Sunless Tanning: Why Baking Is Out and Faking Is In

Tanning Lotion

Story at-a-glance -

  • “Dermatologist-recommended” sunless tanning lotions and sprays are being called “a better way to get that golden glow” -- but if you’re getting the tan without the UVB exposure from the sun, you’re missing out on valuable vitamin D production
  • The primary benefit of tanning is not at all cosmetic but to optimize your vitamin D levels. The tan that you get after exposing your skin to sunlight is a natural “side effect” that will help protect your skin from sun damage
  • Sunless spray tanners contain an ingredient called dihydroxyacetone, which may be a mutagen that could induce breaks in DNA strands and may even cause cancer or lung diseases when inhaled; there is also some evidence they may inhibit your body’s ability to produce vitamin D
  • The ideal way to optimize your vitamin D level is through sun exposure

By Dr. Mercola

"Dermatologist-recommended" sunless tanning lotions and sprays are being called "a better way to get that golden glow."

The basic message? Skip the sun and simply "fake" your tan with a bronzer or sunless tanner instead  Most people like the look of a deep tan because it gives you that healthy "glow" that happens when you've spent a little time in the sun. 

And, in fact, achieving a deep, dark tan from natural sun exposure or a tanning bed is often a good indicator that your vitamin D levels are where they need to be – and this is a signal of optimal health. But if you're getting the tan without the sun …well that is missing the point completely!

Your Health Isn't Fooled by a Fake Tan

The tan that you get after exposing your skin to sunlight is a natural "side benefit" of exposure to UVA and UVB light from the sun.

While the UVA rays provide most of the "tanning" effect, which is your body's natural way of protecting your skin from sun damage, UVB rays can also lead to skin reddening and sunburn, if you stay out too long.

But more importantly, it is the UVB rays that allow your body to produce valuable vitamin D, and instead of oxidizing the already existing melanin in your skin, produce new sun-protective melanin, which results in a healthier tan.

This is why getting proper sun exposure every day is actually one of the best actions you can take for your health. If that is simply not an option, as it is for most in the winter, a tanning bed can also be used. The point isn't to "get tan," it's to optimize your vitamin D levels, the natural result of which will be both a healthy glow and tan.

If you've spent any time on my site at all, you know that I'm a firm advocate for optimizing your vitamin D levels. For example, this healthy exposure to sunshine is known to provide the following benefits. Using a fake tanning lotion, of course, will give you none of these healthful perks …

Protect against cancer, including melanoma Support healthy kidney function
Enhance your muscle strength Promote healthy teeth
Help produce and maintain optimal blood pressure levels Help keep your bones strong and healthy
Help maintain a healthy immune system Support your cardiovascular health

Why Sunless Tanning Can be Dangerous

Spray tans are generally considered to be benign cosmetic treatments — but are they REALLY?

Sunless tanners contain a lengthy list of chemical agents — up to 45 in the case of spray tanners. Many of these agents have never been studied for their long-term effects on human health, because the FDA does not systematically review the safety of personal care products. Since testing is voluntary and controlled by the manufacturers, many ingredients in cosmetic products are not safety tested at all.

One of the main ingredients in spray tanning solutions is dihydroxyacetone, a color additive that darkens your skin by reacting with amino acids in your skin's surface layer. Dihydroxyacetone is often abbreviated DHA (which should not be confused with docosahexaenoic acid, the healthy omega-3 fat often given the same abbreviation). Sunless tanning products often contain between 1 and 15 percent DHA; the higher the DHA level, the darker the tan produced.

Manufacturers of sunless tanning products claim DHA is a simple carbohydrate sugar solution, but some toxicologists disagree. Part of the problem is that the U.S. government's regulations for DHA allow contaminants such as lead, arsenic and mercury.

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

A report by the National Toxicology Program1 suggests the risks of DHA remain unclear, pointing to some evidence that DHA may be a mutagen that could induce breaks in DNA strands, which could contribute to accelerated aging and even skin cancer. Another issue is absorption through your skin. You shouldn't put anything on your skin you wouldn't feel safe eating.

Absorbing chemicals transdermally is actually MORE dangerous than ingesting them orally, because they can be absorbed directly into your fat tissue, lymphatic system and bloodstream without any digestive degradation. Anything you consume orally must go to the highly evolved detoxification systems within your liver first before being released into your blood. Digestive acid also works, at least in part, to neutralize some chemicals — but this does not occur when you absorb them transdermally, or inhale them, for that matter.

When you have DHA-containing products sprayed on you in a booth, little droplets become suspended in the air all around you, increasing your risk for exposure through your eyes, nose and mouth. Wearing protective gear over your eyes, nose and mouth is extremely important — but it does not remove all the risk.

In fact, earlier this year a panel of medical experts reviewed 10 scientific studies on DHA and concluded the use of DHA-containing spray tans may cause genetic alterations and DNA damage that could lead to cancer and chronic lung diseases when inhaled.2 Sunless tanning sprays have even been found to inhibit your skin's ability to produce vitamin D, as the dark layer on your skin produced by the DHA results in the prevention of UVB absorption, thereby inhibiting vitamin D production.3

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American Academy of Dermatology Attacks Tanning Industry, States Sunlight Not an 'Efficient' Source of Vitamin D

A news release from the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD)4 claims to "expose" the "truth" about the indoor tanning industry by dispelling their statement that indoor tanning is a good source of vitamin D. It is, in fact, a good source, assuming you cannot get outdoors for real sun exposure. 

Outrageously, AAD states:

" … dermatologists point out that UV rays are not very efficient in creating vitamin D in the skin. In addition, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends that the public obtain vitamin D safely from a healthy diet that includes food naturally rich in vitamin D, foods and beverages fortified with vitamin D, and/or dietary supplements, rather than by sun exposure or indoor tanning, which can cause skin cancer."

