Are Spray Tans Safe?

Photo of the author, Celeste Yarnall for the cover of London Look Magazine, in 1967 featuring original Elizabethan clothing!

By Celeste Yarnall, Ph.D

There are several newsletters that I read everyday and one of my favorites that I enjoy receiving ia, Jon Barron’s baseline of health newsletter. One of his staff writers shared this interesting commentary recently entitled, “Spray Tan Dangers” by Beth Levine. This started me thinking about what we have become accustomed to thinking looks good today, especially in the summertime.

I have the type of skin that just doesn’t tan, I burn, freckle and peel and so long ago I gave up the idea of tanning. But I never dreamed in a million years, that a spray tan might have its drawbacks as well! Trying to fit in on vacation and not be this white skinned blob in a bathing suit I have had many a spray tan! OK, they chill you when they are sprayed on, and leave you with a very odd smell on your skin whilst drying, and I didn’t think much more about it. But is there more to spray tanning than meets the eye? Why do we want to look tan, anyway? Some folks think they look thinner, healthier and just plain look better in their summer clothes! But this has not always been the case historically.

<strong>Could this be the time we start rethinking our definition of beauty and that tanned look in general? </strong>

Ms. Levine offered in this edition of the newsletter, that no one “looks at a 50-year-old with wrinkled, leathery skin and believes that’s attractive.” Then shouldn’t we all ask ourselves why we think that tanned skin looks better than pale skin or our natural color of skin, at any age? What ever happened to that peaches and cream complexion of days gone by or the notion of just being happy all year long with what ever your skin color is and rejoice in the way nature and your genetics created the unique ‘you’ that you are?

We certainly know that tanning is not required to get our daily dose of vitamin D. It is far safer to just go out in the sun without sunscreen in the early morning and late afternoon instead for for a short sun bath of about 10 minutes with as little on in the way of clothing as possible.

How about just taking a moment to turn back the clock to the Elizabethan ideals of unblemished, fair or your natural skin color as the goal to strive for. We won’t have to use the lead white makeup that was popular with the Greeks, Romans, and Elizabethans back in the day to achieve that fair-skinned look. We can just nourish our skin and keep it healthy from the inside out with healthy food and whole food supplementation such as Omega-3’s, antioxidants and a healthy daily dose of Vitamin D-3.
We know the risk of skin cancer increases when we sunbathe. And even though I have tried these too, tanning beds are an even worse choice, despite what tanning centers advertise and some doctors who sell them advocate, since the tanner’s close proximity to the UVA/UVB light source increases the rate of damage.

OK, isn’t it a good thing that there are natural-looking options such as spray tanning to give us a safer alternative when we want to have that just been on vacation in the tropics look? Could there be some dangers to spray tanning? According to Jon Barron’s newsletter, “Research that reveals new tanning facts now show that spray tanning may be just as dangerous as every other form of tanning, but for different reasons.

Ms. Levine cited an ABC News report which compiled 10 of the most recent studies conducted on the chemicals used in tanning sprays which asked a panel of medical specialists in fields such as dermatology, pulmonary medicine, and toxicology to provide an analysis of some spray tan products. And the news was not good for those of us who like to use spray-on tanning products. The problems come from the active ingredient in tanning products, which is a chemical called dihydroxyacetone ( also known as DHA — BUT PLEASE DO NOT CONFUSE THIS WITH docosahexaenoic acid, the beneficial DHA essential fatty acid found in MARINE LIPIDS, such fish, krill, cod liver oil or my favorite, MOXXOR, which comes from the 100% sustainable, cold extracted/organic New Zealand greenlip mussel, grapeseed husk extract and kiwifruit seed oil. I find the Omega 3-s and antioxidants in this product really helps my skin be healthy from the inside out.

