How Safe Is Spray Tanning?

One of my favorite discoveries while researching the book was finding out that the active ingredient in tanning lotion isn’t actually all that bad. Total shocker! The other ingredients in there, though? Take a guess. Here’s a great post from our friends at Well&Good who went on an ingredient hunt to find out what’s really in spray tans. Enjoy, and let us know in the comments: Did you ever get your Jersey Shore on? (I did it once to pretty disastrous results, but I’m a big fan of clean tanning creams.)

Spray tanning—a temporary bronzing service offered at salons and spas—owes its success to the finding that ultraviolet rays cause not just a summery glow, but serious skin cancer.

Not surprisingly, many spas and salons market them as a safer alternative to sunning (or tanning beds). But then these spas don’t provide a list of ingredients for what’s in a spray tan. So how do you know what your skin is soaking up?

We set out to determine what magic potion could turn people varying shades of bronze (or occasionally orange-ish), and it was more difficult than we imagined. Here’s what we were able to learn.

What we know

Nearly every product contains Dihydroxyacetone, or DHA, a carbohydrate that can be derived from glycerin or plant sources such as sugar cane or beets. DHA reacts with the amino acids in the surface layer of the skin, and is generally safe for external use.

The key word here is “external.” Most spray tans coat your face with the formula, and the FDA actually warns against inhaling DHA, saying it should not touch the lips or any area around the eyes, including eyebrows or eyelids.

What we don’t know

So what else in a typical spray-tan cocktail? Who knows? “Salon products are exempt from labeling,” explains Stacy Malkan, author of Not Just a Pretty Face. “This makes no sense, since salon products are typically more potent than at-home versions.”

When we asked a handful of spas and salons for a list of ingredients in their spray tan, most weren’t able to provide it. That’s partly because many salons use mass-produced formulas, and may not know—or ask—what’s actually in them, says Susie Hatton, the founder of Chocolate Sun, a California-based company that uses a 100 percent natural (and mostly organic) formula and is offered at the Mandarin Oriental Spa in New York.

After leaving two unreturned messages atPortofino’s corporate offices (the Starbucks of tanning), a receptionist finally answered on the third try. “We don’t manufacture it—it’s not our formula, ”she said. She took a message, but no one got back to me. (Not surprising for a company that calls the link between UV exposure and melanoma a myth on their website, I guess.)

To find out what ingredients they did discover, keep reading here!

10 Responses to “How Safe Is Spray Tanning?”
  1. sam says:

    I just use melted chocolate on my body and it seems to work wonderful.

  2. Naomi says:

    Very timely post – I have been toying with the idea of some sort of summery tanning experiment but feel I have few to no options. I selected samples of the Chocolate Sun face and body tanners in a sample pack from Spirit Beauty Lounge so am excited to see how they work out.

    I checked out the Mandarin Oriental self-tanning service but it is waaaaaaay too expensive for me to justify a pro doing it, so keep your fingers crossed for me that I don’t end up looking like a kid who has rolled in the dirt!

  3. Aileen says:

    Chocolate Sun is a really good option. While I don’t find them to be terribly moisturizing, they give nice, natural-looking color. The Lite one is a lot like the Jergens daily moisturizer – when I’m really pale, it makes me look like I have a bit of color without actually looking, really, like a tan (and I’ve never noticed streaks or dark spots in the two summers I’ve been using it). The Medium cocoa one is what I use for a few days when I want to look tan. I also put a lotion over them so my skin feels moisturized, but that’s just my personal preference. I have never tried the face formulas – I tend to just use bronzer if I want my face to look more natural with \tanned\ skin everywhere else.

  4. comagirl says:

    I’ve been tempted to do this. There is a surfer here who runs a van tanning operation to help support herself, so the convenience of having her come to my house is enticing. The tan looks very natural, not orange-y at all, but I have been reluctant to try it because of the unknown chemicals in that stuff. The thought of actually coloring your skin puts me off, (while I hypocritically continue to color my hair with something that is most likely much worse). Thanks for the information.

  5. Sydney says:

    I just bought the new improved formula for Lavera self-tanning lotion and the one for faces too. I havent tried it yet though because I got it in the mail the day after a terrible sunburn. So I’m still waiting for my skin to heal but I’m super excited to try it out on my SUPER pale skin! It was recommended in the book but has anyone tried it? Did you like it or did it streak?

  6. Alexandra says:

    @Sydney I still love the face one!

  7. Michelle says:

    I’m going to get an airbrush tan today after work. I was almost scared to read this post for fear that I would find out something horrible and have to cancel the appointment (and lose $40). I have worried about the possible toxins in the formula but I justify it because I only do it a couple times per year when I’ll be in a bikini for long periods of time (aka vacation). I have never been very successful with DIY self tanners and always end up with streaks. I’m looking forward to Well&Good’s list of recommended self tanners next week :)

  8. Deanna says:

    Whether it’s spray tan or lipstick, I’m suspicious of any product that promises to color part of my skin for hours/days without the color budging.

  9. Angela says:

    Lavera all the way — it’s kind of magical, and as car as I can tell, probably the safest, cleanest thing out there. I wouldn’t use it when I’m still pale as death right after winter (can look a tad yellow/orangey), but if you get a little natural sun first (or are just naturally not ivory-pale), it looks pretty darn natural.

  10. Donna says:

    I use Alba (brand) sunless tanner, it is all natural and turns out great, there are several organic self tanners out there that do not cost alot, and are very moisturizing also, there are also lots of self tanners on the market that have bad ingriendents in them.

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