Freaky Facts about Spray-On Tans: Are You in Danger?

spray-on tan, tanning, tanning booth, vitamin D, sunlight, sunshine, cosmetics

Even the FDA believes spray tans are dangerous -- although you most likely have never heard that. If you go to a spray tanning salon, you are likely to be told that the treatment is completely safe and has the full backing of the U.S. government.

In fact, the spray tan solution, DHA, contains lead, mercury and arsenic. In the 1970's the U.S. government approved DHA for bronzers intended to be rubbed on your skin -- but it has not specifically approved its use in spray tan booths. When it is inhaled or sprayed onto the porous mucous membranes of your body, it can enter your bloodstream, leading federal regulators to call the procedure "unsafe".

DHA has been known to cause coughing, difficulty breathing, fainting, and dizziness. The greatest danger comes if you undergo the procedure without protecting your eyes, nose and mouth.

Vitamin D Dose Recommendations
Age Dosage
Below 5 35 units per pound per day
Age 5 - 10 2500 units
Age 18 - 30 5000 units
Pregnant Women 5000 units
There is no way to know if the above recommendations are correct. The ONLY way to know is to test your blood. You might need 4-5 times the amount recommended above. Ideally your blood level of 25 OH D should be 60ng/ml.
Dr. Mercola's Comments:

As the misguided propaganda against sun exposure took off in the 1980s, alternatives to getting that glowing tanned look started to sprout. First came the self tanners that left you looking like a streaky carrot, followed by any number of lotions, powders, and eventually, spray tanning booths. 

As is usually the case, consumers tend to believe that if a product is on the market it must be safe. Unfortunately, that assumption often turns out to be wrong. And such may be the case with spray tanning booths as well. 

Spray tans are generally considered a healthy alternative to baking in the sun, but that quick tan can come at a steep price. Far steeper than tanning in the sun following safe tanning guidelines. 

Most Significant Reason Why Spray Tans are Harmful 

They give you the illusion of health by allowing you and others to believe that you have had significant UVB exposure to improve your vitamin D levels, when in fact they don’t increase your vitamin D levels at all.  

Are you really willing to exchange the cosmetic appeal for true health when it is relatively easy to get sun exposure in the summer, and safe tanning beds in the winter? 

So What’s in That Spray Tanning Solution?

One of the main ingredients in today’s spray tanning solutions is dihydroxyacetone, a color additive that darkens your skin by reacting with amino acids in the surface layer of your skin. This is oftentimes abbreviated as DHA, but please do not confuse that with the healthy DHA omega-3 fat.

The industry claims DHA is a simple carbohydrate sugar solution, but some toxicologists disagree. Over four years ago, Dr. Thomas Pierce, a toxicologist who investigated the harmful effects of tanning beds, issued a warning that DHA is not as simple or harmless as it may seem. 

"It is not an ingestible sugar, and no one should be eating it," he said in a previous interview.  

Part of the problem is that the U.S. government’s regulations for DHA allow several contaminants, and many spray tan solutions contain lead, arsenic and mercury.  

Lead in particular is known to affect brain development, and no one knows how large the effect may be on your baby, should you be pregnant while using spray tanning.  

My advice would be to avoid spray tanning entirely, but especially during pregnancy to avoid unnecessary exposure to these dangerous toxins. 

These contaminants are allowable because DHA was originally approved by the FDA in the 1970s for topical application only. They never imagined it would be sprayed on in a fine mist that can come in contact with your lips, lungs or other sensitive membranes that can allow it to enter your blood stream.

The FDA has never specifically approved the use of DHA in spray tan booths.

In addition to DHA and potential lead, mercury and arsenic contaminants, spray tanning solutions can contain as many as 45 different ingredients. And no one really knows whether this chemical cocktail is safe or not.

Potentially the harm could be great as chemicals are very easily absorbed through your skin, and the health benefits of spray tanning are nonexistent.

What Does the FDA Say About Spray Tanning? 

According to the FDA:

DHA is listed in the regulations as a color additive for use in imparting color to the human body. However, its use in cosmetics--including sunless "tanning" products--is restricted to external application (21 CFR 73.2150).

According to the CFR, "externally applied" cosmetics are those "applied only to external parts of the body and not to the lips or any body surface covered by mucous membrane" (21 CFR 70.3v).

The industry has not provided safety data to the FDA in order for the agency to consider approving it for use on these exposure routes, including "misting" from tanning booths.

Naturally, when spray tanning you expose your entire body, including your eyes, nose, mouth, and potentially your lungs, to a very fine mist of DHA tanning solution.   

Some of the adverse reactions from spray tanning received by the FDA from consumers include: 

  • Rashes
  • Coughing
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting

Is Your Spray Tanning Salon Adhering to Safe Practices?

Should you decide to use a spray tanning facility, the FDA advises you ask the following questions:

  • Am I protected from exposure in my entire eye area?
  • Am I protected from exposure on my lips and all parts of my body covered by mucous membranes?
  • Am I protected from internal exposure caused by inhaling or ingesting the product?

If the answer to any of these questions is "no," then you are not protected from the unapproved use of this color additive, and you should request safety measures to protect your eyes and mucous membranes and prevent inhalation.

According to toxicologist Dr. Wade, you should simply walk out if a spray tan establishment does not insist you wear protection.  

"If the material is applied without protecting the eyes, nose and mouth, it's being applied incorrectly and could be harmful," he said in an interview with CBS.

My Personal Advice?

Avoid spray tanning booths and lotions entirely.

Please remember the fact that the surface of your skin gets tanned by chemical means does not mean that your body is making vitamin D – a biochemical process that occurs when your skin is exposed to UVB radiation either from natural sunlight or from a safe tanning bed.

What to Do if You Have You Been Harmed by a Cosmetic Product

Anyone can report adverse reactions from cosmetic products, including sunless tanners, to the nearest FDA office, listed in the blue section of your telephone book.

Or, you can contact the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, Adverse Events Reporting System (CAERS) by phone at (301) 436-2405 or by e-mail at [email protected] .

By reporting adverse reactions, you can help get unsafe products off the market.