Several studies, show that this dihydroxyacetone chemical in the spray tan solutions was shown to affect the genes within the animals tested (I know, I don’t like animal testing either but I am only reporting the facts that were covered here) once it was absorbed through the skin or breathed into the lungs and internalized. Dihydroxyacetone received FDA approval in 1977, back in the days when it was used primarily for tanning lotions. It was not believed to be absorbed below the outer layers of skin, so it was thought to pose no danger. Plus, tanning lotions were never a very popular item, as they tended to turn the skin a blotchy and ugly shade of yellow or orange. Now formulations have been improved to provide more of the golden hues of colors to the skin, most of us are seeking. They further include the updated spray method of application that offers an even coverage and allows the technician to even use their own artistic skills in order to create a sculpted look to the body, especially to enhance breast cleavage or the look of a 6 pack on the abdomen. Now we see the use of this chemical is much more widespread as tanning salons all seem to offer the spray tan. Unfortunately, it is known that dihydroxyacetone can be absorbed beyond the outermost layers of skin, and the fact that it has been aerosolized ups the danger of spray tanning exponentially not to forget what it might do when we breathe it in during the spraying procedure. Because the product is being sprayed onto your body, you are of course breathing it in unless you wear a mask or up your face and eyes during the process. Once the dihydroxyacetone is in your lungs, it is easily distributed throughout the body via the bloodstream. According to Ms. Levine, this allows this potentially carcinogenic,(cancer-causing) agent access to billions of cells throughout your body.

Ms. Levine further reports that, ‘In various experiments at different university-based laboratories, dihydroxyacetone has been tested on a multitude of bacteria and the skin cells of mice. The chemical caused mutations within the DNA of the cells, which can lead to cancer. In fact, an FDA report from 1999 found that, even when not inhaled, dihydroxyacetone was reaching deeper skin levels and being absorbed into the body. Yes I know the argument well, mice are not people but I think this should give us all pause before we sign up for our next series of spray tans!

Before and after sun damage!

Many of us have friends or perhaps you do this too who frequent these spray tanning professionals because they are interested in looking tan all the time, all year round. Pregnant women also frequent spray tanning salons, which has to be not good for their fetus if we are to believe these reports!

We’ve all seen mothers who have their children spray tanned as well, offers Ms Levine, before an event or vacation and or just to do as Mom does. All of these options present an even higher risk of doing serious damage at a cellular level at what ever age you happen to be, and don’t forget some people may actually think that because they now look tan that they can’t get a sun burn so out they go unprotected and get seriously sun burned in the process. Many customers of spray tan salons are even told that certain sun tan lotions and creams will remove their tan and so go out in the sun and use absolutely no sun protection before or a defense afterwards.

I find it troubling as did Ms. Levine, that no long-term studies have been undertaken to examine the health effects of regular use of dihydroxyacetone-based tanning products on people and kids. It might be a good idea to take into account that there is enough evidence to cause concern from nonhuman research.
Perhaps it doesn’t cause much damage to get a spray tan or two a couple of times a year for special occasions, but it might be advisable to wear a little paper mask over your nose and mouth during the process and cover your face and head. We can always wear a little bronze blush on our faces and necks to get a bit of color. You can also ask your spray tan salon for some protection or even bring your own, such as eyewear, nose plugs, and a mouth covering, like a little mask that painters wear, to ensure that you are not giving the chemical a direct entryway into your mucus membranes and lungs.

But what can we do if we give up spray tans but have spent time at the beach, pool, or backyard lounge chair trying to get a tan. I know I had my share of nasty sunburns during my lifetime. And I also tried using tanning beds before they were known to be harmful. Ms. Levine recommends that to combat some of the free radical damage already inflicted, you might want to consider a good antioxidant supplement to combat the oxidative stress that all of these factors have done to us all, and I totally agree with that advice. You can do your own research on line or at your health food stores supplement department and see what you’d like to try. My choice is an antioxidant supplement called Protandim which I learned about from watching this very interesting ABC news presentation. You can get more information on this patented all herbal formulation and see if it resonates with you as it does for me at this website: It’s just one caplet per day, but always check with your own health practitioners before trying any new products.

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