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What Is A Spray Tan, Exactly?

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All over film, television and certainly on the streets of Los Angeles is the fake bake, the alien-esque orange glow of the spray tan. Touted as the safer alternative to baking in the sunshine for 10 hours a day (which it certainly is), spray tanning is getting more popular by the day.

For about $50, a professional with an air gun will spray you down from the tip-top to the toes and every place in-between, resulting in a skin tone that is several shades darker than your natural hue. The fake tan lasts about a week, slowly fading back to a lighter shade. Alternatively, you can buy a bottle of “air brush” sunless tanning spray and do it yourself – although achieving an even application of the product onto places that you can’t even scratch may be a stretch, to say the least.

Spray tanner works, but what causes this swift skin transformation? Is spray tanner a topical dye or stain? A harmful chemical? A paint made from carrot juice? Is spray tanner safe?

The best self-tanners today employ dihydroxyacetone aka DHA as their active ingredient. DHA is a simple carbohydrate, C3H6O3 to be exact, and is usually derived from plant sources such as sugar cane or sugar beats, or from the fermentation of glycerine. DHA is not a dye – rather it causes a chemical reaction with the amino acids on the top, dead layer of your skin. You witness this same chemical reaction (called a “Maillard reaction”) when you brown a piece of bread in the toaster or roast potatoes in the oven to a crispy brown. The effect of DHA lasts for 3-10 days, and spray tanners are also often boosted with erythrulose, another simple carbohydrate that works just like DHA, only slower, so the fake tan lasts a bit longer.

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From the Organic Authority Files

Is it safe to spray DHA and erythrulose on your too-pale body? Yes.

Is it safe to spray DHA and erythrulose where you might inhale it? Not really.

DHA is approved by the FDA for cosmetic use and is considered nontoxic and noncarcinogenic. DHA has not been approved for inhalation, however, and you might find it difficult not to inhale the fine mist as it coats your body – including your face. To err on the safe side, forgo the spray tan completely until the FDA approves that DHA is indeed safe to inhale. If you are set on darker skin this summer, spray tanning is a safer alternative to sunbathing – and there are ways to reduce your risk of inhaling DHA.

  • People with sensitive skin may react with a case of contact dermatitis from self-tanner; if this describes you, please test out a small patch of skin before doing the full frontal.
  • Don’t go to the “automatic” spray tanner booths where streams of self-tanner shoot towards you in a shower booth. Instead, see a spray tan professional who will use an air gun to keep the spray far away from your eyes, mouth and nose for the majority of the tanning session.
  • Make your reservation at a place that specializes in spray tans. The cheaper, shoddier shops are more likely to use bottom-shelf spray tanners that contain cheap fragrances, less effective tanners like tyrosine or canthaxanthin, or even parabens. When in doubt, ask what kind of self-tanner the shop uses, and do your own research.
  • During your tan, wear lip balm, earplugs and nose plugs. When the air brusher reaches your face, she will tell you to hold your breath – do so for as long as you can with your lips pressed together and your eyes tightly closed. Or, you can ask her to skip your head entirely, and just use bronzer to match your face to the rest of your body for the next week. Some people advise wearing goggles during your spray session; however having “goggle-lines” is probably not your idea of a sexy tan.
  • For the first 24 hours after your spray tan, your skin is extremely susceptible to free-radical damage from sunlight, so stay indoors or slather on the SPF.

The alternative to all this hassle is to learn to love your body like it is, not how consumer culture has convinced you that it needs to be. Beauty comes in all shapes, sizes and skin tones, and learning to be comfortable in your own skin, whatever shade it may be, is a beauty secret that will give you more mojo than any fake bake ever could.

image: Rafael Cavalcante

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