Can Self Tanner Harm Your Skin?

Women's Health | | Natasha Weiss
4 min read

Ah, that golden summer glow. Those of us hooked on getting a glorious summer tan will stop at nothing to achieve the results we want. Some sun exposure and Vitamin D are vital to our health. Sun exposure can help us get better sleep, maintain stress levels, strengthen our immune system, and maintain bone health. Still, most of us don’t live on the beach year-round and of course, want to care for the health and well-being of our skin.

That sometimes means turning to alternative ways to get your fix like tanning beds or self-tanning products. We’re well aware of the potential dangers of tanning beds, including an increased risk of skin cancer, premature aging, immune suppression, and eye damage. One out of three cases of cancer diagnosed globally is skin cancer. These risks are also present for regular old tanning, but they’re not as high. Self-tanning products, on the other hand, seem as harmless as spreading on some lotion. However as we become more aware of environmental toxins, we’ve come to realize that our products aren’t always as harmless as they might seem. In fact, the average woman is exposed to 168 unique chemicals every day, thanks in large part to self-care products.

Many of these are potential carcinogens or substances that may promote the growth of cancer. Other ones are considered “endocrine disruptors” which can throw off hormone function. So is self-tanner safe to use? If not, are there any healthier alternatives?

The Risks of Self-Tanner

The active ingredient in most self-tanners is called Dihydroxyacetone, or DHA. This is in self-tanning foams, lotions, as well as spray tans. DHA was originally developed to help treat glycogen storage disease, where a researcher noticed that one side effect was dark spotting on the skin. After that, it began to be developed into self-tanning products released in the 60s, with the idea being it’s a safe alternative to UVA and UVB exposure. The sugars in DHA help to give your skin a tan appearance through a process called oxidation. Some studies have found that the use of products containing DHA may cause DNA damage that could potentially increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and cardiovascular disorders. Other studies found that the use of DHA can lead to a thickening of the skin and some inflammatory reactions.

Another potential concern with DHA self-tanning products is that they may increase the risk of sun damage. Free radicals are essentially unstable molecules that are more chemically reactive. They can interact with DNA and proteins in the body and can potentially cause breaks in DNA strands. In other words, the risk of self-tanning products may increase if you go out in the sun the day after using them. Even “all-natural” self-tanners still contain DHA, meaning they might potentially cause damage to the skin. It’s not just using these products topically that can affect your health. For people who get spray tans, inhaling DHA may also be damaging to your mucous membranes.

Another potential concern with self-tanners, like any other product, is a potential allergic reaction. Self-tanner allergies may cause symptoms including:

  • Itching
  • Rash
  • Red or irritated skin
  • Dry skin
  • Contact dermatitis
  • Cough
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting

Other potential reactions can happen if you happen to get any product in your eyes, lips, nose, mouth, or other soft tissues.

Make it Work for You

It should go without saying, but you’re beautiful with or without a tan. Your ability to tan doesn’t make you any less of a person, or any less attractive. That being said, there’s nothing wrong with doing things that make you feel more confident and comfortable with yourself. It can be frustrating to feel like you’re taking care of your health and realize that your habits could be potentially harmful. It’s pretty much impossible to entirely avoid toxins in the modern world.

There is some research to suggest potential dangers in self-tanning, but researchers don’t know the extent of them, or the risks when compared to sun damage. That being said, most experts consider these products harmless and non-toxic, as long as no allergy is present. You’re not going to get it perfect. Some people might need to be more conscious of toxins than others, like if you have an underlying condition or compromised immune system. It’s helpful to take steps in limiting your exposure to certain toxins. That might mean cleaning up your food, cleaning products, and/or beauty products.

Still, some things are worth the risk. Maybe it’s your favorite processed snack. Or the laundry detergent that gets your clothes extra clean. Or for others – that bottle of self-tanner. Life is about balance, so be mindful of what you’re putting on and in your body, without being too hard on yourself.

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