Are Any Self Tanners Actually Safe? Making Sense of the New Research About DHA
Fans of fake tans may want to sit down for this.
Dihydroxyacetone—that’s DHA to you— which is the active ingredient in self-tanners (even clean ones) and spray tans (none of which are clean) “has the potential to cause genetic alterations and DNA damage,” according to a panel of scientists in an investigation done by ABC News.
Now before you run to the bathroom and ditch your Chocolate Sun, let’s take a closer look at what we know so far.
What are the news reports saying?
That DHA has the potential to cause genetic alterations, DNA damage, and cancer.
What’s DHA anyway?
DHA is a sugar that interacts with amino acids in the top layer of your skin to produce pigment called melanoidins; that’s the brownish tanned look these products achieve. DHA can be manufactured synthetically, or it can be derived from natural things, like beet sugar or cane sugar. It was approved by the FDA for topical use in 1977 (and many orange tans ensued!) and is widely accepted as nontoxic when applied to the skin.
So is it toxic?
Some research showed that when it’s applied in the form of a lotion, DHA does not migrate past the stratum corneum, the outermost layer of skin that’s also sometimes called the “dead skin layer.” Which sounds gross, but it’s good news, we thought, for your organs and your blood if you’re applying it in a cream as opposed inhaling it in the form of a spray tan or a spray-on self tanner.
Up until now, there’s been the most concern about spray tans, because the application method means you might inhale the stuff. Even the FDA, which is typically mum about all things cosmetics-related, has a warning on its website about them. Which means that for the love of all things good (and good looking) you should not be getting a spray tan!
Fine. But I’m good to go with a self tanner, right?
Not so fast.
FDA reports dating back to the 1990s, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, cited research that some DHA can migrate to the living layers of the skin after all. How much of it—and where it goes from there—is anybody’s guess.
And I dug up some research from 1962 showing that DHA turned up in blood samples after topical application as well. Dr. Darrell Rigel, an NYU professor of dermatology, told ABC News: “What you showed me certainly leads me to say I have to rethink what I’m doing and what I’m saying because there’s … a real potential problem there.” I’ll say. Every dermatologist I’ve ever been to has told me that if I want to tan, which thank goodness I do not, that I should use a self tanner.
So what’s the bottom line?
As always, it’s up to you. But because the research that’s just now getting attention—even though it’s by no means new—shows that when DHA gets into your blood or migrates to your organs through inhalation, it can cause DNA damage and possibly cancer…
I’ll keep digging into it, but for now, DHA is out for me.
If you decide to continue to use self-tanner, some words of advice: First, treat it like you treat your favorite conventional going-out lipstick and use it only for special occasions, like a wedding, a job interview or a hot date. I’m pretty bruisey on my legs, so I may keep mine around and use it before weddings or something. I’m on the fence about that right now.
And if you are going to use a self-tanner, use a cleaner formula. Most conventional ones are filled with dyes, synthetic preservatives, fragrance and all of that other stuff we generally try to avoid putting on our and in bodies. If you’re not sure if yours has dye in it, you can do one of two things: read the ingredient label (harder) or look at it and see if it’s brown (easy).
We’ll continue to look into this, but we want to know So what are you going to do with this news? To self tan or not to self tan?
You can read more about ABC’s investigation here. It’s long but good. The section called “DHA: A Health Hazard” is where the research is cited.