Fake the Bake? Spray Tanning and DHA May Not Be as Safe as You Think.

We all know that tanning beds are a no-no. But is spray tanning really a safer alternative? Man in tanning bed image via shutterstock.

We all know that tanning beds are a no-no. But is spray tanning really a safer alternative? Man in tanning bed image via shutterstock.

I emerged from my first spray-tan booth looking more Oompa-Loompa orange than beach-ready bronze. What’s more, I coughed for two days after. This can’t be good for me, I thought. Yet spray-tanning spots are thriving. Wellesley’s Blush just tripled in size, and both the North End’s Natural Glow and Glow Tanning, on Newbury Street, see a steady stream of customers.

The most common active ingredient in self-tanners is dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a sugar that interacts with the top layer of the skin to create a darkened pigment that lasts until the dead cells shed. Although the FDA green-lighted DHA for external use in 1977, the use of DHA in spray-tanning booths is not approved because, the agency warns, the chemical should not come in contact with the eyes, lips, or mucous membranes, or be ingested. “The carcinogenic effect of particles in the lining of lungs is not entirely clear,” says Jennifer Lin, a dermatologist at Brigham and Women’s.

Peggy Wu, a dermatologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, advises those who get spray tans to minimize unintentional DHA absorption. “The safest practice, and what I encourage my patients to do, is embrace your natural skin tone,” she says.