Hallelujah—it’s almost summertime! Once the warmer days kick in, I’ll be baring a little more skin than usual (while wearing some trusty SPF). There’s nothing better than puttering around my farmette in tank tops, shorty shorts and Crocs (I don’t care what fashion people say, I love them). And although I enjoy seeing some color on my cheeks this time of year, I know it can come at a cost—especially since I racked up my share of unprotected skin-baking hours in my earlier days. I’d slather on baby oil when my parents weren’t looking and fry myself like an egg on a griddle.
By now we understand that too much of the sun’s UV radiation can cause skin damage and potentially lead to cancer (read my blog on sun safety here). No bueno. So naturally, as we’ve become more savvy about protecting ourselves from these consequences, self-tanners and spray-on tans have become more popular. All the glow without the sun exposure—sounds like a no brainer, right?
Of course it’s never quite that simple, which is why I did a deep dive on self-tanners for you today. Not that I’m encouraging you to use them (I don’t) but this question has come up a lot, so here we go! We’ve talked in the past about how our skin acts like a sponge and absorbs many of the chemicals in skincare products. These chemicals can be stored in the body over time, and although we don’t know the long term effects of this build up (aka body burden), the things we do know are alarming. Better safe than sorry if you ask me. So how do self-tanners measure up with this in mind?
The Science of Self-Tanners
First, let’s look at the science behind how self-tanners work. Have you ever paused to wonder what could temporarily turn your skin a darker shade? Kinda weird to think about! The active ingredient in most self-tanners and spray-on tans is dihydroxyacetone, also referred to as DHA.
DHA is not a stain or a dye. It’s a sugar that interacts with amino acids and protein particles in the top layer of dead skin cells. This causes a chemical reaction and produces pigment—that “tan” look. The reaction is similar to the way a cut apple will brown when exposed to oxygen in the air. DHA can be manufactured synthetically from sources like glycerin, or it can be derived from natural sources like beet sugar or cane sugar (keep in mind that even though the word “natural” is used here, beet or cane sugar DHA is still DHA).
The Downside of Spray Tans and DHA
So what does the research about DHA safety tell us? It’s important to note that while the Food & Drug Administration allows DHA to be applied externally for skin coloring, it should not be “inhaled, ingested, or exposed to areas covered by mucous membranes including the lips, nose, and areas in and around the eye”. You might think, well duh, I’m not going to eat my self-tanner, but not so fast! Inhalation and ingestion of DHA can be difficult to avoid when you’re dealing with spray-on applications. So for the love of your health, avoid the spray-on tanning booths.
When it comes to applying DHA-containing self-tanner in the forms of cream and lotion, things get a little foggy. Some research shows that DHA does not migrate past the outermost layer of skin, or the “dead skin layer”, while other research shows that DHA can migrate to the living layers of the skin after all, but it’s unclear what happens from there. Even though we don’t have a conclusive answer on this, the following recent research on DHA makes me think twice about exposing my skin to these products (synthetic or natural).
A few years ago, an ABC News investigation reported that DHA has the potential to cause genetic alterations and DNA damage. Concerns were raised by a panel of medical experts, ranging across the fields of dermatology, toxicology, and pulmonary medicine, who reviewed 10 of the most current publicly available scientific studies on DHA, including a federal report ABC News obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. Some of the studies found DHA altered genes of multiple types of cells and organisms. Again, no bueno.
How to Stay Safe While Using Self-Tanning Creams
As with anything, let your common sense be your guide and choose your self-tanner wisely. If you decide to use self-tanner, consider skipping spray tans altogether and limiting your use of creams to special occasions. In addition, use a cleaner formula. Most drugstore and department store varieties contain some pretty nasty ingredients including dyes, harsh synthetics and fragrance in addition to DHA, which can cause reactions, or include known carcinogens and hormone-disrupters. Look for self-tanners that are made with natural and simple botanical ingredients.
For a completely natural, vegan and DHA-free self-tanner, try Haut Cosmetics Caramel Tan. Although I haven’t actually tried this brand, many healthy beauty bloggers I follow recommend it. (Yes, it’s pricey but unfortunately I have not found a more affordable DHA-free option out there—let me know if you have!) The active tanning agent is a natural sugar that berries produce, which has a similar chemical reaction on skin as DHA and creates golden buildable color that doesn’t look orange or streaky.