Are self-tanning products harmful to our health?

Q&A with Dr. Manny: I know tanning is bad for me, but I really want some color before the summer arrives. Are self-tanners safe to use?


After a long and brutal winter, many Americans are probably craving a little sun-kissed glow before summer arrives.

But with numerous studies showing exposure to UV radiation—whether from the sun or tanning beds—increases a person’s risk of developing skin cancer, how can we safely achieve a gorgeous golden hue?

We got this question from a viewer...

Dear Dr. Manny,
I'm in desperate need of some color before I even think about heading to the beach. I know tanning booths are horrible for you, but what about self-tanners, are they safe to use?
Thank you,

The active ingredient in most self-tanners is dihydroxyacetone ---or DHA.

DHA is a color additive that binds to proteins in the top layer of the skin and causes it to darken.

Although there is no concrete evidence indicating that DHA is harmful, some reports have found that it may have the potential to cause genetic alterations and DNA damage.

“Studies show that if you apply very high concentrations of DHA to the skin, it can result in free radical formation-- free radicals are highly reactive oxygen species that are capable of damaging structures within the cell, including DNA,” Dr. Whitney Bowe, a dermatologist at the SUNY Downstate College of Medicine in Brooklyn and a member of the American Academy of Dermatology, told “Now, while that sounds scary, the actual levels of DHA in over-the-counter self-tanning products are very low, so the products are really considered safe, non-toxic, and not carcinogenic.”

However, while DHA has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in self-tanning lotions, it hasn’t been approved for use in tanning sprays.

According to experts, DHA should not be inhaled, ingested or used on the lips or any surface covered by mucous membrane. And when you use an all-over spray tan, it can be difficult to prevent small droplets or excess mist of DHA from making contact with your eyes, nose and mouth.

Since the FDA has not yet investigated the safety of spray tans, they have not approved the use of DHA in all-over spray tans-- whether they are at-home self-tanning sprays or sunless spray “tanning” booths at a salon.

“Because we don't yet know whether this [spray tanning] is safe, I advise all my patients to close their eyes, hold their breath, and wear Vaseline to protect their lips when getting a spray tan,” Bowe said.

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