Do Spray Tans Cause Cancer?

Risks and Safety of Spray Tans and DHA

Getting a spray tan, could it cause cancer?

Jaimie Trueblood/Contributor

If you're nervous about going out in the sun but want the look of a tan, is there a safe way to get that bronzed glow? The spray tans available at some tanning salons are one option, but what do we know about the risks and safety? Since spray tans involve applying chemicals to your skin and (and the air you breathe), could they cause cancer?

Sun Safety and the Search for a Safe Tan

With sun safety becoming an increasingly more prevalent issue, it seems like tanning salons should be avoided at all costs. While many people look better with a healthy glow, the tanning beds that provide them can be dangerous or even deadly. That's why many people are considering the option of spray tans now available at these salons.

If you're wondering about the safety of spray tans, you're not alone. Not only does the public now associate tanning salons with skin cancer, but it seems we are hearing how just about anything causes cancer! Let's take a look at what we know about the safety of spray tans, either the type you may have at a salon or the do-it-yourself versions for home use.

The Safety of Spray Tans

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

That said, we need to look at how spray tans cause that healthy glow. What chemicals are applied to the skin, what reactions take place to change the appearance of our skin, and what is the safety of these chemicals? Can these chemicals be absorbed through the skin into the body? And what about the mist?

The availability of patches (medications applied in a patch to the skin) to treat everything from pain, to menopausal symptoms, to nicotine withdrawal, is clear evidence that our skin is not an impermeable barrier to substances that touch it. 

The active ingredient in spray tans is dihydroxyacetone or DHA. DHA is a glycerin derivative. When DHA is applied to the skin, it reacts 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 melanoidins (which are similar to the natural pigment melanin produced in our skin after exposure to the sun). Once applied to the skin, the process of acquiring a faux tan takes around 2 to 4 hours, and may continue for 24 to 72 hours.

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

Advocates of spray tans claim that a spray tan is a great way to get a glow before a wedding, prom, or other special occasions. But what are the potential risks? To learn this we have to look at the safety and risks of DHA and other ingredients that may be present.

The Risks of Dihydroxyacetone (DHA)

Research on sunless tanning options such as spray tans is in its infancy, and some caution is in order. Because sunless tanning is a relatively new thing, especially in spray form, there is very little research about its effects, specifically with DHA. Some concerns have been raised with regard to 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 than another DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) a type of omega-3 fatty acid. Confusion between these two compounds has led to false advertising about spray tans in the past).

It was thought that DHA was not absorbed through the skin to any significant degree (that it stayed only in the outer layer of dead skin cells), but now it's believed that roughly 11 percent of the application is absorbed into the live cells deeper in the epidermis as well as the dermis. That said, we do not know exactly what effect this may have. In one study, DHA was found to be "mutagenic" to some bacteria as well as mouse cells. The term mutagenic means that it is capable of damaging DNA (causing mutations). Since it is this DNA damage that can lead to cancer, as well as birth defects, there is concern, though studies on humans or human cells have not been done.

Of concern as well is that DHA is approved by the FDA for external use only. This means that it is not approved to be inhaled (as occurs with a 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 as provided in tanning salons have not been FDA approved (because it is difficult to avoid exposure to areas for which it is not approved).

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, and lung cancer. While most people think of smoking when they hear "lung cancer" the majority of people who develop lung cancer at the current time are nonsmokers (former or never smokers). And unlike the decline we have been celebrating in lung cancer overall, the incidence of lung cancer in young adults is increasing, especially that of lung cancer in young, never-smoking, women. We don't know the reasons. At this time, this is only speculation based on the studies of DHA on the cells of other animals, and further studies will need to be done.

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 of these sprays contain fragrances which can affect people with multiple chemical sensitivity syndromes. Parabens are another ingredient present in some sprays (used as a preservative) that can cause skin rashes (allergic contact dermatitis) in some people. Since parabens have weak estrogen-like activity, some researchers have expressed concern, however, we don't have any solid studies showing that parabens raise the risk of breast cancer.

