Is There Such a Thing as a Healthy Tan?

Sunless tanning: a safe and healthy alternative to tanning booths

If you’re wondering if it’s possible to safely tan in the sunlight, you might be worried about exposure to the sun’s damaging rays, but still want that sun-kissed glow. Consider striking a compromise with sunless tanning products. There’s a better way to get that golden glow. Bronzers and sunless tanners are safer and faster and can achieve results that are just as beautiful as the real deal. Sunless tanning products generally fall into two categories: cosmetic bronzers that wash off like regular makeup and sunless tanners that actually stain the skin and fade as skin cells slough off.

Sunless tanning products are commonly sold as creams, gels, lotions and sprays that can be applied to the skin. Professional spray-on tanning also is available at many salons, spas and tanning businesses. The active ingredient in most sunless tanning products is dihydroxyacetone (DHA). When applied to the skin, DHA reacts with dead cells in the outermost layer of skin to temporarily darken the skin’s appearance. The coloring does not wash off, but it gradually fades as the dead skin cells slough off, typically within a few days.

Topical sunless tanning products are generally considered safe alternatives to sunbathing, as long as they are used as directed. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved DHA for external application to the skin. However, the FDA has not approved the use of DHA for application to areas near the eyes, mouth or nose. If using a sunless tanning cream, it is easy to avoid these areas. Primary concerns about self-tanning sprays relate to the risk of inhalation and ingestion, which is not recommended.

Dermatologists now steer their patients toward these products if they want more color on their skin. Sunless tanning products, also called self-tanners, can give skin a “sun-kissed glow” without exposing it to harmful, cancer-causing ultraviolet (UV) rays of the sun or tanning booths. According to the American Cancer Society, most of the more than one million skin cancers diagnosed each year in the U.S. are considered sun-related.