3 Secrets About Your Sunless Tan

Think creams and sprays are safer than beds and beaches? They're not, but you can still benefit from indoor tanning of a different sort.

July 18, 2012

A tan-from-a-can is no better than one from a tanning bed.

Summer is in full swing, and the battle to be bronze is going full force—except it's not enough to have a back-from-the-beach glow that fades after a few weeks anymore. Women—and men—want to retain that golden hue long after their last beach visit, and they're going to great, and sometimes dangerous, lengths to get it.


Nowadays, it's well known that indoor tanning beds increase the risk of melanoma, the most dangerous and deadly form of skin cancer, just as much as too much time spent baking in actual sunlight. The use of tanning beds before the age of 35 increases the risk for melanoma by 75 percent, according to the National Cancer Institute. Public education campaigns, along with local age-related bans on indoor tanning, have helped deter their use to some extent.

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The problem is, the other sunless-tan alternatives aren't much better. The "all-natural" creams and spray tans many people are turning to contain iffy chemicals and put your body at risk for other health issues. "If we had to have one way to summarize our thoughts on tanning, it would be to accept and love your skin tone as it naturally is," Environmental Working Group spokesperson Leeann Brown said. "Any process that modifies the skin's color, whether to darken or lighten, has the possibility of side effects."

Still not ready to give up that sunless tan? Read these secrets, and maybe you'll be more inclined to go really all-natural.

1. Your fake tan could be illegal.

The most popular alternative to tanning beds has become the spray tan, a salon service that essentially sprays a tanning cream over your entire body to give you an even bronze glow. A closer look at the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA's) guidelines, however, shows that their legality is questionable. The agency originally approved the primary ingredient in these products, dihydroxyacetone, or DHA, when over-the-counter lotions and gels were the only self-tanning options, and the FDA guidelines only apply to "external" exposure, which does not include the lips or areas that surround the eyes and eyebrows—or your lungs. Once you step inside those cavelike mystic-tan booths and envelope your entire body in the chemical, your tan is technically not FDA approved because you will have inhaled DHA.

If you have your spray tan applied by a professional, you should be able to avoid those no-tan areas and instruct them not to spray your face. However, most people, including tanning-salon employees, are unaware of the risks associated with DHA (more on that in a bit). "We would like to see more publicly available safety data on DHA and many other chemicals which are commonly used in personal care products," Brown said.

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2. Your fake tan is damaging your DNA.

DHA is a sugar that reacts with your dead skin cells and turns them brown. Sounds harmless enough, right? It might not be. In an investigation by ABC News, a group of scientists reviewed the existing science on DHA and found it has the potential to produce genetic alterations that could potentially lead to cancer or tumors. And it poses a particular risk when used in spray-tan products that could be inhaled.

"The reason I'm concerned is the deposition of the tanning agents into the lungs could really facilitate or aid in systemic absorption—that is, getting into the bloodstream," Rey Panettieri, MD, toxicologist and lung specialist at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine said in an interview with ABC News.

Keep in mind that spray tans last approximately a week, 10 days at the most. Is painting yourself a few shades darker really worth messing with your DNA?

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3. You could be getting a safer tan from eating vegetables.

Why risk DNA damage or other inhalable toxins from a spray tan or a cream when you could get the same healthy glow at your farmer's market? In a study published in the journal Evolution and Human Behaviour, researchers found that a diet rich in carrots and tomatoes could produce a brighter skin glow than repeated UV exposure. Both get their color from carotenoids, which are the antioxidants that soak up compounds produced by stress, and they pass that color along to you when you eat them. So if you're looking for a healthy, natural skin tone, ditch the tanning beds, sprays, and stifling heat, and head to the fridge.  "Sunless tanners are unnecessary like most cosmetics and appearance-changing products," Brown says. Up your veggie intake—your skin (and pocketbook) will likely thank you.