Is Sunless Tanning Safe?

woman applying tanning cream

Many people seek the look of a suntan while avoiding the damaging rays of the sun. Sunless tanning has become a popular alternative to sunbathing. Available in the form of sprays, creams, and lotions, fake tanning products are often considered safe. But few people understand the potential risks these can have on their health.

Although the practice is generally considered safe, there are a few things to think about.

How Does Sunless Tanning Work?

These artificial tanning products contain dihydroxyacetone, or DHA. Derived from beet or cane sugar, this chemical reacts with the amino acids in your skin, specifically dead cells in the top layer. Browning occurs due to the Maillard reaction. It is the same process that turns bread brown or caramelizes sugar. The effect is temporary and usually only lasts a few days.

Although your skin may look darker, the simulated tanning won’t protect your skin from ultraviolet (UV) rays. You are still at risk of sunburn and skin damage, and perhaps be even more vulnerable to damage by free radicals. Using a sunscreen is therefore a must.

Fake Tanning Risks

Medical professionals have expressed concerns that DHA might have potential health risks. However, these are mostly limited to the compound reaching the bloodstream. If you have no open wounds, the chemical won’t penetrate the skin, or at least there isn’t sufficient evidence to prove so.

The potential to inhale DHA, however, has been a focus of some studies. If DHA reaches the lungs, it could increase the risk of asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The risk of cancer may increase if the chemical reaches the bloodstream and interacts with the body’s cells.

To protect yourself while spray tanning or applying a topical tanner, avoid contact with your eyes, nose, lips, and ears. Goggles, nose plugs, and other protective elements can be worn to avoid inhaling a tanning spray.

An allergic reaction to DHA or other sunless tanning ingredient can trigger anything from mild irritation to more severe skin reactions.

How to Get the Safest Sunless Tan

If you choose to use a sunless tanning product, you can try several options to protect yourself. First, exfoliate your skin using a washcloth to remove excess dead skin cells, especially on your ankles, knees, and elbows. Dry your skin after exfoliating.

Using a circular motion, apply the product to individual sections of skin. For example, use it on your arms before moving on to your torso, and then to your legs. Wash your hands in between treating each section, using soap and water to avoid discoloring the skin on your palms. The product should be spread lightly from the wrists to the hands and from the ankles to the feet.

Your knees, ankles, or elbows tend to absorb more product. When applying a tanning product here, dilute it by using a damp towel to rub it in. Leave your skin exposed for at least 10 minutes afterwards. Wait until dry to get dressed and wear loose clothing. Sweating can affect your tan, so try to stay cool and don’t overexert yourself.

Consult Our Dermatologist in Los Angeles

Contact LDI if you believe you’ve had a reaction to a sunless tanning product. If the appearance of your skin is concerning, schedule a visit by phone at 866-809-1102 or self-schedule an appointment online. We’re known for the best skin rejuvenation services in the region and all of Southern California, so don’t hesitate to set up a complimentary consultation and receive professional advice and treatment.

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