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home : columns : dr. k April 30, 2016

6/21/2013 9:10:00 AM
Dr. K for June 21, 2013
Self-tanning products are safe for short-term use

DEAR DOCTOR K: I like to look tanned, but I'm fair-skinned and can't spend too much time in the sun. Are sunless tanning lotions and sprays safe?

DEAR READER: Looking tanned is attractive, probably because it is equated with health. If you're tanned, you're the "picture of health." There are basically just three ways your skin can be tanned: (1) exposure to sunlight, (2) exposure to artificial tanning lamps, and (3) staining your skin with a sunless tanning lotion.

But no one should spend too much time soaking up the sun's rays. Exposing your skin to the sun's harmful ultraviolet (UV) light increases your risk for skin cancer and accelerates skin aging.

Sunless tanning sprays and lotions can make your skin look tanned without exposing it to harmful UV rays. For short-term use at least, sunless tanning products are a good alternative to tanning outdoors or using an indoor tanning bed.

You can buy self-tanning products over the counter and apply them yourself, or you can go to a salon that offers spray-on or airbrush tans. The active ingredient in all of these products is dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a color additive often derived from plant sources. It's FDA-approved for tanning purposes.

The coloring process affects only the surface layers of your skin. So your "tan" lasts only as long as those layers stay on your body -- five to seven days. After they slough off, you'll need a reapplication.

Self-tanning is generally considered safe, although there have been few safety studies. Allergic reactions are rare, but the long-term effects remain largely unknown. I would say that more research is needed before DHA can be declared safe for long-term use.

Even if you're sporting a faux glow, it's important to practice proper sun protection. You still need to use plenty of sunscreen or sunblock when you're out in the sun. Choose sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15.

I advise against using tanning beds at a salon, spa or gym. These tanners emit the same ultraviolet waves as the sun, the waves that cause skin cancers and skin aging. Worse, the self-tanning industry is largely unregulated. No one has measured and reported the amount of ultraviolet radiation generated by the machines -- and no one will close down the machine if it is generating excessive amounts of radiation.

During a spray-on tanning session, make sure your eyes, lips, ears, nose and mucous membranes are covered. Hold your breath to avoid inhaling the product while it's being applied.

Some self-tanning products are sold as pills containing a color additive. These pills are not safe when taken in the amount recommended for tanning. Stick with the stuff you spray or rub onto your skin.

(Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. To send questions, go to, or write: Ask Doctor K, 10 Shattuck St., Second Floor, Boston, MA 02115.)

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