Why Sunless Tanning Products Are a Safer Choice Than Tanning Beds

Woman in swimsuit using bronze sun cream
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Sunless tanning products are an effective and safe alternative to traditional sunbathing and tanning beds. Marketed as self-tanning creams, lotions, sprays, and mists, these products give a sun-kissed glow without the risk of developing skin cancer.

The idea of sunless tanning is not a new or original idea. Some form of sunless tanning has been on store shelves since the 1960s. It wasn't until the 1990s, however, that sunless tanning really hit its peak. Products that produce natural, even tans without an orange or spotty hue flooded shelves.

You can find sunless tanning products in the cosmetics or tanning lotion aisles of your local drugstore, supermarket or department store. They are sold as "self-tanning" creams, lotions, or sprays. Some tanning salons offer spray tans or mists that give an instant bronzed look that is both safe and temporary.

Safer Than the Sun or Tanning Beds

If you have the choice of a spray tan or a tanning bed at a salon, the safer choice is the spray. A tanning bed or tanning by sun exposure produces a tan through ultraviolet (UV) light stimulating melanin production in the skin, while sunless tanning products involve no UV exposure.

UV rays damage the skin and increase the risk of skin cancer and melanoma. Tanning beds are not a safe alternative to the sun, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For this reason, use of indoor tanning beds is restricted for minors in some countries. The sun and tanning beds also carry the risk of sunburn or a burn from overexposure to the UV light, while there is no burn risk with sunless tanning products.

How Sunless Tanning Products Work

The active ingredient in most sunless tanning products is dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a colorless sugar that interacts with the dead cells of the outermost layer of our skin. The reaction results in a temporary darkening, giving a tan appearance. The "tan" only lasts for about week after application.

Safety of Sunless Tanning Products

Sunless tanning products containing DHA are regulated by the FDA and are considered to be safe when used as directed. Spray tans and mists are safe, but be sure to avoid inhaling the product during application. The danger of inhaling DHA is unknown.

On the other hand, tanning pills are not approved by the FDA and are considered to be unsafe. They do not contain DHA, but an ingredient called canthaxanthin, which can cause dangerous side effects.

No UV or Sunburn Protection With Sunless Tanning Products

Sunless tanning products do not provide any type of protection against UV rays of the sun or artificial UV sources like tanning beds. The darkening of the skin is temporary and does not actually change the melanin in the skin, the substance that gives our skin its color tone. A tan from the sun or tanning beds is due to increased production of melanin in the skin, but a sunless tan doesn't increase melanin.

This is important to note, as increasing melanin in the skin allows a person to be in the sun longer before burning and also reduces the risk of UV exposure. When the tan color doesn't come from melanin, it's not protecting you in these two ways. Therefore, it is vital that you continue to wear a sunscreen when outdoors so it takes longer to get a sunburn and you have some protection from UV rays.

More About Sunless Tanning Products

There are hundreds of different types of sunless tanning products on the shelves and in tanning salons. Cost range from $5 to $100, depending on the brand and whether or not it is professionally applied at a tanning salon.

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  • "Indoor Tanning is Not Safe," Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, August 27, 2015.