Search IconSearch

Are Spray Tans Safe?

Compared to other tanning methods, they’re the safest choice — but they’re not entirely risk-free

person getting a spray tan

We get it: There’s something about that summery glow that makes us feel happy, fit and healthy. Of course, by now, we also know that lying in the sun or a tanning bed is anything but healthy. So, thank goodness for spray tans, right? And it’s true: When it comes to tanning, spray tans are clearly the safer way to go.


Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

But that doesn’t mean that spray tanning is entirely without potential dangers. Inhalation risks, skin sensitivities and a lack of medical research all suggest you should proceed with caution.

How do spray tans work?

The active ingredient in spray tans and other sunless tanning products is an additive called dihydroxyacetone, or DHA for short. “DHA is actually a sugar compound,” explains dermatologist Jennifer Lucas, MD. “It reacts with the proteins found in the cells that make up the outer layer of your skin, creating an adherent pigment that leads to the bronze/tan color.”

Because DHA only affects the topmost skin layer, a spray tan is temporary. “Your skin is going to shed and exfoliate continually, replacing the outer cells weekly, give or take, which is totally normal,” says Dr. Lucas. When those cells fall off, your tan goes with them. “That’s why your spray tan only lasts about five to 10 days.”

Once DHA is applied to your skin, it takes around two to four hours for the tanning to begin, and it can continue for as much as 24 to 72 hours. The more DHA you apply to your skin, the darker your tan will appear, thanks to the chemical reaction between DHA and your skin cells.

Are spray tans safe?

It’s encouraging to know that DHA has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for external use on your skin.

But there’s a catch. Even though the FDA has approved DHA for use on the outside of your skin (like in sunless tanning creams and lotions), it has not been approved for use in commercial spray tanning booths. That’s because the FDA doesn’t have any data to prove the safety of inhaling or ingesting the spray, or of getting the spray in your eyes, nose, mouth, or lips (areas that are lined by mucous membranes).

Here’s how the FDA puts it:

“When using DHA-containing products as an all-over spray or mist in a commercial spray ‘tanning’ booth, it may be difficult to avoid exposure in a manner for which DHA is not approved, including the area of the eyes, lips, or mucous membrane, or even internally.”

That’s why the FDA suggests asking the following questions before getting a spray tan:

  • Will my eyes and the entire area around my eyes be protected from the spray?
  • Will my lips and any other parts of my body covered by mucous membranes be protected from the spray?
  • Will I be protected from getting the spray in my mouth or lungs?

If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” you should ask for those protections before going forward with your spray tan, the FDA recommends.

You should also remember that spray tanning products may contain fragrances that can be irritating if you have sensitive skin or certain allergies.

Spray tans vs. tanning beds and traditional tanning

The risks of tanning are pretty well known by now. Whether in a tanning bed or in the sun, that “healthy” glow you’re getting is actually evidence that UV radiation is damaging your skin.

It’s a no-win situation. “Frankly, we all want to look younger,” Dr. Lucas notes. “People tan because they want to look good. But the more UV exposure you get, the more photo-aging or damage you do to your skin.”


That damage can lead to wrinkles, dark spots, sagging skin and other signs of premature aging.

And then there’s the very real risk of skin cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, most of the more than 1 million skin cancers diagnosed each year in the U.S. are considered sun-related.

Tanning beds serve up an especially intense form of radiation called UVA. UVA has been linked to an increased risk of all forms of skin cancer. Your risk can go up as much as 15% for every four tanning bed visits. The Skin Cancer Foundation reports that there’s a 75% increased risk of developing life-threatening melanoma from just one indoor tanning session before age 35.

In contrast, spray tanning involves no exposure to UV radiation. That leads most dermatologists, including Dr. Lucas, to agree: If you simply must have a tan, spray tanning is certainly the safer alternative.

What are the benefits of spray tanning?

The biggest benefit of a spray tan is that it can give you that golden glow without any exposure to skin-damaging, cancer-causing UV or UVA radiation. Getting a spray tan is quick and easy. You can often achieve the exact glow you had in mind, thanks to custom formulations designed for your unique skin tone.

Just remember this: No matter how dark your spray tan, it doesn’t provide protection from sunburn. “It is not a base tan,” states Dr. Lucas. “You still need to apply at least a 30 SPF broad-spectrum sunscreen, 15 minutes before you go outdoors, with a reapplication at least every two hours, to help avoid the harms of UV radiation.”

