Ask The Expert: Are Spray Tans Safe?

You've already given up the tanning booth, but should you give up the spray tanning, too?

We all know that tanning beds are bad for you. But then came along spray tans, and the Snooki’s of the world united. Until, that is, when everyone started looking orange. Not Solar Zest orange, but Oompa Loompa orange. There seems to be a new happy medium, with the introduction of “organic” spray tanning and improved formulas that let you choose how dark you want to be. But in the end, it’s still putting unnatural chemicals on the skin to achieve a certain look. So we asked an expert to see once and for all if spray tanning is really safe, or if we should just embrace our pale winter skin until summer.

The answer comes from Dr. Jennifer Y. Lin, dermatologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital:

The most common active ingredient in self-tanners is dihydroxyacetone (DHA). DHA is a colorless sugar which cross-links with the top layer of your skin (the stratum corneum) to create a darkening of the skin. The top layer of the skin consists primarily of dead cells, and the pigment is retained until the top layer of the skin is shed, which is typically in 14 days, although pigment will lighten in five to seven days.

DHA has been around for nearly forty years, and was approved by the FDA for external use in 1977. The safety profile of DHA is controversial especially with the conversion of self-tanners to a spray tan application. The carcinogenic effect of particles in the lining of lungs is not entirely clear, and therefore it is recommended to wear nose plugs, eye protection, mouth protection, and protective undergarments when receiving a spray tan.

Do spray tans protect from the sun’s rays?

Although there are reports that DHA can be somewhat sun protective, this is an unreliable source of sun protection. Several factors can influence how much color DHA can create. Spray tans are not a substitute for sunscreen! Always tell your dermatologist if you are using DHA as it can affect the appearance of pigmented lesions.

What about organic spray tans?

Organic spray tans still predominantly use DHA as an active ingredient and the “organic” component derives from the materials used in the base (i.e. paraben free).