ASK THE EXPERT: Can sunless tanners cause cancer?

Dr. David Bank

By David Bank, MD

Dr. Bank is a member of the American Academy of Dermatology, American Medical Association, American Society of Liposuction Surgery and American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery, and is on the Board of Directors of the New York State Dermatology Society.  He is the author of Beautiful Skin - Every Woman's Guide to Looking Her Best at Any Age.

Q: Can sunless tanners cause skin cancer?

A: Sunless tanning lotions and sprays do not cause cancer! Sunless tanners deliver a perfectly safe tan that typically lasts for three to five days. They don’t involve dangerous ultraviolet rays like tanning beds and are made with completely harmless common ingredients.

The active ingredient in most sunless tanning lotions is dihydroxyacetone, also known as DHA. This ingredient is derived from sugar, 100 percent natural, and reacts with the outer layer of the skin to produce a golden brown tan color, just like an apple turns brown when it is exposed to the air. In fact, it is the DHA in apples that causes this reaction.

When shopping for a sunless tanner, choose only products that list DHA as the active ingredient. If a product doesn’t contain DHA, it could be a tan accelerator or contain something that might irritate your skin.

The only potential downside to sunless tanning is that the appearance of a tan confuses many into thinking they have a base tan, when in actuality it is just the appearance of a tan. People may think they can then sit out in the sun and not get burned, but that is not the case. Sunless tanners alone provide only a minimal amount of sun protection; therefore you have to remember that when going outside, even though you look tan, there is still the potential to burn. Even if your sunless tanner has an SPF rating, the sun-protective abilities won’t last longer than two hours. So, remember to put on your 15 SPF, or higher, sunscreen.