Ask the Expert: Are Self-tanners Safe?

By Melanie D. Palm, MD, MBA

Dr. Palm is the founding Director of Art of Skin MD (www.artofskinmd.com), in Solana Beach, CA, Assistant Clinical Professor at the University of California, San Diego, and staff physician at Scripps Encinitas Memorial Hospital. Dr. Palm completed an American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery fellowship in La Jolla, CA, and is currently faculty for the American Board of Cosmetic Surgery review course. She has published over 20 articles and coauthored two book chapters. She also serves as a physician ambassador for Angel Faces, a non-profi t organization supporting adolescent females after traumatic burn injuries.


Q: Are self-tanners safe? I’ve heard that DHA (the main coloring agent in self-tanning lotions) is dangerous, as are the spray versions of self-tanners.

A: This is an excellent question and a frequent concern of my own patients. Self-tanning products most commonly contain the active ingredient dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a color additive that darkens the skin. The only such agent approved for use by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), DHA has been available for use in cosmetics for many years now. Generally speaking, most dermatologists consider this mode of achieving that “sun-kissed glow” much safer than obtaining a tan from the cancer-causing ultraviolet (UV) radiation that comes from the sun or tanning booths.

Self-tanning products are available as lotions, creams, sprays, and pledgets (towels or wipes). Commercial preparations typically contain between 3 and 5 percent DHA, a sugar molecule that bronzes the very top layer of the skin. The browning effect occurs within a few hours. The effect is temporary — the color fades in 7-10 days as the skin naturally sloughs off.

There is no clear evidence that DHA is harmful to humans if applied topically and used as directed. Concern about DHA arose recently when a study correlated use of highly concentrated amounts of DHA with production of free radicals, molecules that form naturally in the body due to oxygen use and can damage cells. However, concentrations used in sunless tanning preparations are considered non-toxic and noncarcinogenic — I personally use these products and recommend them to my patients as a safe alternative to traditional tanning.

Primary concerns about self-tanning sprays relate to the risk of inhalation and ingestion, which is not recommended. For those using spray tanning products, it is important to wear protective gear for the mouth, eyes and nose to protect the mucous membranes.

Self-tanners provide some minimal protection from the sun’s ultraviolet A (UVA) rays, but should always be used in conjunction with broad spectrum (UVA/UVB-blocking) sunscreens, preferably with an SPF of 30 or greater for extended stays outdoors. If you use a self-tanner with sunscreen, choose one with an SPF of at least 15 and be sure to reapply a separate broad spectrum, SPF15+ sunscreen after two hours outdoors. Use one ounce (two tablespoons) to cover the entire body.

I encourage patients to “love the skin [color] they are in,” but if you’re dead set on being darker, reach for the sunless tanning bottle. Be sun-safe, and enjoy summer!