Spray Tan Dangers and Side Effects. Limit Your Risks!

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We all know that too much sun exposure can be quite dangerous, but what about the risks of getting a spray tan? Are spray tans safe? Are there spray tan dangers and side effects that tan lovers need to be aware of? 

Spray tans are approved by the FDA for external use only. They are fairly safe when applied to the skin (safer than a tanning bed, certainly!), but the solution may be dangerous if inhaled or absorbed through the eyes or nose.

Before you hit the tanning salon or break out the spray tan machine, you should understand the risks of spray tans.

This article looks at spray tan chemicals and systems and examines the risks and dangers of these cosmetic tans.


Spray Tan Dangers and Side Effects

spray tan dangers and side effects

What are the dangers and side effects to spray tans? Are they significant?

The short answer is that there are risks to spray tans and the chemicals used. But with proper care when getting a spray tan, the risks are manageable. They are certainly lower than the risks of cancer caused by sunlight! And a spray tan is a much better option than a tanning bed!

Let’s look at how spray tans compare in risk to other methods of getting color, and how to limit your risk when getting (or giving!) a spray tan.

The Sun vs. The Spray Tan – An Introduction to Bad Skin

The sun is… well, the sun! Direct sunlight on the skin causes UVA and UVB radiation to strike the epidermis and dermis, the upper two layers of skin. This process causes a whole host of reactions, some of them beneficial, and some very harmful. Vitamin D gets produced, the skin darkens due to melanin production, and if you’re out in the sun too long, you get a sunburn that could cause skin cancer, including the deadly melanoma.

Spray Tanning does not require any exposure to UVA or UVB rays, as it is a chemical product that is applied to the skin. Consequently, there is no heightened risk of melanoma with a spray tan.

However, you need to remember that a spray tan is not a base tan, and does not provide the protection from the sun that a base tan offers.

How Do Spray Tans Work?

Spray Tan Kit

The spray formula consists primarily of a carbohydrate derived from sugar cane and sugar beets called dihydroxyacetone (DHA). When the spray mist reaches your skin, a chemical reaction occurs between the skin’s amino acids and the DHA. This reaction makes your skin “tan” for 5 – 10 days.

However, that’s not all that goes into the spray tan and other sunless tanning products. Erythrulose, a derivative of red raspberries, is also added to the tanning solution to increase the potency and longevity of the tan.

Sounds good so far?

Skin Diagram

DHA reacts mostly with the outermost layer of the skin, the stratum corneum. This is a layer of dead skin cells, which turn a darker color when exposed to DHA.

When you spray tan, you’re mostly just darkening skin cells that are already dead. They will naturally be shed over the course of the next 5-10 days. As they fall off, your spray tan will go away with them.

This is a natural process and would happen regardless of your tan. Every day, you lose about 1 million skin cells!

Risks of Spray Tanning: Allergy and Asthma

Spray Tan Mask

Well, here’s the problem: These chemicals are approved for application on the skin, but they’re not approved for “internal” application.

External use only!

Internal application of these chemicals includes inhaling the mist, and getting the mist onto your mucous membranes (nose and lips) and in your eyes. According to the FDA, the chemicals in spray tan formulas are not completely approved for application on the human body, though they are considered safe for use on the skin.

According to the FDA, the chemicals in spray tan formulas are not completely approved for application on the human body, though they are considered safe for use on the skin.

In practice, inhalation is by far the biggest danger, but it’s not the only one.

Although DHA is naturally derived, the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t fully endorse spray tanning. There are potential connections between internal exposure to DHA and cancer.

Yes, spray tanning can elevate your risk of cancer. Just like suntans. And even some sunscreens may increase your risk of cancer.

Sigh (you should still use sunscreen, though!).

Most spray tanning salons and mobile tanners now insist you wear protection before your tanning treatment begins. You should wear a mask, or wear spray tan nose filters while you’re getting your tan applied.

Spray Tan Nose Filters

Many spray tan salons and mobile tanning booth operators in the United States require children under 15 to show parental consent before getting a spray tan.

