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Many people love the striking color and healthy-looking glow of a good tan. However, tanning beds and direct sunlight carry many risks. Because of this, self-tanning products have become extremely popular over the years.

While many of these products are safe, a few potential health concerns and risks accompany them.

How Self-Tanners Work

Spray tans and other sunless tanning products like lotions, creams, and gels use colorants to create a tanned appearance. Most modern products utilize the color additive dihydroxyacetone (DHA). When this chemical comes into contact with the skin, it reacts with dead skin cells to temporarily darken the skin and mimic a tan.

Different concentrations of DHA result in lighter or darker colorations, allowing for self-tanners of different “strengths.”

mitten for self-tanning and applying cream for tanning GaViAl / Shutterstock
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Research into DHA

Medical researchers first became aware of DHA in the 1920s, though it did not become a prominent part of self-tanning products until the 1950s. Because of its long history, there is a significant amount of research into its effects.

DHA was originally a glucose substitute for people with diabetes and studies show that oral administrations were well-tolerated. While some recent research has linked DHA to DNA damage, this only occurs at concentrations far beyond what is available in self-tanning products and spray tans.

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External Use of DHA

Experts believe that the color additive is generally safe for external use, as long as it does not enter an open wound. While some critics worry that the chemical could leach into the bloodstream, there is little evidence to support these concerns.

DHA reacts rapidly in the stratum corneum, meaning the body simply does not have enough time to absorb it.

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Inhaling DHA

Spray tans work similarly to self-tanning lotions and creams but typically promise more even applications. Because of the delivery method, there is some concern about inhaling airborne DHA and what effects this might have. However, studies have not reached a consensus on the dangers of inhaling spray tan solutions.

Most health professionals feel that spray tanning is safe, though they recommend only receiving a spray tan in a ventilated area.

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Allergies

The main risk with using self-tanning products is an allergic reaction, though this is extremely rare. However, even if a person tolerates DHA, many products contain other additives that may be responsible for a reaction.

Some products use artificial fragrances to mask the unappealing scent of DHA, and these could trigger asthma and skin allergies. Additionally, cosmetic products may contain parabens that can affect the endocrine system. Always check any product for known allergens and spot-test on a small area first.

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Self-Tanners vs. Tanning Beds

One of the most popular options for self-tanning is the tanning bed. These beds use ultraviolet (UV) light to create a tan.

Most tanning beds use UVA light, which prematurely ages the skin, forming wrinkles and age spots. It also dramatically increases the risk of skin cancer. Tanning beds are far more dangerous than tanning lotions and similar products.

woman in tanning bed LuckyBusiness / Getty Images
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Tanning Pills

Some people turn to tanning pills to achieve a tan. Rather than using DHA, these pills typically use large doses of color additives like canthaxanthin. At these doses, these substances impart a color that resembles a tan but also cause a range of health issues, such as crystal deposits in the eyes.

Because of this, government agencies like the FDA do not approve of tanning pills or similar options.

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Tanning Accelerators

Many people also choose to use tanning accelerators or promoters in their quest for a perfect tan. Most of these products use the chemical tyrosine to boost tanning effectiveness, but there is little to no evidence supporting tyrosine’s effects.

Studies also show that adverse effects like rashes and acne are far more common among tanning accelerator users. The FDA has issued warnings for many tan accelerators.

woman spraying lotion to her body beach Murat Deniz / Getty Images
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Sun Protection

Despite popular belief, a “base tan” from tanning lotion or tanning bed does not protect the skin. A real tan from UV radiation has an effect equivalent to a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of three or four. This will barely protect the skin, as most experts recommend an SPF of between 15 and 30.

Tans from DHA-containing products provide even less protection against sun damage. When using a self-tanner, pair the product with a sunscreen or use options that also operate as sunscreen.

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Tanning Behaviors

While self-tanners are safe for general use, experts have noticed some troubling trends. People who use self-tanning lotions and other products also tend to use tanning booths more often, in addition to spending more time in direct sunlight.

Because of this parallel, those who use self-tanners may have a higher risk of conditions like skin cancer. Avoid potential sources of skin damage like direct sunlight and tanning beds.

dermatologist examining patient's skin Kateryna Kukota / Getty Images

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Disclaimer

This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.