Soaking up the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays comes with a few key benefits, such as its ability to stimulate vitamin D production and boost mood. But every esthetician knows excess exposure to UVA and UVB rays can be harmful. According to the American Skin Cancer Foundation, one way to protect against skin damage and still get the golden glow your clients want is with spray tanning. Here we look at whether sunless tanning is a better option.
Sunless Tanning History
Sunless tanning has been around for decades and continues to see a rise in the wellness industry. The first sunless tanning product was Glory of the Sun, an all-over body makeup that made its way to the market in 1929.1
It wasn’t until the 1950s that the active ingredient dihydroxyacetone (DHA), which we know today to safely darken the outer layers of the epidermis, was discovered. The darkening of the skin in response to DHA is the same reaction that causes an apple to turn brown after being sliced. In 1998 spray tans debuted, and this ushered in a new era of bronzed celebrities and the media declaring that tanning was in style.
Spray Tan Active Ingredients
When spray tans first arrived on the market, they were criticized for their streaky, orange appearance and funky smell. That smell was caused by DHA, the most common active ingredient in spray tan products. As spray tans have evolved, so have the active ingredients. While DHA is still used today, the smell and “Oompa Loompa” orange look has diminished thanks to natural forms of DHA.2
DHA is found naturally in sugar beets and sugar cane. It is also a glycerin derivative. Erythrulose, a keto-sugar found naturally in raspberries, is sometimes combined with DHA for a more natural looking tan. Both active spray tan ingredients react with the amino acids in the dead skin cells of the epidermis, giving the illusion of a tan that gradually fades over time.
Spray Tanning Risks
Sunless tanning applications in a spray form are not currently FDA approved and never have been.
DHA is not approved for inhalation (spray tans are a mist) and DHA is not approved for application to mucous membranes, such as the lips, nose, and tissues around the eyes.
According to the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, it's believed that roughly 11 percent of the application is absorbed into the live cells deeper in the epidermis as well as the dermis.3
After application, the skin is especially susceptible to UV radiation and more likely to sunburn.
Spray tans may reduce the amount of vitamin D absorbed by the skin.
The sunless tanning industry is evolving and continues to be about achieving the most natural glow in a healthy way. There is a demand for clean smell, clean feel, and clean performance, and there’s a trend toward natural formulas. In this billion-dollar industry, this may be a great opportunity for solo estheticians and spas to boost their bottom line.
Fashionista, “From Sunlight to Sunless Tanners: The History of Our Obsession with Getting Tan,” accessed Aprl 2023, fashionista.com/2016/07/history-of-tanning.
Huffpost, “History of Fake Tanning -- Sun-Kissed Skin, Minus the Skin Damage,” accessed April 2023, huffpost.com/entry/history-of-fake-tanning-s_b_3818206.
Michael Garone, John Howard, and Jordan Fabrikant, “A Review of Common Tanning Methods,” The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology 8, no. 2, (2015): 43-7, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4345932/.
EO Smith. “Suntans, Cornflakes, Coco Chanel & Skin Cancer.” January 30, 2014. eosmith.com/suntans-cornflakes-coco-chanel-skin-cancer/.
Skin Cancer Foundation. “Tanning & Your Skin.” Updated July 2022. skincancer.org/risk-factors/tanning/.
Verywell Health. “Can Your Spray Tan Cause Cancer?” Updated June 8, 2022. verywellhealth.com/can-getting-a-spray-tan-cause-cancer-513780.