Dihydroxyacetone (DHA) – The Active Ingredients In Spray Tans

When applied to the skin, DHA reacts with the uppermost layer of the skin and produces melanoidins. This is what happens when your skin is tanning. It’s not a dye that is coloring the skin, but rather a chemical reaction that causes the skin to turn color.

In fact, it is the Maillard Reaction, which is the same process that causes beef on a pan to turn brown in the presence of heat.

And although the FDA approved DHA for external application, if you plan to get a spray tan, you need to be careful to not let that external exposure become internal exposure.

When applied to the skin’s epidermis, the topmost layers, 11% of DHA is absorbed into the live cells in the epidermis and the dermis. This means that your body is ingesting some DHA via the skin. This has not been found to be dangerous in humans at this point, but it is a concern that merits further study.

Studies have found out that DHA may have some health concerns when tested on mice and bacteria. This could mean that DHA could be capable of damaging DNA, which results in mutations.

Damaged DNA could translate into cancer, birth defects, etc. Again, these tests are in bacteria and mice, but are nonetheless worrisome.

Scientists and physicians have strongly emphasized that DHA should be kept away from mucosal passages and airway passages. Researchers found out that repeated exposure to spray tan treatments resulted in people developing asthma, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, and even lung cancer.

Oh, and it’s not just the clients who are at risk. Spray tan technicians, who carry out these appointments, are more at risk of suffering the consequences of inhaling DHAs and other chemicals than the clients.

Simple rule: don’t breathe in the spray tan mist!

There Are Propellants in Your Spray Tan, Too

The propellant used in some spray tans is known as Dimethyl Ether. This is a colorless gas, which is added to aerosol products to give them their misting properties. Exposure to this gas is dangerous.

The EPA has declared Dimethyl Ether a toxic gas belonging to Category IV. Although this means that it has lower levels of acute toxicity for the environment, it still is an ingredient you should be very wary of putting near your body.

If exposed to it for long periods of time, it can cause a toxic reaction in the body.

And that’s not all.

Apparently, this gas can also serve as a skin irritant and could lead to contact dermatitis. In fact, this is also one of the causes of aerosol burn that some clients suffer from after going through such radical treatments, like spray tanning at salons.

Other Ingredients Which Are Pretty Hard to Pronounce – But Not Great For Human Health

Some other ingredients that a spray tan might expose you to are:

  • PEG-45 Palm Kernal Glycerides: This is an emulsifier and an emollient.
  • PEG-8 Laurate: Another emulsifier.
  • PEG-4 Dilaurate: An emulsifier

These complicated chemicals are not so complicated when broken down. Bottom line: they’re generally not very good for your body.

Some of these emulsifiers don’t harm the skin directly but may cause damage if they enter the bloodstream. Consequently, if you have a cut on your skin, you may not want to spray that area with a spray tan formula. It could cause PEGs to enter your bloodstream.

And Let’s Not Forget the Concerns About Preservatives and Parabens

Your favorite spray tan product may well contain tons of parabens and preservatives. Thanks to the green movement all over the world, awareness about the dangers of these are enough to scare people into opting for paraben and preservative-free products.

Parabens mimic estrogen-like properties and activity, which could potentially cause hormonal and reproductive issues in women.

There is no clear evidence on the harms of parabens at this point. But there are several suggestive studies that point to concerns.

Due to this, many prefer to choose natural products that don’t contain parabens and other preservatives.

Fragrances and Skin Irritations

DHA tends to produce a scent that is… gross. And you typically will want to wait several hours to shower after a spray tan. Consequently, most spray tan formulas include loads of fragrances and perfumes to cover up the smell of the DHA so that you can go about your day after you get your spray tan.

See how to get rid of the spray tan smell for more.

However, these fragrances can often irritate the skin and lead to skin rash or an allergic reaction. And if your skin is irritated by the fragrances, you’ll have to decide whether to live with the irritation until you’re ready to shower, or shower early and end up with a spray tan that’s uneven or otherwise incomplete.

