Can Your Spray Tan Cause Cancer?

Getting that sunkissed look without the dangers of sun exposure is appealing. Many people know that tanning beds can be dangerous, but what about spray tans? What's really in the spray tans, and are the chemicals dangerous?

Read on to find out more about what is known about the safety of spray tans and whether they're as safe as some people might think they are.

A woman getting a spray tan
Jutta Klee / Getty Images

The Safety of Spray Tans

From the standpoint of your exposure to ultraviolet rays (UV rays), spray tans are safe. It's the exposure to UV rays from the sun or a tanning booth that can increase your risk of developing skin cancer, and spray tans involve no exposure to UVA or UVB rays.

However, questions that you may want answered include: What chemicals are applied to the skin? What reactions take place to change the appearance of our skin? What is the safety of these chemicals? Can these chemicals be absorbed through the skin and into the body? And how harmful is the mist?

How Spray Tans Work

The active ingredient in spray tans is dihydroxyacetone, or DHA. DHA is a glycerin derivative. When DHA is applied to the skin, it reacts to and binds with the amino acids in the dead skin cells on the outermost layer of the skin, giving the illusion of a tan that gradually fades over time.

The reaction that takes place is referred to as the "Maillard reaction" and produces pigments called melanoidin. This is similar to the natural pigment melanin produced in your skin after exposure to the sun. Once the spray tan is applied to the skin, the process of acquiring a faux tan takes around two to four hours and may continue for 24 to 72 hours.

Our skin continuously sheds dead skin cells, so spray tans usually last only one to two weeks. To maintain a tan, most people must visit a salon every few weeks (or reapply at home).

The Risks of Dihydroxyacetone (DHA)

Because sunless tanning is a relatively new thing, especially in spray form, there is very little research about its effects, specifically concerning DHA.

Some concerns have been raised about both the absorption of DHA through the skin and the risk that DHA can be inhaled or absorbed through mucous membranes.

It's important to note that DHA in spray tans is completely different from another compound called DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). This DHA is a type of omega-3 fatty acid. Confusion between these two compounds has led to false advertising about spray tans in the past.

Initially, it was thought that DHA was not absorbed through the skin to any significant degree (staying only in the outer layer of dead skin cells). However, it's now believed that roughly 11% of the application is absorbed into the live cells deeper in the epidermis, as well as the dermis, the layer of skin below the epidermis. Still, the harm from this is not yet known.

In one study, DHA was found to cause DNA damage, as well as cell stress and death. Since DNA damage can lead to cancer, there is concern about the health implications of these findings.

Of concern as well is that DHA was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for external use only. This means that it is not approved to be inhaled (as can occur with the mist) or to be applied to mucous membranes, such as the lips, the nose, and the area around the eyes.

For this reason, all-over sprays that are used in tanning salons are not FDA approved since it is difficult to avoid exposure to areas such as the lips, nose, and respiratory tract.

Repeat Exposure

Some physicians and researchers have expressed concern that repeated exposure to spray tans may cause health problems due to inhalation of DHA. Specific concerns have included the risk of asthmaCOPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a group of conditions causing airflow blockage and other breathing problems), and lung cancer.

Other Ingredients in Spray Tans

Ingredients in spray tans in addition to DHA may also have the potential to cause problems for some people. Some sprays contain fragrances that can affect people with multiple chemical sensitivity syndromes.

Parabens are another ingredient present in some sprays. It is used as a preservative and can cause skin rashes (allergic contact dermatitis) in some people. Also, since parabens can act like the hormone estrogen in the body, some researchers have expressed concern. The research that's available does not show that parabens raise the risk of breast cancer, though.

Side Effects of DHA Use

Side effects that have been reported include dizziness, coughing, and fainting. The reaction in the skin may also cause an odor that is unpleasant to some people.

Other potential side effects of DHA use are:

  • Free radical damage to cells that may speed up signs of aging on the skin
  • Oxidative stress and damage to cells, which has been associated with disorders like Alzheimer's disease, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes
  • Possible increased risk of pulmonary diseases (lung diseases) because of inhalation of the chemicals
  • Rashes, cough, dizziness, and fainting, which have all been documented with spray tans containing DHA

Sunburns and Vitamin D

Spray tans offer no protection against UV rays from sun exposure. In fact, there are reports that people who use sunless tanning products may be more likely to experience sunburns.

If you get a spray tan, it's important to apply sunscreen before spending time in the sun.

Spray tans also may reduce the amount of vitamin D absorbed by the skin, and vitamin D is important for your health in many ways.

Protective Items for Spray Tanning

Protective items for spray tanning include:

  • Eye protection (eye covers)
  • Nose plugs
  • Lip balm
  • Undergarments to cover mucous membranes in the pubic area

Summary

Although spray tans seem like a healthy alternative to tanning out in the sun, they're still not 100 % risk-free. There are chemicals in the spray tans that can cause reactions in people. Additionally, the main chemical, DHA, has not been studied extensively. The studies that have been done on DHA show that it can damage cell DNA, which can lead to cancer.

A Word From Verywell

The concern over the safety of spray tans illustrates something every consumer should know: Just because a product is available, does not mean it is completely safe. It may be safe when used as directed (on the skin) but dangerous when additional factors are considered (such as ingestion or inhalation). Regarding spray tans, more research is needed.

Advocate for your health. You don't need to fear everything as a possible cause of cancer, but compare the risks and benefits of what you put on or in your body.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can spray tans cause cancer?

    Spray tans contain DHA, which has been shown to cause cell damage and damage to cell DNA. This can then lead to cancer. More research needs to be done to further explore this association, but there is concern.

  • Can you spray tan when you are pregnant?

    Given that the effects of inhaling DHA while pregnant are not yet known, it is best to err on the side of caution and avoid getting a spray tan when pregnant. There are chemicals in the spray tan that you inadvertently inhale, and the fewer chemicals you're around when you're pregnant, the better.

  • Does DHA age your skin?

    DHA does cause damage to cells, including oxidative stress. This may lead to skin damage and aging, like sagging, hyperpigmentation, or lines.

Originally written by Lisa Fayed
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6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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