The Ugly Side Of Spray Tans

ugly side tanning

I avoid lines. Eat dessert first. Bypass the book and go straight for the movie. 

I love instant gratification.

Maybe that’s what attracted me to spray tanning in the first place: I can walk into a salon pasty white and emerge moments later looking like I’ve just returned from a tropical vacation. Sounds perfect, right?

Well…no. At least not according to researchers who are studying the health effects associated with spray tans.

The fuss is over the active ingredient in spray tan solutions, dihydroxyacetone (DHA), which turns your skin brown. DHA was FDA-approved in the 1970s for topical use in things like self-tanning lotions. But when it was approved, the FDA didn’t consider that we’d someday be standing in a box, breathing in the stuff.

The primary concerns surrounding DHA have to do with inhaling it – which is inevitable when you’re being sprayed with a mist of tanning solution either from an automated booth or by a technician. When that happens, the same bronze solution on your skin also enters your lungs. Aside from the yuck factor, why is this so bad?

Because DHA in the body has been shown to damage DNA and potentially cause cancer. 

Yikes! While about 11% of the DHA sprayed onto your skin will be absorbed into living tissue, most of the DHA in your blood and body comes from inhaling it.

The FDA has approved DHA for external use only, and says, “The use of DHA in ‘tanning’ booths as an all-over spray has not been approved by the FDA, since safety data to support this use has not been submitted to the agency for review and evaluation.” They recommend that before getting a spray tan, you ask the salon some questions:

Will I be protected from exposure in the entire area of the eyes, in addition to the eyes themselves?

Will I be protected from exposure on the lips and all parts of the body covered by mucous membrane?

Will I be protected from internal exposure caused by inhaling or ingesting the product?

If the answer to any of the above questions is “no,” the FDA suggests you look for a different salon. I have some bad news: the answers at probably every salon you go to will be no.

But the good news is there are things you can do to protect yourself.

The obvious option is to never spray tan. But it’s a personal choice (although women who are pregnant or nursing should never spray tan). If you decide that the risks of a spray tan are worth the benefits of being insta-bronze, here are some guidelines for keeping yourself as safe as possible:

Opt for airbrushing over a spray booth. During an airbrush tan, a technician uses a nozzle to spray your body with tanning solution. An automated spray booth, however, sprays a larger quantity of the solution and fills the booth with a thick mist, thus exposing you to higher levels of DHA.

Wear underwear. This will prevent the DHA from entering your body through your southernmost mucous membranes.  You needn’t wear grandma-style underpants, but you do need a strip of fabric.

Protect your eyes. The FDA recommends protecting the entire orbital eye area, from the top of your cheekbone to your eyebrow. But if you don’t want to wear massive ski goggles (click here), a pair of swim goggles (click here) will help shield your peepers. In a pinch, close your eyes and keep them closed while you’re being sprayed.

Prevent inhalation and ingestion. This means protecting your nose and mouth. You have two options. The safest is to wear an oil resistant disposable respirator mask (click here) while you’re being sprayed. This will cover your nose and mouth and prevent you from inhaling most of the tiny DHA molecules. Unless you’re a fan of weird facial tan lines, request your face not be sprayed. This really isn’t a big deal; faces are the first to fade and it’s easy to blend a paler face with foundation in the same shade as your tan. Cost: about $1.30 per tan.

Your second option is to wear a disposable nose filter (click here) and apply a thick layer of lip balm (click here) to your lips. Keep your mouth closed during the application, and wipe the lip balm off with a tissue once finished. Cost: about $1 per tan.

Use caution in the sun. Just because your skin is bronze doesn’t mean you’re protected from the sun. What’s more, research shows that sun exposure following a spray tan increases free radicals in your skin by 180%. Physical barriers like hats, sunglasses and clothing are best, but be sure to apply a non-toxic sunscreen (click here) in the event of prolonged exposure.

If that all sounds like too much work, you can achieve a subtle golden glow even in the winter simply from eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, especially leafy greens. Although it will take a few weeks for your skin tone to deepen, get some instant gratification by clicking here for some healthy skin smoothies.

This article was written by a dear friend, assistant and natural beauty lover, Coco Noel.

About the Author:
Coco Noel is studying holistic nutrition in Berkeley, California. Her passion is exploring how nutrition relates to anti-aging, beauty and the brain. She likes hot weather, adventures in cooking, other people’s dogs, and everything pink. Check out her website at and follow her on Facebook at CocoKnowsItAll.


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