Sunless Tanning: What Are Your Options?
by Krisha McCoy, MS
Sun exposure can damage your appearance and your health. The ultraviolet (UV) radiation emitted by the sun can cause sunburn, premature aging, skin cancer, and damage to the eyes. Despite this, many Americans still strive for a perfect tan. Is there such thing as a safe tanning method? Sunless tanning options offer an alternative to soaking up the sun’s rays.
Sunless Tanning Options
Sunless tanning is becoming increasingly popular. And with the development of sunless tanning products and methodologies, the results are more natural-looking than ever before. Sunless tanning may even encourage people to protect their skin from the sun. But are some sunless tanning options safer than others? Here is more information on some sunless tanning options.
Spray Tanning Booths
The sunless tanning service most commonly offered in tanning salons is spray tanning in booths. Spray tanning booths work by delivering an even coating of the chemical dihydroxyacetone (DHA) to your skin using spraying machines located inside enclosed booths. DHA works by interacting with dead cells on the surface of your skin to darken skin color, simulating a tan. The results usually last for several days.
DHA is approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for cosmetic application, but it is approved only for external use. DHA is not approved for the areas of the eyes or lips, and should not be inhaled or ingested. This type of exposure is difficult to avoid in spray tanning booths. Before using a spray tanning booth, the FDA advises asking if your eyes and lips will be protected, and whether you will be protected from inhaling or ingesting the spray. If the answer is no, you should look for another salon.
A potentially safer—but more expensive—method of receiving an even coating of DHA is to have an airbrush tan. During an airbrush tan, a salon technician covers your eyes, lips, and other mucous membranes, and sprays a coat of DHA onto your skin using a spray compressor. A natural-looking tan will appear within a few hours and usually last for a few days. The benefit of airbrushing is that it results in an even tan, while reducing the risk of inhalation and eye and lip exposure.
Self-tanning lotions can be purchased over-the-counter at drugstores and cosmetic counters. These self-tanners contain DHA. To achieve a natural-looking tan, apply the lotion evenly over your skin. The results will appear within a few hours, and will last several days.
With spray booth tanning, airbrush tanning, and self-tanning lotions, you will get more even results if you exfoliate your skin with a scrub brush or loofah before the tanner is applied.
Bronzers include tinted moisturizers and brush-on powders. Bronzers can be used to temporarily stain the skin, achieving a tanned appearance. It is difficult to achieve an even, all-over tan with bronzers, but they can add some color to pale skin. Bronzers, like makeup, wash off with soap and water.
Tanning pills are unsafe and are not approved by the FDA. They contain the color additive called canthaxanthin. When ingested, canthaxanthin can cause the skin to turn orange or brown. Its use has been linked to a number of serious health problems, including eye and liver damage.
The Safest Ways to Tan
As of now, it seems that the safest ways of achieving a faux tan are using bronzers, self-tanning lotions, and airbrush tanning. If you use spray tanning booths, make sure that your eyes and lips are protected, and that you do not inhale or ingest the spray. And remember, sunless tanning, despite darkening of the skin, does not protect your skin from the damaging rays of the sun, so to be protected you need to use sunscreen, or stay covered with clothing.
On the Flipside, Don’t Shun the Sun Entirely…
It is important also to remember that vitamin D deficiency can occur in people who live without sun exposure because vitamin D is synthesized under the influence of ultraviolet light. Vitamin D is an essential nutrient needed to form and maintain strong bones. It also may help maintain a healthy immune system and regulate cell growth. Sun exposure of at least 10 to 15 minutes at least 2 times per week to the face, arms, hands, or back without sunscreen is usually sufficient to provide adequate vitamin D.
American Academy of Dermatology
United States Food and Drug Administration
Canadian Dermatology Association
Petersen AB, Wulf HC, Gniadecki R, Gajkowska B. Dihydroxyacetone, the active browning ingredient in sunless tanning lotions, induces DNA damage, cell-cycle block and apoptosis in cultured HaCaT keratinocytes. Mutat Res. 2004;560(2):173-186.
Sunless tanners & bronzers. US Food & Drug Administration website. Available at:https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/productsingredients/products/ucm134064.htm. Updated May 21, 2015. Accessed August 15, 2015.
Tanning. Kids Health—Nemours Foundation website. Available at:
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Updated August 2016. Accessed August 30, 2017.
Tanning prodcuts. US Food & Drug Administration website. Available at: https://www.fda.gov/Radiation-EmittingProducts/RadiationEmittingProductsandProcedures/Tanning/ucm116434.htm. Updated March 29, 2017. Accessed August 30, 2017.
Vitamin D. Office of Dietary Supplements website. Available at: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional. Updated February 11, 2016. Accessed August 15, 2015.
Last reviewed August 2017 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Michael Woods, MD, FAAP
Last Updated: 10/30/2013
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