The quest for a "safe" tan is not a new one. Ever since the link between skin cancer and sun over-exposure was established, not to mention the aging effects, those of us seeking the brown without the burn have often turned to self tanners. Since the 1970s, from the ever so orange hue of Coppertone’s QT to today’s very sophisticated salon procured spray tan, we've been getting our glow on sans sunlight with the help of a chemical called Dihydroxyacetone, or DHA for short (not to be confused with Docosahexaenoic Acid, a beneficial Omega-3 fatty acid found in cold water fish like salmon).
Long touted as "safe," Dihydroxyacetone is a ketone that reacts with the amino acids on the surface of your skin, specifically the stratum corneum of the epidermis, to create a tan-like effect. But does it go more than skin deep? Interestingly enough, the Skin Deep database, a great resource for cosmetic ingredient safety, has very little data on it, but recent reports are calling the safety of DHA into question, especially when used in spray tans.
Apparently, the questionable safety of DHA isn't new news; it’s just information that has not been widely disseminated. According to a panel of medical experts who reviewed ten of the most current, publicly available studies on DHA for an ABC News Special Report, DHA has the potential to cause genetic alterations and DNA damage and is often contaminated with lead, mercury and arsenic. Clearly, this is reason for concern, especially when you consider that DHA is not only being applied to the skin, but also inhaled and likely absorbed through the eyes by those receiving and applying spray tans, a use not considered by the FDA when it was approved for use as a self-tanning ingredient. With a spray tan, the product is applied in a continuous, fine mist, either manually or via an automated machine that sprays a mist up and down the body through multiple outlets as your turn within a stall to cover all surface areas. Unlike applying a lotion or gel to the skin, this fine mist can be inhaled through the nose and mouth, and ingested from residue left on the lips and, when eye coverings are not used, absorbed through the eyes as well.
"These compounds, in some cells, could actually promote the development of cancers or malignancies," Dr. Rey Panettieri, a toxicologist and lung specialist at the University of Pennsylvania, told ABC news. "And if that's the case then we need to be wary of them." The ABC Report is lengthy and detailed, but informative and recommended reading.
So, is it still safe to use self tanners in non-spray form? While initially it was thought that DHA did not penetrate beyond the outer layers of the skin, there is concern that in fact it does. According to the ABC News Report, small amounts of DHA from any application, lotions and gels included, may penetrate beyond the surface of the skin into the blood stream. People who smooth on the occasional self tanner for a special event are less likely to be at risk than those getting regular spray tans, or even those applying 20 spray tans a day to customers. Nonetheless, do I really need to add one more chemical exposure to the list of toxins I’m exposed to every day, especially one I can avoid? While I always feel better in shorts or a swimsuit with tan legs, I think I may have to forgo self tanners until the evidence is a little clearer.
The Skin Cancer Foundation maintains its position that self tanning is still safer than sun tanning given the risk of developing skin cancer. So how do we get that healthy summer glow? Ironically, even though it’s a widely held public opinion that a tan makes us look healthy, in fact, it’s the opposite. Some sun exposure to synthesize vitamin D is good for you, but a tan, per se, is not. It's actually a response to injury, signalling skin cells that have been damaged by UV exposure to produce more pigment. Perhaps it’s time we re-think some of our beauty norms and beliefs about what’s healthy and beautiful. Will you continue to self tan, go the natural route and soak up some rays or embrace your natural-born hue? Whichever option you choose, keep in mind that a healthy life is the most beautiful option.
Image: Pink Sherbet Photography