Are spray tans safe if I’m pregnant?

We don’t know if people who are pregnant are at greater risk from exposure to DHA than those who aren’t pregnant. But given the FDA’s warnings to avoid possible DHA inhalation and absorption, if you’re pregnant, you might choose to be extra cautious.

“It is always good to be safe, especially if you are pregnant,” advises Dr. Lucas. “So, if you can avoid spray tanning during your pregnancy, that’s probably the safest approach.”

If you’ve got to have that golden glow, it might be a better alternative to rub on a self-tanning lotion or cream. That way, you can eliminate the possible dangers of inhalation and absorption.

Should I be concerned about the risks of spray tanning?

A little caution can go a long way toward protecting your health, and the decision to spray tan is no different.

Like almost everything in life, spray tanning may have some risks. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been enough research yet to know for sure. But there is some limited evidence that DHA may have other as-yet unproven risks. For instance:

  • Some doctors and researchers have expressed concern that repeated exposure to spray tans may cause breathing problems like asthma and even lung cancer.
  • A report released by the FDA suggests that a small amount of applied DHA can penetrate the skin and enter the bloodstream.
  • A lab study showed that DHA could cause DNA damage to cells. As DNA damage can lead to cancer, some researchers have expressed concerns about this.

So, can spray tans cause cancer? Can the chemicals get into your bloodstream? Are there other risks to consider?

So far, we just don’t know.


“There just isn’t enough data yet, at this point,’” says Dr. Lucas. “Do I have concerns? Sure. Do they keep me up at night? Not yet.”

In the meantime, Dr. Lucas gives spray tanning a conditional green light.

“In an ideal world, we would all embrace the natural color and tone of our skin, and avoid tanning altogether,” she says. “But if you have to have a tan, I would much rather you get a spray tan or use a self-tanner than the other alternatives.”


Learn more about our editorial process.

Related Articles

Pile of tanning pills
July 23, 2024/Skin Care & Beauty
Is It Safe To Use Tanning Pills?

The results aren’t great, and the risks — like vision problems — aren’t worth it

A person's back, covered in moles and freckles, with their hand reaching over their shoulder
July 22, 2024/Skin Care & Beauty
What To Expect During a Full-Body Skin Cancer Screening

During an annual exam, your provider will check for any moles or spots that have changed in size, color or shape

Person grimacing while scratching an itch on their arm
July 19, 2024/Skin Care & Beauty
Why Am I So Itchy? Common Causes and How To Know if It’s Something Serious

Dry air, harsh soaps and even some medications can bring on an itch, but in some cases, itchiness can be a sign of an underlying condition

Caregivers holding toddler, playing in ocean
June 18, 2024/Infectious Disease
How To Stay Safe From Recreational Waterborne Diseases

You can reduce your risk by not swallowing water, and showering before and after swimming

Person in towel in front of bathtub, with shelves of lotions, holding jar of moisturizer, applying to face
June 17, 2024/Skin Care & Beauty
14 Natural and Home Remedies for Psoriasis

Moisturize often, take oatmeal baths, use Epsom salts and follow a healthy diet to help reduce your symptoms

Person in towel standing in bathroom, with milk pticher on edge of bathtub
June 13, 2024/Skin Care & Beauty
Take the Plunge: 4 Reasons To Try a Milk Bath

Adding a little milk to your bath can leave your skin smooth, silky and refreshed

Parents applying sunscreen to their toddler at the beach
June 12, 2024/Children's Health
Sunscreen for Babies: When Can You Use Sunscreen and What Kind Is Safest?

Babies shouldn’t wear sunscreen before 6 months old, so opt for shade and cooler parts of the day for outdoor fun time

Blister on bottom of big toe
June 11, 2024/Skin Care & Beauty
5 Ways To Avoid Blisters (and the Best Way To Treat Them)

Wear properly fitted shoes, break them in ahead of time and wear moisture-wicking socks

Trending Topics

Female and friend jogging outside
How To Increase Your Metabolism for Weight Loss

Focus on your body’s metabolic set point by eating healthy foods, making exercise a part of your routine and reducing stress

stovetop with stainless steel cookware and glassware
5 Ways Forever Chemicals (PFAS) May Affect Your Health

PFAS chemicals may make life easier — but they aren’t always so easy on the human body

jar of rice water and brush, with rice scattered around table
Could Rice Water Be the Secret To Healthier Hair?

While there’s little risk in trying this hair care treatment, there isn’t much science to back up the claims