Spray Tans, Sunlight, and Vitamin D

Tanning at the Pool

Spray tans have also been linked to Vitamin D deficiency in the body. As discussed in this article on the benefits of tanning, The sun is the natural way of absorbing vitamin D, and the skin is the natural way of ingesting it. And unfortunately, spray tans are linked to a heavy reduction in the amount of Vitamin D that your body would normally absorb.

The lack of Vitamin D can cause serious problems. It is not only linked to various psychiatric ailments like depressive disorders, mood disorders, and even personality disorders, but also to deteriorating bone health, metabolism, and cardiac health. And to make matters worse, it also disrupts the circadian rhythm.

In other words, because your skin has become unnaturally darker, your body could potentially not produce as much Vitamin D as it otherwise would because the spray tan is blocking some of the ultraviolet rays.

See here for information on how to tan with a spray tan.

Spray Tans Provide No Sun Protection

You also need to remember to wear sunscreen if you’ve got a spray tan. Unlike a real tan, a spray tan does not provide any protection against UV rays. Even though your skin may look like you’ve been lounging on the Riviera for a week, your actual skin tone is pale as a ghost underneath.

Exposure to UV rays from the sun can lead to damage to the skin and sunburn.

Also, the UV rays from the sun will degrade your spray tan quickly, so it’s not a great idea to go tanning after you have a spray tan.

Reducing the Risks of Spray Tans

Let’s look at a few ways you can reduce your risk of spray tanning.

Proper Instruction to Your Spray Tan Professional

Be sure that the person applying your spray tan is aware of the dangers of spray tan chemicals. They should know how to use the machine, and how to accurately spray. They should understand the nozzle position and spray pattern relation, and they should know how significant the spread of the spray is.

The key is to avoid getting the mist near the eyes, nose, and mouth. You’ll need to blend those areas in with makeup, bronzers, self-tanning drops, and the like, but that’s usually not difficult.

The key is to avoid getting the mist near the eyes, nose, and mouth. You’ll need to blend those areas in with makeup, bronzers, self-tanning drops, and the like, but that’s usually not difficult.

Much better than getting blasted in the mouth and eyes with a potential poison!

Avoid Spray Tans on Cuts and Open Wounds

If you have a significant cut on your skin, you don’t want to apply spray tan to that area. Be sure to cover the cut with a bandage or other covering before your spray tan to ensure that none of the spray tan liquid gets into the bloodstream.

Elera Spray Tan Nose Filters

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The most important thing you can do to reduce your health risk when getting a spray tan is to ensure that you’re not inhaling aerosolized spray tan mist. The best way to do that is to use some nose-filters while receiving a spray tan. These filters by Elera will do a good job, as will most any similar filter.

Be sure you close your mouth and eyes while getting sprayed anywhere near your face, and you should instruct your spray tan professional that you don’t want the spray to get close to your eyes or mouth.

Even better: wear eye protection so that you don’t damage your eyes from spray tanning.

Nipple Tips for Breastfeeding Moms

If you’re a new mom and still breastfeeding, you don’t want your child to get exposed to spray tan chemicals from your nipples! To avoid this, you can use Tanning Tips.

These covers are designed to shield the nipples and the skin around the nipples during the spray tan process, in order to ensure that no spray tan chemicals get onto the nipples themselves.

This way, you can be sure your baby won’t get exposed to any unhealthy chemicals from your spray tan.

Wear a Mask While Spraying

If you’re a spray tan professional or run a mobile spray tan business, you’ll be spraying a lot of people. You should be wearing a mask while doing your application.

Final Thoughts

Spray tans carry some risks, though for most people they are much less dangerous than tanning in a tanning bed. Avoid inhaling the solution and don’t forget to put on sunscreen, and you will likely be fine.

Written by Kayla Young

Kayla is the founder of LuxeLuminous. She has worked professionally in the tanning industry for years. She has been interested in esthetics since childhood, and has tried every hair, skin, and makeup product ever produced (more or less).