Dihydroxyacetone—that’s DHA to you—which is the active ingredient in self-tanners and spray tans, “has the potential to cause genetic alterations and DNA damage,” according to a panel of scientists in an investigation done by ABC News.
But before you run to the bathroom and ditch yours, let’s take a closer look at what we know so far.
What are the news reports saying? That DHA has the potential to cause genetic alterations, DNA damage, and cancer.
What’s DHA anyway? DHA is a sugar that interacts with amino acids in the top layer of your skin to produce pigment called melanoidins; that’s the brownish tanned look these products achieve. DHA can be manufactured synthetically, or it can be derived from natural things, like beet sugar or cane sugar. It was approved by the FDA for topical use in 1977 (and many orange tans ensued!) and is widely accepted as nontoxic when applied to the skin.
So is it toxic? Some research shows that when it’s applied in the form of a lotion, DHA does not migrate past the stratum corneum, the outermost layer of skin that’s also sometimes called the “dead skin layer.” Which sounds gross, but also sounds like good news—we thought—for your organs if you’re applying it in a cream as opposed inhaling it via a spray tan or a spray-on self tanner.
Up until now, there’s been the most concern about spray tans, due to its application method and the chance you might inhale the stuff. Even the FDA, which is typically mum about all things cosmetics-related, has a warning on its website about them. Which means that for the love of all things good (and good looking) you should not be getting a spray tan!
Fine. But I’m OK with a self-tanner, right? Not so fast. FDA reports dating back to the 1990s, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, cited research that some DHA can migrate to the living layers of the skin after all. How much of it—and where it goes from there—is anybody’s guess.
So what’s the bottom line? As always, it’s up to you. But, if you decide to continue to use self-tanner, some words of advice: Treat it like you treat your favorite going-out lipstick and use it only for special occasions, like a wedding, a job interview, or a hot date.
- Study warns of risks of spray tanning (kshb.com)
- After 40 Years, Self-Tanners Are Relatively Unchanged (bellasugar.com)
- Spray tanning danger: FDA says DHA may damage DNA (wjla.com)