brent on
    November 7, 2012 - 9:33pm

    I never knew of these facts and if they are really reliable or something. Thanks a lot for sharing because I have been planning on having a tan but I am having second thoughts now. Good to have trusted my instincts about doing research first.

    Submitted by Megan on
    October 10, 2013 - 6:14pm

    There are definitely risks involved with spray tanning, I think it is safe to say that there are risks involved with anything anymore. Like with anything else if you are careful and use a little sense you should be fine. One of the most important things to do with spray tanning is to keep the solution outside of your body.

    I own a spray tanning business and it is very important to offer your clients the opportunity to protect themselves and let them use their own judgement.

    Submitted by Timothy Allen on
    April 23, 2014 - 7:23am

    I really affected together with your journal and your suggestion show me lot of way which one really nice and effective on behalf of me and also the others.

    Submitted by Joe m on
    May 17, 2015 - 9:18am
    Ohio , Ohio

    Society has a very narrow minded perception of beauty. A woman who is commonly perceived as ugly can appear very beautiful to someone because of her personality. This is very important. Because we should be drawn to a person based on their inner workings.

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