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tanning lotions

QUESTION: “Hi Dr. Neal, big fan here. I just wanted to say thank you for all the amazing episodes. My question is: how healthy or how toxic are the ingredients in fake tanning lotions? I've been using a fake tan mousse for a few years now, and I can't read half of the ingredients listed on the bottle. I was wondering if there were any long-term side effects from using these fake tan lotions. Thank you.

DR. NEAL: Thank you for your question. Believe it or not, there was a time when having fairer skin was associated with beauty and even wealth. In fact, skin-bleaching products were fairly popular.

Listen to Dr. Neal narrate this post on Episode 1428 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.


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But this started to change at the beginning of the 20th century.

Perception of Tan Skin

Around the 1920s, popular magazines started to incorporate images of women with tanned skin. This reversed how tan skin was perceived – instead of fair skin being associated with beauty and wealth, tan skin became associated with these characteristics.

When I hear about self-tanning, I can’t help but think of Ross Gellar from the Friends sitcom and his experiences in automated spray-on tan tanning booths. That’s right – tanning BOOTHS plural.

via GIPHY

If you’ve never seen this episode and need a good laugh, I highly recommend it. It’s one of my favorites. Anyhoo…

Are There Risks to Using Self-Tanning Lotions?

Your question wasn’t about these spray-on tans but more about self-tanning lotions, specifically. Chemically, they are different. So, let’s focus on your question specifically.

Based on the research I’ve seen, the risks of using these self-tanning lotions are small. The key is to find ingredients that have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Most of these products contain a product called dihydroxyacetone (or, abbreviated DHA).

Just like other areas of the body, our skin cells die off and we grow new ones to replace them. This means, at any given time, we have lots of these dead skin cells.

Why am I talking about this? Well, DHA – that product that’s found in most of these FDA-approved self-tanning lotions – works by binding to these dead skin cells and making them look darker. That’s what gives that tanned look. The American Academy of Dermatology also agrees that these products are safe to use provided that they contain ingredients approved by the FDA. DHA has actually been approved as a tanning agent since 1977.

What about Tyrosine?

Now, some products use a different ingredient called tyrosine. Tyrosine is actually a type of amino acid (or, protein). Including tyrosine in self-tanning lotions isn’t approved by the FDA. So at this time it’s likely best to avoid self-tanning lotions that contain tyrosine.

What about Ross Gellar using self-tanning sprays? Are those safe? It appears that those are safe to use, also.

What about Sunburns?

But here’s something that we have to remember: these self-tanning lotions may not protect against sunburns. In order to protect against sunburns, we have to apply products to the skin that contain ultraviolet (UV) protection. Over-exposure to the sun’s UVA and UVB rays damage our skin cells. Yes, that leads to the skin becoming darker but this damage also increases risk of skin cancer. So, by using a lotion or spray to achieve this same look is a much safer option.

I do need to mention that it’s important to use these products properly. You should definitely follow the directions on the bottle.

How Do I Use Tanning Lotions Effectively?

The Mayo Clinic posted some tips when applying these products to the skin. They say to improve the product’s effectiveness:

  • Apply the product in a circular motion
  • After applying it to one part of your body, wash your hands before applying to another area. Otherwise, your palms will start to look disproportionately darker. So, after applying the lotion to your legs, wash your hands with soap before applying it to your arms.
  • Then, be sure to wait at least 10 minutes before dressing yourself to allow it to dry.

Listen to Dr. Neal narrate this post on Episode 1428 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.

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Neal Malik

Dr. Neal Malik ("Dr. Neal") has a Doctorate in Public Health with emphases in disease prevention and nutrition. He is also a Registered Dietitian and Certified Health Education Specialist. He is currently an assistant professor at California State University, San Bernardino. Dr. Neal has published peer-reviewed scientific research and been featured as a nutrition and wellness expert in over 70 media outlets including Parade and The L.A. Times. Send in your health related question and Dr. Neal will answer it on the Optimal Health Daily show!
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