Are self-tanners safe?


Summer is upon us again which means for a lot of people it’s the perfect time to get a sunkissed tan. However, we all know too much exposure to the sun isn’t generally good for your health. Excessive exposure to the sun can often result in damage to the skin or even skin cancer in some cases. To combat this, sunless tanners or “self-tanners” exist. Although a sunless tanner/self-tanner combat the issue of risk of skin cancer, it’s fair to wonder whether this substitute is better for your health, what is in self-tanners, does it protect against the sun, and how does the FDA regulates it. Here’s what you should know:


What are self-tanners?


Unlike sunscreen or tanning lotions/oils, self-tanners are cosmetic products that do not require the sun to create a sunkissed tan. The two most commonly used self-tanning products are known as sunless tanners and bronzers. While they are often categorized together, the two products work differently. 


Sunless tanners work by darkening the skin with ingredients like DHA (dihydroxyacetone). DHA darkens the skin by interacting with proteins and amino acids found on the surface of your skin. Sunless tanners darken the skin semi-permeate without any exposure to the sun. Sunless tanning products are commonly sold as lotions, creams, and sprays you apply to your skin. Professional spray-on tanning also is available. In addition, sunless tanners don’t wash off but they eventually wear off, that’s why people tend to reapply regularly. 


Bronzers on the other hand give an impartial tanned appearance on the surface of the skin but it’s more similar to other cosmetics such as blush or eyeshadow. Bronzer tends to come in the form of a powder or as a tinted moisturizer. Unlike sunless tanners, they will wash off. 

Sunless tanning pills, which typically contain the color additive canthaxanthin, aren’t safe. When taken in large amounts, canthaxanthin can turn your skin orange or brown and cause hives, liver damage, and impaired vision.

Ingredients typically found in self-tanners that you should avoid:

  1. Mineral oil: it’s a derivative of petroleum and can be considered carcinogenic. It’s comedogenic (it blocks your pores). Typically it’s used because it’s a cheap carrier and helps with spreadability. 
  2. Sodium hydroxymethylglycinate: Often it’s masked as a ‘natural preservative’ and in high concentrations can become skin and eye irritant. It also tends to contain formaldehyde (added during processing) and often breaks down into formaldehyde once it has spread in the skin. 
  3. Amyl acetate: High levels of concentration can often lead to severe headaches and in some cases can make someone unconscious. Repeated exposure can often cause skin irritation, dryness, and cracking. 
  4. Octyl stearate: An irritant and another comedogenic (pore blocker) 
  5. Isopropyl myristate: Yet another comedogenic and can bind nitrates in the body (nitrates are carcinogenic)
  6. Artificial fragrances and colors: Most fragrances used in self-tanning products are created from petrochemicals and many chemicals that are used to create scents are known carcinogens (think methylene chloride). 

can self-tanners, sunless tanners, and bronzers protect me in the sun?

A huge misconception is that self-tanners, sunless tanners, or bronzers provide sun protection. Some can if it contains SPF but if your sunless tanner, self-tanner, or bronzer doesn’t contain any indication that SPF is in the product it’s best you use sunscreen in addition to the product.

How does the FDA regulate sunless tanners and bronzers?

In short, they do not. According to the FDA, there are neither official definitions nor regulations when it comes to either Bronzers and Sunless Tanners. However, the FDA does regulate DHA the ingredient often used in self-tanners as a color additive and we all know how much the FDA loves color additives. The FDA allows sunless tanners that contain DHA to be on the market as long as it isn’t marketed to be used for the eyes.

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