For any rational physician or scientist to claim that UV rays are not efficient in creating vitamin D in the skin is virtually incomprehensible in light of the fact that, under optimal environmental exposures, your body can produce about 20,000 IU of vitamin D per day with full body exposure, about 5,000 IU with 50 percent of your body exposed, and as much as 1,000 IU with just 10 percent of your body exposed!

In the winter months however and/or during times of the year when insufficient amounts of UVB rays reach your location, you will most likely not get enough vitamin D. In that case, I recommend using a tanning bed, which is still better than oral vitamin D.  

  • Most tanning units use magnetic ballasts to generate light. These magnetic ballasts are well known sources of EMFs that can contribute to cancer. If you hear a loud buzzing noise while in a tanning bed, it has a magnetic ballast system. I strongly recommend you avoid magnetic ballast beds, and restrict your use of tanning beds to those that use electronic ballasts.
  • The person operating the tanning equipment can also make a difference in its safety. If the person is not educated on its safe operation, you have a higher risk of overexposure and sunburn.
  • High-quality indoor tanning devices are safe if you precisely follow the simple guideline of never getting burned. Your skin should only turn the lightest shade of pink after using them.

In a 2012 review of the available research into the relative risk for malignant melanoma (the most lethal form of skin cancer) and tanning bed use, the researchers concluded that tanning bed use was not associated with melanoma, and, in fact, can decrease 10 times as many cancers than they might contribute to.5

While the AAD cited data that indicate the use of tanning beds before the age of 35 is associated with a 75 percent increase in the risk of melanoma, mainstream media ignores the fact that this is the relative risk ratio. Your absolute risk of getting skin cancer from a tanning bed is less than three-tenths of one percent — and even then, this is likely only if you habitually overexpose yourself!6  

So Is It Really 'Wrong' to Get a Tan the Old-Fashioned Way?

Certainly not, assuming you use sensible exposure and avoid getting burned. The first few days, you should limit your exposure to the sun to allow your body's melanocyte cells to rev up the ability to produce protective pigmentation that not only gives you a tan, but also serves to help protect you against overexposure to the sun.

If you are a fairly light-skinned individual that tends to burn, you will want to limit your initial exposure to a few minutes, especially if it is in the middle of summer.

The more tanned your skin will get, and/or the more tanned you want to become, the longer you can stay in the sun. If it is early or late in the season and/or you are a dark-skinned individual, you could likely safely have 30 minutes on your initial exposure. If you are deeply pigmented and your immediate ancestors are from Africa, India or the Middle East, it is possible you may not even have to worry about how long you are exposed.

Always err on the side of caution however, and let it be your primary goal to never get sun burned.

The skin around your eyes and your face is typically much thinner than other areas on your body and is a relatively small surface area so will not contribute much to vitamin D production. It is strongly recommended to protect this fragile area of your body, as is at a much higher risk for cosmetic photo damage and premature wrinkling. You can use a safe sunblock in this area or wear a cap that always keeps your eyes in the shade like I do when I am outside seeking to increase my vitamin D levels.

Whether you're tanning or using a vitamin D supplement, it's important to get your vitamin D levels tested to ensure you're within the optimal range of 50-70 ng/ml. For more information about proper sun exposure and how to determine whether you can actually get enough vitamin D from the sun at your location during different times of year, please see this previous article.

If you're looking for an inexpensive, regular testing schedule, I highly recommend joining the GrassrootsHealth D*Action Project; a worldwide public health campaign aiming to solve the vitamin D deficiency epidemic through focus on testing, education and grassroots word of mouth. When you join D*action, you agree to test your vitamin D levels twice a year during a 5-year program, and to share your health status to demonstrate the public health impact of this nutrient.

There is a $60 fee each 6 months for your sponsorship of the project, which includes a complete new test kit to be used at home (except in the state of New York), and electronic reports on your ongoing progress. When you finish the questionnaire, you can choose your subscription option. You will get a follow up email every 6 months reminding you "it's time for your next test and health survey." This is probably one of the least expensive and most convenient ways to take control of your health. To join now, please follow this link to the D*Action sign-up.

Please Remember the Importance of Vitamin K2 for Heart Health

If you are going to supplement with vitamin D for whatever reason then you need to seriously consider supplementing with vitamin K2. Vitamin K2 is found primarily in fermented foods and animal fats. The best sources of it that most people consume are egg yolks and cheese, especially hard cheeses.

The optimal amounts of vitamin K2 are still under investigation, but it seems likely that about 100 mcg of vitamin K2 should be used for every 1,000 units of vitamin D.

When you take vitamin D, your body creates more vitamin K2-dependent proteins — the proteins that help move the calcium around in your body. But you need vitamin K2 to activate those proteins. If they're not activated, the calcium in your body will not be properly distributed and can lead to weaker bones and hardened arteries.

In short, vitamin K2 ensures the calcium is deposited and removed from the appropriate areas. By taking vitamin D, you're creating an increased demand for K2. And vitamin D and K2 work together to strengthen your bones and improve your heart health.

My favorite source of vitamin K2 is fermented vegetables made with a special starter culture designed to cultivate vitamin K2-producing bacteria. We recently had samples of high-quality fermented organic vegetables made with our specific starter culture tested, and were shocked to discover that not only does a typical serving of about two to three ounces contain about 10 trillion beneficial bacteria, but it also contained 500 mcg of vitamin K2.

Please note that not every strain of bacteria makes K2. For example, most yogurts have almost no vitamin K2. Certain types of cheeses are very high in K2, and others are not. It really depends on the specific bacteria. You can't assume that any fermented food will be high in K2, but some fermented foods are very high in K2, such as natto.