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Self-tanner: A safe sun alternative

woman applying sunless tanning lotion to her legs and feet
The active ingredient in self-tanners causes a safe chemical reaction that temporarily darkens the skin.

Farewell fake baking, hello self-tanner.

Self-tanning products are becoming more popular as awareness about the dangers of tanning beds and exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays has risen.

These lotions, creams, wipes and sprays claim to give you the same sun-kissed look without the risks.

That’s true for the most part, said Dr. Thomas McIntee, a Marshfield Clinic pediatric dermatologist. Self-tanners don’t cause DNA damage that leads to aging and skin cancer like ultraviolet rays do. “The majority of dermatologists consider self-tanners safe,” he said.

But there are precautions you should take when using sunless tanner.

A safe chemical reaction

Dihydroxyacetone, or DHA, is the active ingredient in self-tanners. It’s a sugar molecule that reacts with amino acids in the top layer of your skin to produce a darkening effect. The chemical reaction takes about 12 hours to complete. If you don’t notice a change, wait 12-24 hours before applying more.

After 7-10 days your body sheds the top layer of skin and you will return to your natural color.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved DHA for external use to color skin. There is no evidence that DHA is harmful to humans when used as directed.

Some studies have shown applying high concentrations of DHA to the skin may increase production of free radicals, or molecules that can damage cells. Self-tanners sold in drugstores have low concentrations of DHA and are thought to be safe, McIntee said.

Spray tan safety

The main concern with self-tanning is the effect of spray tan products on the lungs. The FDA states DHA shouldn’t be inhaled, ingested or applied to areas covered by mucous membranes.

Before getting a spray tan, ask the salon how the area is ventilated, how to prevent inhalation and how your eyes, ears, nose and mouth will be protected.

Use at-home spray products in a well-ventilated area. Avoid getting any form of self-tanner in your eyes, ears, nose, mouth or open wounds. Stop using self-tanners if you develop a rash.

Don’t forget sunscreen

“Any artificial tanning product has to be used with sunscreen because self-tanners don’t protect your skin from the sun,” McIntee said.

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends everyone use broad-spectrum water-resistant sunscreen with SPF 30 or greater.

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