Are Spray Tans Safe?

I came across an article recently called “Spray Tan Dangers” by Beth Levine. This started me thinking about what we have become accustomed to thinking looks good today, especially in the summertime.

I personally have the type of skin that just doesn’t tan; I burn, freckle and peel and long ago I gave up the idea of tanning. But I never dreamed in a million years that a spray tan might have its drawbacks as well! Trying to fit in on vacation and not be this white-skinned blob in a bathing suit, I have had many a spray tan! OK, they chill you when they are sprayed on, and leave you with a very odd smell on your skin while drying, but I didn’t think much about it. But is there more to spray tanning than meets the eye? Why do we want to look tan, anyway? Some folks think they look thinner, healthier and just plain better in their summer clothes. But this has not always been the case historically.

Could this be the time we start rethinking our definition of beauty and that tanned look in general?

Ms. Levine offered that no one “looks at a 50-year-old with wrinkled, leathery skin and believes that’s attractive.” Then shouldn’t we all ask ourselves why we think that tanned skin looks better than pale skin or our natural skin color, at any age? What ever happened to that peaches and cream complexion of days gone by or the notion of just being happy all year long with whatever your skin color is and rejoicing in the way nature created the unique “you” that you are?

We certainly know that tanning is not required to get our daily dose of vitamin D. It is far safer to just go out in the sun without sunscreen in the early morning and late afternoon for a short sun bath of about 10 minutes with as little on in the way of clothes as possible.

How about just taking a moment to turn back the clock to the Elizabethan ideal of untanned skin as the goal to strive for. We won’t have to use the lead white makeup that was popular with the Greeks, Romans, and Elizabethans to achieve that fair-skinned look. We can just nourish our skin and keep it healthy from the inside out with healthy food and whole food supplementation such as omega-3, antioxidants and a healthy daily dose of vitamin D-3.

We know the risk of skin cancer increases when we sunbathe. And, even though I have tried these too, tanning beds are an even worse choice. Despite what tanning centers advertise and some doctors who sell them advocate, the tanner’s close proximity to the UVA/UVB light source increases the rate of damage.

OK, isn’t it a good thing that there are natural-looking options such as spray tanning to give us a safer alternative when we want to have that just-been-on-vacation in the tropics look? Could there be some dangers to spray tanning? Levine writes, “Research that reveals new tanning facts now show that spray tanning may be just as dangerous as every other form of tanning, but for different reasons.

Ms. Levine sited an ABC News report which “compiled 10 of the most recent studies conducted on the chemicals used in tanning sprays which asked a panel of medical specialists in fields such as dermatology, pulmonary medicine, and toxicology to provide an analysis” of some spray tan products. And the news was not good for those of us who like to use spray-on tanning products. The problems come from the active ingredient in tanning products, which is a chemical called dihydroxyacetone (also known as DHA — but please do not confuse this with docosahexaenoic acid, the beneficial DHA essential fatty acid found in marine lipids, such fish, krill, cod liver oil or my favorite, MOXXOR, which comes from the 100 percent sustainable, cold extracted, organic New Zealand greenlip mussel, grapeseed husk extract and kiwifruit seed oil. I find the omega-3s and antioxidants in this product really helps my skin be healthy from the inside out.)

Several studies show that this dihydroxyacetone chemical in the spray tan solutions:

“was shown to affect the genes within the animals tested” (I know — I don’t like animal testing either but I am only reporting the facts that were covered here) “once it was absorbed through the skin or breathed into the lungs and internalized. DHA received FDA approval in 1977, back in the days when it was used primarily for tanning lotions. It was not believed to be absorbed below the outer layers of skin, so it was thought to pose no danger. Plus, tanning lotions were never a very popular item, as they tended to turn the skin a blotchy and ugly shade of yellow or orange. However, now that the formulations have been improved to provide more of the golden tan most consumers are seeking, along with the updated spray method of application that offers more even coverage”( and allows the technician to even use their own artistic skills in order to create a sculpted look to the body, especially to enhance breast cleavage or the look of a “six-pack” on the abdomen) “the use of this chemical is much more widespread. Unfortunately, it is now known that DHA can be absorbed beyond the outermost layers of skin, and the fact that it has been aerosolized ups the danger of spray tanning exponentially.”

“As the tanning product is being sprayed onto your body, you are breathing it in. Once the DHA is in your lungs, it is easily distributed throughout the body via the bloodstream. This grants this potentially cancer-causing agent access to billions of cells throughout your body. In various experiments at different university-based laboratories, DHA has been tested on a multitude of bacteria and the skin cells of mice. The chemical caused mutations within the DNA of the cells, which can lead to cancer. In fact, an FDA report from 1999 found that, even when not inhaled, DHA was reaching deeper skin levels and being absorbed into the body.”

Yes, I know the argument well — mice are not people — but I think this should give us all pause before we sign up for our next series of spray tans!

