Vilda Investigates: Can Sunless Tanning Products Ever Be Safe?


Now that summer is here, many of us will be looking to get a tan to boost our body confidence. But should we go natural or fake it? Sun safety advice can be all so confusing: too much sun and you will fall victim to burning, accelerated ageing and even skin cancer; too little sun and you could develop a deficiency of vitamin D, which is needed for healthy bones and a strong immune system. Not to mention the fact that some sun protection products contain toxic ingredients such as oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate (see our guide to the safest sunscreens here).
It seems the general advice is to stay out of the sun between the hours of 10am and 4pm (when the sun is at its strongest), and to protect your skin with a non-toxic suncream, clothing, hats and by seeking shade if you must be outside. Some medical experts recommend exposing a fifth of your body (such as arms or legs) to the sun for ten to fifteen minutes a day – longer if your skin is naturally darker – in the summer to allow vitamin D production, while others advise playing it safe and taking a vitamin D supplement instead. With this in mind, it would seem that the safest way to tan is to use a sunless tanning product. But just what is in these products, and are they safe?

Key Chemicals
The key ingredient in most tanning products currently on the market is dihydroxyacetone (DHA). DHA is a simple carbohydrate that is naturally derived from sugar cane but can also be created by the fermentation of glycerin. When topically applied, it causes a chemical reaction with the amino acids in the top layer of skin, resulting in a brown colour (a similar reaction to the browning of bread into toast). Although DHA is a natural chemical, there is still a debate as to whether it is safe to use on our bodies.
The main concern is when DHA is used in professional spray tans. Whilst the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of DHA in cosmetic lotions and creams in the 1970s, it does not approve its use for inhalation due to the unknown effects. Therefore when getting a spray tan it is advised that the eyes, nose, mouth and mucous membranes are protected and inhalation is prevented.

Get the Combinations Right
It is also thought that the skin is especially susceptible to free radical damage from the sun after the use of products containing DHA. Researchers found that the reaction of DHA with the amino acids in the skin leads to the formation of more than 180 per cent additional free radicals during sun exposure compared to untreated skin. It is therefore recommended that for twenty-four hours after tanning products containing DHA are used, sun exposure is limited and sunscreen should be worn when outdoors. In fact, sunscreen should always be worn in conjunction with sunless tanning products since they only offer an SPF of around 3, which is far too low to provide significant protection against the sun’s rays.
Another concern is whether DHA is absorbed into the deeper layers of skin. It was previously thought that DHA only interacted with proteins in the outer protective layers of human skin, (the stratum corneum), where the skin cells are already dead and where DHA could pose no health risk. However, in a report for ABC News, FDA scientists wrote: “The fate of DHA remaining in skin is an important issue, since high DHA skin levels were found.” Research showed that much of the DHA applied to the outer, dead layer of skin actually ended up in the living layers of skin. They concluded: “This leaves about 11 percent of the applied DHA dose absorbed remaining in the (living) epidermis and dermis.”

The Absorption Issue
Dr. Rey Panettieri, a toxicologist and lung specialist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, emphasised the fact that although available scientific literature on DHA is limited, he has seen enough to say the warning signs of serious health concerns exist. He said: “The reason I’m concerned is the deposition of the tanning agents into the lungs could really facilitate or aid systemic absorption – that is, getting into the bloodstream. These compounds in some cells could actually promote the development of cancers or malignancies, and if that’s the case then we need to be wary of them.” All of the scientists ABC News consulted with felt that more studies should be done.
Other experts, however, insist that sunless tanning products are safe. A recent report by the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety reviewed the available data on the safety of DHA and concluded that, in their opinion, its use as a self-tanning ingredient in cosmetic formulations up to 10% will not pose a risk to the health of the consumer. It also considers that the use of DHA as a self-tanning ingredient in spray cabins up to 14% will not pose a risk to the health of the consumer (however, we feel it should be noted that data drawn from animal studies was included in the review as well as human and lab studies).
Dr. Melanie Palm, an American award-winning and nationally recognised leader in dermatology, encourages patients to be sun-safe and reach for the sunless tanning bottle. She said: “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 non-carcinogenic — I personally use these products and recommend them to my patients as a safe alternative to traditional tanning.”


So, What Can You Use?
It would seem that although there are a few concerns for the use of sunless tanning products and more research is needed on their possible adverse effects, they are still preferential to sunbathing for hours with little or no SPF. If you still yearn for a sun-kissed glow, opt for a sunless tanning cream or lotion (as opposed to a spray) that is free from as many potentially harmful chemicals as possible. We have done a lot of research and have compiled a list of the products that we think are the safest and would use on ourselves. If you are still worried about the potential long-term effects of using sunless tanning products, save them only for special occasions when you want a bronzed complexion.


Sunless Tanning Products
1. Eco Tan Certified Organic Winter Skin and Certified Organic Invisible Tan

As well as being certified as organic, Eco Tan’s products are also certified as cruelty-free by Choose Cruelty Free Australia and toxin-free by Safe Cosmetics Australia. Winter Skin is a gradual tanning moisturiser that is suitable for both the face and body and is best for fair to medium skin tones. When used daily, it hydrates and nourishes the skin and provides a natural looking colour that builds to a honey glow after a few applications. Invisible Tan is a one application tan that is best for medium to olive skin tones. It turns white as it is rubbed into the skin, which is a handy guide to show any spots that may have been missed. It continues to develop for 8 hours to produce a honey glow.
2. Tropic Summer Skin Natural Melanin Enhancer

Alongside DHA, this gradual tanning lotion uses a new generation of patented technology to create a natural looking tan. Allo-Melanin is a plant derived anti-oxidant that mimics the colour of the skin’s own melanin while protecting from oxidative stress. Creamy organic coconut oil is added to nourish the skin while lime essential oil uplifts the senses.
3. Jane Iredale Tantasia Self Tanner & Bronzer

This tinted face and body moisturiser provides instant bronzing and builds a gradual, natural looking tan within three days. DHA delivers a streak free hint of sun kissed colour whilst Copper Gluconate and Monks Pepper provide natural hydration for the skin.


4. Arbonne Liquid Sunshine Tinted Self-Tanner

This self-tanner adds touch of instant bronze while developing an even, natural-looking tan within two hours. It has a quick-drying formula and contains a refreshing blend of citrus essential oils. Suitable for both the face and body.


5. Paula’s Choice Sun 365 Self-Tanning Concentrate

Adding 2-3 pumps of this product to a regular face or body moisturiser will give the skin a natural-looking, long-lasting tan. The results are customisable: simply use less concentrate for a lighter tan and more concentrate for a darker tan. Full results are visible in 24-48 hours, with colour lasting from one to three weeks. This products is suitable for all skin types, including sensitive skin and breakout-prone.


Header image by Fré Sonneveld via Unsplash

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Jessica White

Wellness Editor

Jessica is a holistic beauty therapist from Cornwall, UK. She has her own business specialising in providing luxury, vegan and eco-friendly treatments. Jessica loves reading, writing and going for long walks around the coast and countryside with her husband Jamie and their little dog Jack.

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