How Safe is a Fake Tan?

fake tan

Many people believe that faking a tan with a product in a spray can is safer than prolonged sun exposure. But what about the chemicals in fake tan products? Are they really harmless to your health?

With summer just around the corner, I recently saw a natural self-tanning gel advertised online. I became curious as to what kinds of chemicals are involved in darkening the skin's colour. I scanned the ingredients of the self-tanning gel and identified the culprit - dihydroxyacetone (DHA). (Not to be confused with the DHA found in fish oil, which is a different thing.)

Researching DHA led me down a rabbit hole of information, where I was reminded that just because a cosmetic ingredient is approved for use in products, that doesn't necessarily mean it has been thoroughly researched. In many cases, not all of the indicated risks are properly investigated before an ingredient is pushed out to the market.

I was also reminded of the head-in-the-sand attitude of the cosmetic industry when it comes to possible dangers or side effects of the products they sell. They love to say they "haven't seen any evidence to suggest [an ingredient] is hazardous to human health".

That's all well and good, but it's easy not to see things when you aren't looking for them.

What is dihydroxyacetone?

According to the FDA's website:

"Sunless tanning delivers a faux glow by coating your skin with the chemical dihydroxyacetone (DHA). DHA interacts with the dead surface cells in the epidermis to darken skin color and simulate a tan, and the result usually lasts for several days.

While the FDA allows DHA to be "externally applied" for skin coloring, there are restrictions on its use. DHA should not be inhaled, ingested, or exposed to areas covered by mucous membranes including the lips, nose, and areas in and around the eye (from the top of the cheek to above the eyebrow) because the risks, if any, are unknown."

I bolded a couple points in the above excerpt that I want to bring to your attention.

The first point regarding inhalation and exposure is important to note, especially if you use spray-on products or go to a salon for a spray tan.

I used to work in a salon that offered spray tans. We were trained to spray the client's whole face. There was no protecting of their eyes, lips or nose (or our own) while we performed these spray tans in a small enclosed space.

This was back in 2008 when spray tans were becoming extremely popular here in Australia. I bring this up to point out that just because "everybody's doing it" or the spray tan company rep tells you how natural and safe their product is, it doesn't mean you're getting the whole story.

This brings me to the second point I highlighted, that "the risks, if any, are unknown". In my opinion that statement is a bit misleading.

What are the risks?

According to this article on the US ABC News website which examines evidence from several studies, scientists are concerned about DHA's potential for DNA damage which could lead to cancer, if inhaled and absorbed into the bloodstream through the lungs.

Some scientists are also concerned that DHA does not only interact with the dead skin cells on the surface, but has been known to penetrate into the living tissue beneath. This raises the question of how much DHA are we actually absorbing through our skin when applying fake tan - especially those of us who use it on regular basis? The answer to that question is unclear.

To tan or not to tan?

In light of the evidence around the DNA-damaging potential of fake tan products, it seems a lot more research is needed before we can definitively say that these products are as harmless as they're marketed to be.

I don't buy into every cancer-scare floating around, but when it comes to something like fake tan (which is unnecessary, yet so widely and liberally used), it can be worth a second look.

The cosmetics industry ruthlessly and very cleverly markets products to us, the consumers, and the harsh reality is that our health and wellbeing will never come before their bottom line. It is up to us to make our own informed decisions.

I choose to err on the side of caution when selecting ingredients for Mojo Botanicals products. If there are too many potential risks or unknowns associated with an ingredient (like there is with DHA) it goes straight in the "nope" basket. Why risk it for vanity? If I wouldn't use it myself, I won't sell it to someone else.

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