Is Spray Tanning Safe?

Q: Is spray tanning safe?

A: Sunless tanners generally use an ingredient called dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a chemical that reacts with amino acids in dead skin cells on the skin surface to cause a darkened color. The color does not fade but gradually sloughs off with the skin cells over about a week.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates color additives such as DHA – if a color additive is used in an unauthorized way, it is considered unsafe under the law. The FDA safety regulations for DHA state that it should only be applied externally to the skin and not to the lips, around the eyes, or to internal body surfaces covered by mucous membranes: mouth, nose, vagina, rectum and lungs (by inhaling it). So home use of sunless tanning products is generally safe, as long as you are careful to avoid those areas. 

Spray tanning booths are a different story. The FDA cannot vouch for the safety of the use of DHA in spray tanning booths since it’s difficult to avoid exposure to the lips, eyes and mucous membranes. If you decide to go ahead with spray or mist tanning, make sure to ask whether your eyes and lips will be protected, and whether you will be protected from internal exposure by inhalation.

Compared to tanning in the sun or using UV tanning beds, spray tanning is probably a safer bet – we all know UV rays cause skin cancer, right?  Just be sure it only sticks to your skin!

John A. Vaughn, MD
Student Health Services
The Ohio State University