Sunless Tanners | Self Tanning | Airbrush, Spray-On or Mist-On Tan

Many people still want a summer glow and are turning to sunless ways to get it. Maybe you want a tan for an upcoming wedding. Or perhaps you want a way to camouflage spider veins. "Sunless tanning" includes many methods; from airbrush or spray-on tans, to tanning beds to lotions to pills - but is going into the salon any safer than going to the beach? Here's a look at the different options for sunless tanning and how they work.

Spray-On Tans

Spray-on tans are a service offered by salons, spas and tanning parlors for an all-over glow. An airbrush tan can be more even than the results you could get using a tanning cream at home. While this may also be safer than the UV exposure from tanning lamps, there is still cause for concern. Spray tans color the skin by coating it with (to airbrush it) in a chemical called dihydroxyacetone, or DHA. DHA is a color additive that reacts with cells in the skin surface to darken the skin, simulating a tan that usually lasts for several days. While this chemical is approved by the FDA, it's for external use only, meaning it should not be inhaled, ingested, or applied to the eyes, eye area or lips. With that in mind, the FDA recommends asking the following questions before using a spray-on tanning or misting booth:

  • Will my eyes and the area around them be protected while the tanning mist is being airbrushed on?
  • Will my mouth, lips, nose and ears be protected? Do you have goggles and mouth and nose guards to wear while the tanning chemicals are being sprayed or air-brushed?
  • Will I be protected from inhaling the tanning spray?

If the answer is "no" to any of these questions, the FDA says you should find another salon.

At the tanning salon, you will strip down and enter the tanning booth. There, the mister will direct the spray to cover your entire body. A spray-on tan or mist-on tan can give you a darker look. But be careful not to go too dark. You should aim for a tanned look, not a huge change in your skin color. If you try to go too dark, the resulting tan will not be natural looking. A spray-on tan will last about a week, fading gradually as your skin sloughs off.

For best results, when you go for a mist-on tan, you want your skin to be smooth. Shave the hairs. It's a good idea to exfoliate the skin too beforehand.

Self-Tanners and Bronzers

DHA is also the chemical used in most self-tanners that you apply at home. These include lotions, creams and sprays that you apply and let soak into your skin. Take the same precautions you would at a spray tanning booth, being careful not to get the self-tanner into your eyes, ears, nose or mouth.

"Bronzers" are yet another option for a temporary tanned look. The term usually refers to cosmetic products, such as tinted moisturizers and brush-on powders. They provide a limited tanned appearance, by staining the skin with color additives approved by the FDA for cosmetic use. Like other types of make-up, bronzers can be washed off with soap and water.

You should also be aware that while these products give you a tanned appearance, most self-tanners and bronzers do not offer any sunburn protection. Only those with sunscreen ingredients and sun protection factor (SPF) numbers on the label provide any sort of protection. Both the FDA and AAD recommend using a broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or above before going outdoors

One last form of tanning agent you may see on the market are so-called "tanning pills." Don't be fooled, these pills are not safe and none is approved by the FDA. They claim to tint the skin through the ingestion of large amounts of color additives, usually canthaxanthin. While this can cause the skin to change color, ranging from orange to brownish, such large doses can also have serious side effects. The FDA reports health problems from tanning pills can range from nausea and severe itching to liver damage or an eye disorder called "canthaxanthin retinopathy" in which yellow deposits form in the eye.

If you really want a tanned appearance, the best bet is to use caution and ask your doctor if you have any questions.

Tanning Beds

There's no such thing as a "healthy" tan. Any tan, in fact, is really a sign of sun damage from UV rays that can cause premature aging, age spots, wrinkles and skin cancer, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

So be cautious if you are considering tanning salons that offer tanning beds and lamps. This may be convenient but also risky. FDA says the UVA rays from a tanning lamp carry the same risks as tanning outdoors. And the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) says studies show UVA rays go deeper into the skin, contributing to premature aging and skin cancer.

If you are determined to use a tanning bed, however, consider some safety tips. First, check out the machine. The FDA requires that all sunlamp products have a warning label, an accurate timer, emergency stop control, exposure schedule and protective goggles. Don't use a tanning lamp or bed that doesn't have these things.

Next, the FDA recommends these guidelines to reduce the dangers of UV exposure:

  • Always wear the safety goggles, making sure they fit properly and aren't cracked.
  • Begin slowly, using short exposure times to build up a tan.
  • Check the label and follow the recommended exposure time for your skin type.
  • Stick to your time limit.
  • Once a tan is developed, go no more often than twice a week.

The FDA says you should NOT use a tanning bed or lamp if:

  • You sunburn easily and don't tan. If you don't tan in the sun, a sunlamp probably won't work either.
  • You often get cold sores. UV radiation can make them appear more frequently.
  • You are using medicines that might make you more sensitive to UV rays. Check with your doctor or pharmacist.


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