Is fake tan bad for your skin?

Well here is an interesting one we were recently asked! Is fake tan bad for your skin? Well the answer generally is…

We probably don’t really know…. AND it probably somewhat depends on the product.

The main active in most fake tanners is dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a sugar molecule that when applied to the skin reacts with amino acids (protein fragments) in the outer skin cell layer to cause a darkening effect. Often change is seen within an hour of application though darkening is often experienced for 8-24 hours thereafter. Effect usually lasts as long as coloured skin cells remain, though turnover of this layer occurs generally at a rate of 5-7 days.

A recent review on the data around DHA suggests that there is currently no clear guidance about safe levels of DHA during application. Though it has been found to contribute to airway irritation when aerolised (sprayed), increased UV damage risk and altered histologic appearance of cells under microscope prompting misdiagnoses and/or unnecessary biopsy. Although accepted by the FDA and TGA for topical use, DHA in tanning products should probably not be thought of as inert like we often consider it. Possible side effects include increased DNA damage (skin ageing and cancer predisposition) through liberation of damaging radial oxygen species, dermatitis and skin irritation due to unknown compounds added to products, systemic and mucosal membrane inflammation during malabsorption with a host of effects from diarrhoea to airway irritation.

What is clear is that more research into the long term effects of tanning products needs to be done, especially in relation to increased skin cancer risk. In the meantime it is recommended:

  • To use products as per the label, generally avoiding areas where intake of product into the skin might be higher – i.e. around the eyes and mouth. This is particularly important in tanning booths, where aerolisation is not necessarily FDA approved

  • Not to think a fake tan will protect you from the sun, in fact the evidence indicates it may increase the likelihood of damage so up the ante with your sun protection

  • To check in with your dermatologist or skin doctor frequently and ensure any darkened or suspicious looking lesions are mapped and monitored. Dr Al’sheer, Dr Kunzer and Dr Pappas at MFMP will be able to help you with this! Make sure to advise your doctor of tanning product use prior to any biopsies or lesion removals which can appear changed under microscope due to DHA.

  • Discontinue tanning products if you are using other potentially irritating products such as tapes, dressings, creams to reduce the potential for dermatitis reactions

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