• The Safety of Spray Tanning

The Safety of Spray Tanning; Can We Breathe Easily Again?

We are so excited by the discovery of the self tanner as an alternative to the damaging sun, and now the newspapers are full of reports that spray tan is possibly cancerous. Seeing as my inbox is full of questions from nervous users, I have got some more information in this blog about the safety of spray tanning and the self tanner.

spray tan cancer


Anyone who has been to a tanning booth or has even used  spray tanning themselves knows that the spray mist goes everywhere and it is difficult to avoid breathing it in. In fact, it took me three hours to clean my bathroom after trying out a self tanning spray on my legs. My legs were lovely and brown the next day, as well as the soles of my feet! (resulting in a brown layer all over the floor…). This attractive brown colour is caused by Dihydroxyacetone (DHA). DHA is a chemical which is derived from sugar beet or sugar cane and causes the dead skin cells in the uppermost layer of the epidermis to turn brown. The browning effect occurs as a result of the so-called Maillard reaction. Hereby the DHA (a sugar) reacts with amino acids in the layer of dead skin cells. This reaction is not toxic; in fact, you can also see this reaction if you fry a piece of meat; sugars react with amino acids and turn brown.

The concentration of DHA in cosmetic products is around 3-5%, in professional products it is between 5-15%. Apart from the fact that this chemical can briefly (24h) cause some free radicals to form (which can be absorbed by using a cosmetic product containing anti-oxidants), DHA is safe to use on your skin. There has been much research carried out on this. Although a test on laboratory animals showed that daily application of DHA can cause some irritation, the risk of allergies through normal use of DHA is very low (J. Environ. Pathol. Toxicol. Oncol. 1984;5:349-51; Am. J. Clin. Dermatol. 2002;3:317-8; South. Med. J. 2005;98:1192-5; J. Am. Acad. Dermatol. 2007;56:387-90.). Whether DHA is also safe to inhale is another story. Lungs are sensitive organs and, whilst a substance may not directly be toxic, long term exposure can lead to problems. Mucous in the mouth, throat and eyes also reacts differently from ordinary skin. What’s more, substances which are inhaled get into the bloodstream more easily. For this reason the FDA in America have still not approved DHA spray tanning. The FDA stated that they could not rule out that prolonged and frequent inhalation of particles can cause problems in the long term. The FDA believes that more research is necessary in order to be able to confidently say that spray tanning is safe. A cause for concern is the fact that tests with bacteria revealed that DHA was able to damage the DNA of the bacteria. The latter sounds scary but the European Commission is less concerned. According to the European experts who have reviewed the safety of DHA, this effect is not visible in human cells and there is no single reason to suggest that DHA particles can be cancerous or dangerous if inhaled. They therefore propose in their report that there is no proof that DHA can lead to problems in people and that DHA is safe to use.

Below is a part from a report by the European Commission for consumer safety:

DHA may also be used in “spray cabins” in aqueous solutions in concentrations between 8 and 14%. Does the SCCS consider this use and exposure safe for the consumers? When using DHA in spray cabins in aqueous solutions, exposure via inhalation cannot be excluded. The exposure may be single (frequency of use less than once per month) or ‘repeated’ (e.g. in extreme cases once per week). For the single exposure, reference is made to the presented acute inhalation study in rats, where the animals were exposed to DHA aerosols during 4 hours to the limit dose level of 5000 mg DHA/m³. No effects were observed on the clinical level or on macroscopic findings related to the respiratory tract or other organs. As far as repeated exposure to DHA-containing self-tanning formulations is concerned, the potential systemic exposure through inhalation appears to be negligible compared to the calculated worst-case dermal exposure levels. The calculated overall systemic exposure level generates a sufficiently high Margin of Safety. Therefore, based upon the available information, the SCCS considers that the use of Dihydroxyacetone as a self-tanning ingredient in spray cabins up to 14% will not pose a risk to the health of the consumer. The experts unanimously came to the conclusion that based on the presented raw data and a weight of evidence approach, there is no reason to consider DHA as an in vivo mutagenic/genotoxic substance

A brief summary; America wants proof that no damage can be caused by spray tanning before they can give a “safe signal”, the view of Europe is that it is safe because there is no proof that it can cause damage…

As always the truth lies roughly in the middle; no reason to panic if you use a spray tan now and again, but don’t over-do-it as not so much research has been carried out as yet to the long term effects. Following a Danish investigation into the safety of spray tan, I would like to advise the following:

  • Try to avoid inhalation and contact with the mouth and eyes. People who give the treatment should protect their airways with a mouth mask and their eyes with glasses.
  • Asthma sufferers or people with a skin condition should first seek advice from their Doctor.
  • Keep the mouth and eyes firmly closed during the treatment and smear lip balm or Vaseline over the lips.
  • Do not use a spray tanning booth if you are pregnant or breast feeding.
  • Weekly use is not advisable while the long term effects are not known. Using a cream with DHA is therefore a safer alternative.
  • Self tanning products do not protect you from the sun. In the first 24 hours after application it is even advisable to avoid sunlight in connection with the formation of radicals (article). Combine a self tanner with a good cream containing anti-oxidants and a sun filter.

Please, no spray tanning on children. They are more sensitive to toxic substances and, apart from the effects of DHA, we don’t know what the long term effects are of inhaling substances such as oxybenzone, preservatives and phthalates which have been added to self tanners. If you click on the photo below you will see that the mothers of these “toddler beauty queens” are, in any case, not too worried about the harmful effects of spray tans…



sun tan kids spray tan safe



Regards Jetske

(Dr. Jetske Ultee- Research Physician Cosmetic Dermatology)

Here you can read another blog on this subject: A Self Tanner; In Moderation’.
You can also read ‘Dr. Peter Velthuis on the Sun’,
my blog about the sun bed, and the article:
The Sun and Cosmetics; Not Always a Good Combination‘.