Side Effects and Poor Results With Spray Tans

Spray tans tend to work best for people who have even skin coloring and little skin damage. Older people and those with mottled skin, freckled skin, and certain skin disorders may experience uneven results. Those who exercise should also be aware that heavy sweating can result in an uneven tan and a tan that doesn't last as long. Spray tans may also discolor nails and hair.

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

Spray Tans, Sunburns, and Vitamin D

Unlike a tan from the sun, spray tans offer no protection against sun exposure. In fact, there are reports that people who use sunless tanning products may be more likely to experience sunburns. If you have a spray tan it's important to make sure you apply sunscreen before spending time in the sun. It's also thought that spray tans may reduce the amount of vitamin D absorbed by the skin, and vitamin D is important for your health in many ways.

The Risks of DHA for Salon Employees

An issue which needs further evaluation is not only the safety of spray tans for the people who wish to have a "tan" but the possible effects on the technicians who apply them. Considering that technicians may administer multiple spray tans a day, any effects, especially from inhalation, could be compounded.

Safety During Your Spray Tan Session

Since spray tans are not approved for the application to mucous membranes, these areas should be protected during application. Recommendations include:

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

Salons vary widely in the likelihood they will offer these protections, so anybody who chooses a spray tan should make sure they are protected.

During Your Spray Tan Session

If you choose to visit a quality salon for a spray tan, you will be able to walk out with a "tan" after a single session (in contrast to tanning booths where several sessions are often needed). Prior to your session, a spray tan technician will do a quick consultation with you. They will assess your skin tone in order to achieve the most natural-looking tan. They will also ask you about any allergies you might have. DHA is the active ingredient in a spray tan. Spray tans also often include aloe vera, latex, fruit and nut extracts and other potential allergens. A good salon should offer you eye protection, nose plugs, and lip balm, and educate you on the importance of using these.

After Your Spray Tan Session

Once you've been spray-tanned you can't shower for at least 8 hours. The first shower after receiving a spray tan should be a rinse. Keep water lukewarm and do not use any shampoo or body wash in order to keep the pigment sealed in.

Shower water will appear brown, but this is not a cause for alarm. It's just the cosmetic bronzer washing off. Once the water runs clear, pat dry and apply a moisturizer immediately. A spray tan can last up to 10 days. The more diligently you apply moisturizer, the longer the tan will last and the more evenly it will fade. Don't use any products that exfoliate the skin such as scrubs, loofahs, washcloths, or toners.

The face is the first place where a spray tan starts to fade. Wash your face with a gentle cleanser and a light moisturizer. Products that contain naturally-derived ingredients are almost always best. Shower water should be a lukewarm temperature for the duration of the tan.

Bottom Line on the Safety of Spray Tans

Many people associate the healthy glow of a tan with health and vitality. Yet research over the last few decades has shown that the healthy glow we get from the sun can lead to wrinkling and even cancer later on. Since many people equate a bronze glow with good health, the search for alternative tans is big business.

At the current time, we aren't certain as to the safety of spray tans. Small studies on bacteria and animals cells have found that DHA, the active ingredient in these sprays may cause DNA damage. At the same time, we are learning that some of the application is absorbed into the deeper tissues of the skin. Spray tans are not currently FDA approved, as DHA is not approved for inhalation (and spray tans are a mist) and DHA is not approved for application to mucous membranes, such as the lips, nose, and tissues around the eyes. Risks, if present, are of greater concern for younger children and pregnant women, and this should be considered when making a decision about these sprays.

There are arguments for spray tans which view them as a lesser evil than traditional tanning, but this isn't necessarily a good argument. Perhaps, we should instead be celebrating the appearance of people who choose not to tan!

As a final note, 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 safe (think: cigarettes). If it's thought to be safe when used in one way (on the skin) this does not mean it can be safely used in another (such as ingestion or inhalation). And the studies we do have may not be applicable to humans.

Be your own advocate for your health! You don't need to live in a bubble fearing everything as a possible cause of cancer. But comparing the risks of benefits of what you put on or in your body, and making wise and healthy choices along the way, is a great start.

View Article Sources