“Now, think about all of the people who consider this to be the “safe” method of getting a tan.  There are many who are regular customers interested in keeping their skin tanned and glowing all year round.  And pregnant women go spray tanning, which is bad news for the fetus!  Some people even have their children get spray tans as a treat before a big occasion.  Every one of these scenarios presents an even higher risk of doing serious damage at a cellular level.”

And don’t forget some people may actually think that because they now look tan, that they can’t get a sun burn so out they go unprotected and get seriously burned in the process. Many customers of spray tan salons are even told that certain sun tan lotions and creams will remove their tan and so go out in the sun and use absolutely no sun protection before or a defense afterwards.

I find it troubling, as did Ms. Levine, “that no long-term studies have been undertaken to examine the health effects of regular use of DHA-based tanning products on people.” It might be a good idea to take into account that there is enough evidence to cause concern from nonhuman research.

Perhaps it doesn’t cause much damage to get a spray tan or two a couple of times a year, but it might be advisable to wear a little paper mask over your nose and mouth during the process and cover your face and head. We can always wear a little bronze blush on our faces and necks to get a bit of color. You can also ask your spray tan salon for some protection or even bring your own, such as “eyewear, nose plugs, and a mouth covering, like a little mask that painters wear, to ensure that you are not giving the chemical a direct entryway into your mucus membranes and lungs.”

But what can we do if we give up spray tans but have “spent time at the beach, pool, or backyard lounge chair trying to get that perfect tan.” I know I had my share of nasty sunburns during my lifetime. And I also tried using tanning beds before they were known to be harmful. Ms. Levine recommends that to combat some of the free radical damage already inflicted, you might want to consider a good antioxidant supplement and I totally agree with that advice. You can do your own research online or at your health food store’s supplement department and see what you’d like to try. My choice is an antioxidant supplement called Protandim which I learned about from watching this very interesting ABC News presentation.  You can get more information on this patented all herbal formulation here and see if it resonates with you as it does for me. It’s just one caplet per day, but always check with your own health practitioners before trying any new products.

Top Image: The author, Celeste Yarnall, for the cover of London Look Magazine, in 1967 featuring original Elizabethan clothing! / Lower Image: Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I by Marcus Gheeraerts

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Irene H.
Irene H1 years ago

As a Certified Sunless Airbrush Technician, using only Organic Vegan ingredients. You must do your homework. I would never myself go to a place that uses the cheap stuff. You get what you pay for all the way around. Educated clients, and talking over spots that I notice on them from sun damage, there are pros & cons to everything. Look for an experienced Spray tanner, that does it by hand not those horrid machines you walk into, that's where the dangers are. Inhaling those toxins they sell cheaply.

Irene H.
Irene H1 years ago

As a Certified Sunless Airbrush Technician, using only Organic Vegan ingredients. You must do your homework. I would never myself go to a place that uses the cheap stuff. You get what you pay for all the way around. Educated clients, and talking over spots that I notice on them from sun damage, there are pros & cons to everything. Look for an experienced Spray tanner, that does it by hand not those horrid machines you walk into, that's where the dangers are. Inhaling those toxins they sell cheaply.

Kamia T.
Kamia T2 years ago

I've never understood why you would want to slather something all over your skin to look like someone who's been out in the sun when you obviously don't want to be there? I go out in the sun, and feel better, because it produces natural vitamins D & K, which most people are deficient in. If I get a bit of a tan, yay. If not, no harm, no foul.

April H.
April H.5 years ago

As an airbrush tanning salon owner myself, I think that people need to be more informed on sunless tanning. The recent ABC News article questioning the safety of sunless tanning lacks evidence and even admits that there are no human cases proving their claims. The "chemical" DHA is derived from sugar and raspberries. It is FDA approved as long as it's not applied to any mucus membrane. Any salon that does not provide nose filters, eye and lip protection is not following FDA guidelines, and you should not being going there anyway.

Let's face it: nowadays EVERYTHING causes cancer. From the obvious smoking and UV exposure, to the less obvious things like talking on your cell phone. Sunless tanning is a safe alternative from the sun, as long as you and the professional tanning salons are following the correct procedures.

Andrea Ornelas
Andrea Ornelas5 years ago


Emma B
Emma Blydenburgh5 years ago

Do all spray tans have those chemicals in them? I've never had one (and don't plan on getting one either -the process seems a bit silly), but I'm surprised there isn't some version of it out there that's a stain from carrots or henna, or something.

Patricia Garcia Ces
Patricia Ces5 years ago

Thanks for sharing!!!!!

Irene S.
Irene S5 years ago

I tan VERY easily, so I've never needed to spray-tan or go to a tanning bed. Just stepping outside once in a while is enough.

Magyar Girl
Past Member 5 years ago

Heck no!

J.L. A.
j A5 years ago

good reminders of why to think about choices instead of cultural pressures