Spray Tan Concerns

By Eric Christensen

March 11, 2013 5 min read

Many people equate being tanned with looking beautiful, healthy and active. After all, every week, magazine covers display photos of tanned celebrities on the red carpet. In order to get that golden glow, people have several options. They can lie out by the pool, spend time in a tanning bed or use bronzing creams. But the most popular solution seems to be a spray tan. They are quick, inexpensive and don't require exposure to harmful ultraviolet rays. They are also convenient: available at spas, salons and even some gyms. But it is not uncommon for these businesses to downplay the risks of spray tanning. With a little knowledge though, you can stay safe and look great.

The most common and most effective spray tanning technique uses a solution that contains dihydroxyacetone, or DHA. This is not a dye or paint but a chemical that reacts with the amino acids in the outer layer of skin, making them darker. This reaction does not fade over time. Instead, the body's natural shedding of skin causes the tan to fades over a period of about a week. This makes spray tanning a good option for short vacations or special events.

Tanning DHA should be confused with the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid, which is also abbreviated DHA. The fatty acid is found in salmon and milk and is approved by the Food and Drug Administration to be eaten. Tanning DHA has not been similarly approved. If a facility claims its tanning spray is food-grade, or can be safely consumed, yet these claims are not accurate and inappropriate.

Although convenient, spray tanning is not a perfect technique. Clogged hoses and nozzles sometimes produce a streaky tan. To minimize this risk, apply the spray evenly, six to 10 inches away from the skin, and in an up and down motion. Additionally, spray tans will not produce uniform tans for all people, as each person's skin tone and condition is unique. Spray tanning can also stain clothes, hands and hair. Cover your hair during the spraying, wash your hands with soap and water immediately after the spraying and do not dress for about 20 minutes after application.

But does spray tanning have any negative side effects? Any bodily exposure to chemicals carries some risks, some more concerning than others. In some people, DHA-based spray tanning solutions can produce an allergic reaction, leading to itchy skin or rashes. If you are allergic, look for tanning sprays that are tyrosine-based instead of DHA-based. Spray tans have also been known to result in contact dermatitis, but exfoliating and moisturizing your skin in the days leading up to the spray tan can reduce your chances of dermatitis, which can be treated with an antiseptic balm or eczema cream.

Among the more serious risks is that most tanning sprays do not contain any sunscreen, so they will not protect against UV rays. Either look for a tanning spray that contains an SPF or apply sunscreen after spray tanning in order to minimize the risk of developing skin cancer.

Lastly, the FDA has approved DHA only for external, topical application. Contact with the eye area (which the FDA defines to include the eyebrow, the skin below the eyebrow, the eyelid and eyelashes) or mucous membranes (the lips, nasal passages, mouth, throat, lungs and women's genitals). The FDA recommends wearing protective undergarments, nose filters, lip balm and protective eyewear when getting a spray tan. Ask whether your facility offers protective equipment.

Some spray tan facilities suggest holding your breath or exhaling during the spray tan process, but this is ineffective at keeping the solution out of your mucous membranes. Recent studies have shown that inhaling tanning sprays may damage living cells. This is of particular concern for young girls and pregnant women who regularly spray tan. However, these tests have not been replicated using human cells.

Like any exposure to chemicals, spray tanning is not without risks. Currently, 33 states regulate the use of tanning facilities by minors. But knowledge is your best defense. Once you are aware of the risks, you can decide how best to protect yourself. With a few simple precautions, you can achieve a healthy, glowing tan more safely.

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