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.
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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.”