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Self-Tanning Products are Completely Safe

By Michael Lasalandra
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center correspondent

In order to get a deep, rich tan these days, you no longer have to bake in the sun or visit a tanning salon, both of which can be dangerous to your health. Now, all you have to do is lather on one of many self-tanning or faux-tan products on sale at any drug store.

But are these gels, mists and creams safe?

The answer is an unequivocal "yes," says Dr. Robert Stern, Chief of the Department of Dermatology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and a professor at Harvard Medical School.

"They are quite safe,” he says. “As with anything one applies to the skin, there may be some minor irritation, but that is quite rare. The only danger is that most of them don’t contain any sunscreen. Sometimes, people think that because their skin is darker, they are more protected and don’t need a sunscreen. Just remember that you are just as sensitive to the sun as if you had not used it.”

Sunless tanners contain dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a colorless sugar, which reacts with the amino acids in the top or "dead" layer of the skin to produce a temporary tan. DHA combines with the amino acids to produce a brown color. The effect lasts only a few days as the skin naturally sheds the dead cells which have been colored. DHA is listed as safe by the FDA.

Besides being harmless, these products have the added benefit of reducing sun exposure, since people who use them don’t need to lie in the sun or go to a tanning booth to become golden brown.

“If people will substitute them for sun exposure to achieve a tan, then they are a good thing,” Stern says. “If you want to achieve the color that one of these creams get you to, it’s the safest way to get there.”

He notes that tanning beds have skin cancer risks comparable to sun exposure, but may not even provide the vitamin D benefits associated with sun exposure, depending on what kind of light source is being used in the bed.

Makers of the products suggest users first exfoliate their skin — take a shower and scrub hard. But the recommendation has nothing to do with safety. It is designed to reduce the chances of streaking.

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor

Posted June 2013

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Department of Dermatology
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center


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Boston, MA 02215
617-667-3753


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