September 05, 2016
For about $40-$50, a professional will spray you down from head to the toe (and every place in-between) resulting in a skin tone that is several shades darker than your natural hue. The fake tan lasts about a week, slowly fading back to a lighter shade.
Spray tanner works, but what causes this swift skin transformation? Is spray tanner a topical dye or stain? A harmful chemical? A paint made from carrot juice? Is spray tanner safe?
The best self-tanners today employ dihydroxyacetone aka DHA as their active ingredient. DHA is a simple carbohydrate, C3H6O3 to be exact, and is usually derived from plant sources such as sugar cane or sugar beats, or from the fermentation of glycerine. DHA is not a dye – rather it causes a chemical reaction with the amino acids on the top, dead layer of your skin. You witness this same chemical reaction (called a “Maillard reaction”) when you brown a piece of bread in the toaster or roast potatoes in the oven to a crispy brown. The effect of DHA lasts for 3-10 days, and spray tanners are also often boosted with erythrulose, another simple carbohydrate that works just like DHA, only slower, so the fake tan lasts a bit longer.
Is it safe to spray DHA and erythrulose on your too-pale body? Yes.
Sunless tanning (also known as UV-free tanning, self tanning, spray tanning (when applied topically), or fake tanning) refers to the application of chemicals to the skin to produce an effect similar in appearance to a suntan. The popularity of sunless tanning has risen since the 1960s after links were made by health authorities between exposure to the sun and other sun tanning methods, such as sunbeds or tanning beds, and the incidence of skin cancer.
The most effective sunless tanning involves the use of lotions and sprays that contain dihydroxyacetone (DHA) as the active ingredient. DHA is not a dye, stain or paint, but causes a chemical reaction with the amino acids in the dead layer on the skin surface. This is similar to the Maillard reaction, a process well known to food chemists that causes the browning that occurs during food manufacturing and storage. It does not involve skin pigmentation nor does it require exposure to ultraviolet light to initiate the color change. The effect is temporary and fades gradually over 3 to 10 days.
These products are available as gels, lotions, mousses, sprays and wipes, some of which also use erythrulose which works identically to DHA, but develops more slowly. Both DHA and erythrulose have been known to cause contact dermatitis.
Professional spraytan applications are available from spas, salons and gymnasiums by both hand-held sprayers and in the form of sunless or UV-Free spray booths. The enclosed booth, which resembles an enclosed shower stall, sprays the tanning solution over the entire body. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states when using DHA-containing products as an all-over spray or mist in a commercial spray “tanning” booth, it may be difficult to avoid exposure in a manner for which DHA is not approved, including the area of the eyes, lips, or mucous membrane, or even internally. DHA is not approved by the FDA for inhalation.
September 2012 also saw a surge in debate within the United Kingdom regarding the inhalation of DHA through spray tanning. While the quantities inhaled would have to be considerably higher than an average consumer or even spray tan technician would be exposed to, press coverage on the issue has resulted in increased consumer diligence with regard to the level of DHA and other ingredients in their spray tanning products, and a move toward more naturally-derived spray tan solutions. An EU Directive published by the Scientific Committee of Consumer Safety to eventually limit DHA content of spray tan products to 14% has also been cited within this discussion.
DHA has been approved for cosmetic use by the FDA. The European Commission has issued an extensive 2010 Opinion on DHA in which they concluded spray tanning was safe for consumers, but recommended DHA content be limited to 14%. Because DHA does not use the skin’s melanocytes to make the skin a tan color, it is recommended as a cosmetic disguising cover for vitiligo patients.