(Health Secrets Newsletter) Spray tans, or fake tanning products have often been seen as the “safe” alternative to sun beds or sun bathing for people wanting to achieve a golden tan, but the key ingredient in fake tanning products could actually be more harmful than exposure to UV light.
The main ingredient in spray tans is called DHA, or dihydroxyacetone, which creates a tanned appearance by starting a free-radical generating chemical reaction within the skin, in a similar process to the one that makes the flesh of an apple start to turn brown once it has been cut. A fake tan might give a healthy appearance, but the process certainly is doesn’t seem to be a beneficial one.
Very little is known about the safety of DHA, and there have been no clinical studies into its effects involving human subjects. ABC News recently put together a panel of medical experts in the field of dermatology, toxicology, and pulmonary medicine to review ten of the most up to date laboratory studies into DHA, and their findings were less than positive.
The laboratory studies showed that DHA can potentially cause DNA damage and gene alterations which could promote the development of cancer and other serious conditions. As early as 2004 a laboratory study revealed that DHA interferes with the normal cell cycle in human skin, induces DNA damage and accelerates cell death within 24 hours of application.
Dr. Rey Panettieri, a toxicologist and lung specialist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine was part of the review panel and stated that, “The reason I’m concerned is the deposition of the tanning agents into the lungs could really facilitate or aid systemic absorption — that is, getting into the bloodstream. These compounds in some cells could actually promote the development of cancers or malignancies.”
Isn’t DHA approved by the FDA?
Dihydroxyacetone was approved by the FDA back in 1977 for external use only, meaning that it was approved for application to the skin in lotions and gels. At the time spray tans did not exist and tanning lotions were not especially popular as they caused a patchy orange effect. The big differences today are that people use tanning products a lot more regularly to maintain a constant tan, and that they are sprayed on to achieve a smoother look, meaning that a lot more of the tanning products get inhaled into the lungs and therefore absorbed into the bloodstream.
The FDA guidelines are very clear in saying that dihydroxyacetone should not be inhaled or ingested, and that people should use eye, nose, and mouth protection when receiving spray tans. Dihydroxyacetone has never been FDA approved for use in spray tans as safety data has never been presented to the FDA for evaluation.
Some people claim that DHA has been approved for human consumption and that it is totally safe to drink, but they may well be mistaking dihydroxyacetone for dehydroascorbic acid, another substance that is often called DHA, which is used as a dietary supplement.
Is there such a thing as a healthy tan?
Sun exposure and the tan that it produces is not necessarily harmful. In fact some sun exposure is recommended to produce vitamin D and to reduce the risk of childhood allergies. Sun tanning and even sunburn have recently been found toreduce the risk of many types of fatal cancers, although the risk of skin cancer is heightened. Here are some tips to help you to stay safe in the sun:
- Have only moderate exposure to the sun between 11am and 2pm when it is at its strongest
- Short regular periods of sun exposure are better than infrequent long periods
- Consider supplementing with Vitamins C and E, beta carotene, and especially astaxanthin, which can reduce skin damage
- Work with your natural skin color. If your skin is very fair, build up a tan gradually.