With the summer sun soon receding into the fall, many of us are preparing to activate the top-secret “operation fake tan” into action. Myself, I’m no exception. As I scout the shelves of online beauty shops I’ve been overwhelmed by the volume and variety of products that will let me show some tanned leg or even a browned ankle toward keeping the summer vibe going well into the gray of Autumn. But there is something that I never thought about before and that is what goes into faking tan potions? What makes up the chemical cocktail we slather all over our precious skin in a bid to get a couple shades darker. Do you know what’s in your fake tan? I didn’t either. That’s as good a place to start as any, so let’s quickly break it down, shall we?
The active ingredient in fake tan products is dihydroxyacetone, otherwise known as DHA. DHA reacts with amino acids on the skin to turn it brown. This has, by all accounts I researched, been deemed fairly harmless. It’s not surprising either considering DHA is derived from sugar beets or sugarcane, and by the fermentation of glycerin. The property to darken skin was first discovered by German scientists in 1920s due to accident in the lab, a simple spill. I am not going to say whom I think those Germans were experimenting on, but I can confidently guess that the test subjects were hairless apes, and, uhm, likely human. Thankfully, those compulsory guinea pigs would not have suffered at all from their exposure to DHA. The effects of DHA are non-toxic, made possible by a chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars that give browned foods their distinctive flavors. Think seared steaks, pan-fried dumplings, toasted marshmallows, and also YOU, once you’ve applied your fake tan – all these things undergo this reaction, called the Maillard reaction. Different people, different amino acids, different reactions to DHA, hence a variety of tones of coloration when people use fake tane, from yellow to brown.
As with most other things, quantity matters. Fake tan products can contain anywhere between 1% to 15% of DHA. The smaller the percentage, the lighter or less intense the tanning result.
So those are the basics of fake tanning and its active component DHA. It seems there isn’t much to worry about. It seems. Damn. Actually, there is something to worry about.
For 24 hours after a DHA application with concentration of 5% or higher, human skin becomes radically more susceptible to free-radical damage from sunlight. Forty minutes after the researchers treated skin samples with high levels of DHA they found that more than 180 percent additional free radicals formed during sun exposure compared with skin that was not treated with DHA. (source: National Institutes of Health https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18024196)
Another ingredient routinely added to fake tan products, erythrulose, had the same effect when applied in higher concentration. The conclusion is straightforward: you need to avoid exposure to direct and prolonged sunlight for at least 24 hours after applying fake tan. Seeing as you are not a vampire and those aren’t exactly convenient to follow instructions, If, and when, you really must go out into the sun, use the highest SPF sun screen you can manage. Sunscreen protection products are yet another cocktail and another topic for another time, so I won’t get into it now.
As much as there are some risks associated with at-home fake tanning, spray tanning at a “professional” salon is actually worse. First of all, the concentration of DHA in professional fake tanning products is higher than most products available in the shop – all the way up to 15%, and secondly, a June 2012 FDA report claims that DHA can cause damage to cells and possibly lead to cancer if inhaled (http://abcnews.go.com/Health/safety-popular-spray-tans-question-protected/story?id=16542918&singlePage=true)
– which it is: when a high pressure spray is going all over your body it’s inevitable that some of the product gets into your body through your nose and mouth. You must request protection from inhaling the spray tan – you’d be an idiot not to after reading this.
Aside from the FDA report, there’s been a host of peer-reviewed studies that identify DHA as a potential mutagen. One study released by the Department of Dermatology, Bispebjerg Hospital, and published in Mutation Research, has concluded that DHA ‘induces DNA damage, cell-cycle block and apoptosis’ in cultured cells. (source:https://www.researchgate.net/publication/8548028_Dihydroxyacetone_the_active_browning_ingredient_in_sunless_tanning_lotions_induces_DNA_damage_cell-cycle_block_and_apoptosis_in_cultured_HaCaT_keratinocytes)
There was another study FDA published that is probably cause for more concern than simply not getting exposed to excessive amount of UV rays post-fake tan application. FDA reports that all that DHA doesn’t simply stay in the upper layer of the skin, it penetrates deep in the epidermis, stays there, and, with further applications, gets accumulated, which creates a real possibility for the DHA to enter bloodstream, and that is basically a highway for DHA to arrive at any cell and potentially kick off a cancerous process. (Source: http://abcnews.go.com/Health/safety-popular-spray-tans-question-protected/story?id=16542918)
I really think I might just use some carrot oil on my legs.