The Dark Sides of Self Tanning No One Talks About

The Dark Sides of Self Tanning No One Talks About I Mirra Skincare

Now, at the recommendation of the American Academy of Dermatology, the focus has been put on self tanning products as an alternative to harmful UV-light-based tans from the sun or an indoor tanning bed. But the question no one seems to be talking about is: how safe is self tanning? Are you really out of the woods and avoiding harmful consequences on your body by using self tanning products or getting a spray tan? Studies are now showing that just like everything else in the world, self tanning has a dark side. (Or two).


1. Is self tanning safe?

2. What’s in self tanner?

3. Can self tanner cause acne?

4. Safe self tanners on the market

Key Points 

  • The active ingredient in self tanning products is known as dihydroxyacetone or DHA. Scientists don’t yet have sufficient research to determine if ingesting or inhaling DHA can cause long-term damage, so it’s important to cover the eyes, nose, mouth, and lips to avoid accidental inhalation or ingestion.
  • Self tanning products that contain ingredients not approved by the FDA like tyrosine and canthaxanthin are risky to use and therefore not recommended.
  • Self tanners can cause acne by clogging the pores, causing excess sebum production, and even potentially introducing bacteria to the skin. It’s also important to avoid products with fragrances. 

Avoiding sun exposure while wanting a tan is the definition of a catch-22. Due to societal beauty standards in the U.S., a bronzy glow has been associated with good health and good looks since the 1920s when it’s said that the tan - but not dark, it was the 20s after all - beauty ideal first became emphasized after Coco Chanel’s sunburn in the French Riviera faded into a tan and inspired a new look for those with fair skin.

Despite the ideal, laying out in the sun to get a tan can actually cause skin cell damage, which can ultimately increase the risk for skin cancer and contribute to the appearance of aging skin. In fact, more than 419,000 cases of skin cancer in the U.S. each year are linked to indoor tanning, and those who first use a tanning bed before age 35 can increase their risk for melanoma by 75 percent. 

Is self tanning safe? 

Nowadays, self tanning products come in plenty of shapes and sizes. Whether it’s tanning sprays, mists, creams, foams, lotions, wipes, or oils, these products are considered a safer option because they simply tint the top layer of the skin which sheds off in a few days or up to a week depending on the product. While they are considered universally safer, there are still a few unknowns about self tanners and spray tans that are cause for concern.

The active ingredient in self tanning products is known as dihydroxyacetone, or DHA for short. Although it is approved by the FDA for external use on the skin, it’s still a chemical that scientists don’t yet have sufficient research on to determine if ingesting or inhaling DHA can cause long-term damage. That’s why it’s recommended to avoid chemical inhalation to protect your lungs and avoid ingestion while using self tanning products or getting a spray tan by ensuring a few key things. To protect yourself, you should:

  • Keep your mouth and eyes closed while using a spray or getting a spray tan
  • Hold your breath while the spray is applied
  • Ensure the room you are applying a self tanner in or getting a spray tan in is well-ventilated
  • Wear lip balm or cover your lips to avoid accidental ingestion
  • Wear goggles and nose plugs as alternatives to closing your eyes or holding your breath (4)

What’s in self tanner?

While DHA was mentioned above, a deeper dive into the chemicals and ingredients in self tanning products is crucial to know what exactly you’re putting on your body. Some of these ingredients include:

1. DHA: Dihydroxyacetone is a coloring agent used in most sunless tanners that combines with amino acids in the skin’s dead cells to cause a browning reaction on the outermost layer of the skin to simulate a tan. While DHA is currently considered safe, there are lab studies that have shown high levels of DHA (higher levels than found in most self tanning products) can increase free radical damage, which is vital to avoid.

2. Canthaxanthin: This is the main ingredient in most tanning pills that has shown some concerning reports, such as liver and skin problems. Also, canthaxanthin has been said to show up in the eyes as yellow crystals, which can cause injury and impair vision.

3. Tyrosine: Tyrosine is an amino acid commonly used in tanning accelerators. However, both tyrosine and canthaxanthin have not been approved by the FDA and should be avoided.

Can self tanner cause acne? 

Since acne is caused when the pores overproduce sebum, self tanning products can definitely cause acne by clogging the pores, causing excess sebum production, and even potentially introducing bacteria to the skin. To avoid this, opt for self tanning products with no comedogenic ingredients. Products that are oil and alcohol-free help to avoid clogging and irritation, and there are products specifically intended for the face to help you avoid problematic ingredients. 

In addition to causing breakouts, it’s important to protect your skin by avoiding irritation from any harsh chemicals in self tanner. As always, patch testing is recommended to make sure your skin reacts well with new products. Plus, you should always avoid self tanners with fragrances that try to mask the smell of tanning chemicals. While the smell isn’t that pleasant, fragrances can bother the skin and potentially exacerbate any existing acne. 

Safe self tanners on the market 

While there are some dark sides of self tanning, don’t fret – there are safe options out there that are formulated with naturally derived DHA and other skin-friendly ingredients.

  1. Suntegrity Skincare Natural Self Tanner: This self tanning product is vegan, contains eco-certified DHA, and includes a blend of organic ingredients.
  2. Isle of Paradise Self Tanning Drops: These drops come in a vegan-friendly, cruelty-free, and organic formula that are made with hydrating ingredients to soothe your skin.
  3. Tanologist: All products from Tanologist are cruelty-free, vegan, and formulated with vitamins and clean ingredients.
  4. Bondi Sands Pure Self Tan Foaming Water: Vegan self tanner made with amazing ingredients for the skin like hyaluronic acid and vitamin C.
  5. Beauty by Earth Self Tanner Lotion for the Face: Cruelty-free and vegan face tanning product infused with organic aloe vera, no artificial colorants or fragrances.

 Written by Selena Ponton


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  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2775759/#:~:text=Historical%20reviews%20suggest%20that%20tanning,in%20the%201920s%20or%201930s.
  2. https://www.health.harvard.edu/womens-health/are-sunless-tanning-products-safe
  3. https://www.skincancer.org/blog/sunless-tanning-explained/
  4. https://www.piedmont.org/living-better/is-self-tanner-safer-than-the-sun
  5. https://thrive.kaiserpermanente.org/thrive-together/live-well/is-sunless-tanning-safe-what-you-need-know
  6. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/fake-real-tanning-health-risks_n_5207704

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