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Are Self-Tanners Safe? Dermatologists Weigh-in

Wondering about self tanners? We can help. Here's the lowdown on whether they are safe

The scoop on whether self tanners are safe to use

Nothing suggests health, youth, and beauty more than a beautifully sun-bronzed body, oiled and gleaming on a beach or at the poolside. But beginning primarily in the 1970’s scientists began to link the dangers of UV rays to skin cancer, and people reluctantly started to change their sunny views of tanning. Though it’s hard to accept that such a glowing, healthy look means skin damage, it’s unfortunately true. Today, though most of us have given up the sunbathing, we haven’t given up the preference for a radiant summer tan in favor of white skin.

The answer, for many of us has been using sunless tanners. But is it safe to chemically alter the color of our skin, even temporarily? How do sunless tanners work, and are they really harmless?

How Do Self-Tanners Work?

Sunless tanners, or self-tanners, give your skin a summer, sun-kissed bronzed glow, without exposure to the damage of UV rays. They are typically marketed in the form of creams, lotions, and sprays which work by using a color additive known as dihydroxyacetone. (DHA) DHA is a glycerin derivative. This ingredient reacts by attaching itself to the amino acids found in dead skin cells on the skin’s surface. A reaction then takes place that results in pigments known as melanoidins. These pigments are very similar to melanin, the natural pigment produced by skin when it’s exposed to the sun. The melanoidins darken the skin in a similar way, giving your skin a tanned appearance. The color lasts several days and slowly wears off with the shedding of the colored skin cells.

Is it Safe to Use a Self-Tanner?

The FDA has approved the use of plant-derived DHA for use as a topical skin lotion. However, they have specified that it’s not safe to be inhaled or applied to mucous membranes, such as lips, nose, private areas, and close to the eyes. Be sure to protect mucous membranes from exposure to sunless tanners, and be careful not to breathe in the fumes from a spray tanner.

Some studies have looked at the possible connection between frequently inhaling spray tanner and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and increased incidence of asthma. Because of these studies it’s probably safest to limit your self-tanning routine to lotions and avoid the spray forms, or wear a protective mask if using a spray tanner.

According to a dermatologist and clinical assistant professor from New York University, since any true suntan is a sign of skin damage that can lead to signs of early aging, using a sunless tanner is a much safer alternative than baking in the sun or a tanning bed. It creates a fairly natural looking tan without the skin damage.

While sunless tanning is widely considered to be safe, it’s important to note that relatively few studies of long-term effects have been made. One study did find that the introduction of DHA to skin cells damaged the cell’s DNA, though the effects are unknown, since the cells that DHA attach to are dead and in the process of sloughing off.

According to a leading dermatologist in New York City, if you apply sunless tanner in a cream or lotion form, and have no open wounds, it should be considered safe, and certainly much safer than actual suntanning.

Other studies have focused on a possible link between sunless tanners and increased susceptibility to damaging free-radicals during exposure to UV rays. According to dermatologists, this factor could be mitigated by increasing use of antioxidants during self-tanning sessions to protect cells from free-radicals. Applying self-tanners at night rather than during daylight hours can also protect the skin from free-radical exposure.

Do Self-Tanners Protect You From the Sun?

Because a real suntan offers the skin some protection from burning, many people make the mistake of thinking the same is true with a tan from sunless tanner. It’s critical to know that it does not. No matter how deep and glorious your sunless tan appears, it’s still necessary to wear plenty of high SPF protection when out in the sun.

Most dermatologists agree that self-tanner carries little or no risk when used for summer tanning, and in fact is far safer than tanning in the sun. So go ahead and indulge in a beach-bronze body, or—love the skin you’re in, and show the world your gorgeous ivory glow.

Resources — Mayo Clinic, Harvard Health Publishing, VeryWellHealth, HuffPost