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Dangers of Sunless Tanners

Most sunless tanners you see on the market contain an ingredient called dihyroxyacetone (DHA for short.  Not the same kind of DHA you find in omega-3 fatty acids, by the way.) Many people think that using a sunless tanner is a safer option than tanning outside.  The truth is that they're not, and they may be more harmful.

First of all, it has been found that using DHA based sunless tanners can inhibit the production of vitamin D in the body. When exposed to sunlight, a response in the skin is triggered and vitamin D is created.  Low levels of vitamin D have been associated with higher cancer risk, depression, and heart disease. Many people, if not most, are highly deficient in this important vitamin.  Using dihyroxyacetone inhibits the production of vitamin D, thus leading to further deficiencies. 

Second, products with dihydroxyacetone can have a very limited shelf life, and must be formulated in a very specific manner to be stable. The formula has to be quite acidic in order to stay stable, and that can be irritating to skin. And if not formulated properly, the DHA can break down and create strong skin irritants.

Finally, when applied to skin, it has been found to generate high amounts of free radical damage: While you may be thinking you're protecting yourself from "the sun's damaging rays" using DHA products, you're creating invisible damage to your skin that is possibly putting you at a higher risk for skin cancer. 

DHA is found in even the (fake) "organic" sunless tanners.  It's in the paraben-free formulations.  It's everywhere.  It might be mixed in with organic botanicals, and you might even see endorsements from "green experts."  But DHA is DHA.  It's damaging to skin, highly unstable, and inhibits one of the most important vitamins our body needs. 

Reader Comments (13)

Hi Stephanie, Since both of these studies look at risks associated with sun exposure, combined with DHA use, would you still say using sunless tanners is not safer than using tanning beds and tanning in the sun? As for myself and the people I know who use tanners, the reason we use them is because we don't get sun exposure. These studies look at the effects of using tanners and then also going in the sun right? Perhaps I'm misunderstanding the extracts from the studies. Another study found that the use of sunscreen, similarly, inhibits vitamin d creation, but without sunscreen, the sun wreaks havoc on our skin. If using a sunless tanner once a week doesn't irritate my skin, and I don't get sun exposure, is there any other reason DHA should be considered damaging to skin?

Thu, July 21, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterspirit

That's a great question! If you're using dihydroxyacetone to darken your skin, but not getting sun exposure, the free radicals are still generated, just not at an accelerated pace as they would be in sun exposure. Second, if you are not getting any sunlight, and using DHA, you're probably severely deficient in Vitamin D.

This study found that long-term use of DHA led to contact dertmatitis and some major skin damage. This study found that DHA "has an effect on the amino acids and nucleic acids which is bad for the skin." Sun exposure or not, I would personally suggest avoiding it.

Thu, July 21, 2011 | Registered Commenter[Stephanie Greenwood]

Here's another study that found free radical damage from DHA occurs without UV radiation.

Thu, July 21, 2011 | Registered Commenter[Stephanie Greenwood]

After reading information on sunless tanners, I understand that it's not as healthy of a choice as companies tout. I'm not a regular sunless tanning user, but need some color for a wedding that I'm in so this would be a very temporary fix. I take 5000 IUs of Vitamin D per day, so hoping this will compensate for the loss of it when using a sunless tanning product (I found one that is rated a "2" by EWG)? The bigger question I have is whether this sunless tanning cream will impact my breast milk? Thanks for your help.

Tue, June 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAngela

There haven't been any studies about dihydroxy acetone and how it would impact lactation. I would use caution when using this product and breastfeeding. DHA is highly unstable and can be a strong skin irritant. Maybe not for you, but if you get some on your baby it could really irritate his/her skin. So, make sure that it's completely cleaned off or have a good fabric barrier before you breastfeed.

Which product are you looking at on the EWG website?

Thu, June 7, 2012 | Registered Commenter[Stephanie Greenwood]

Hi Stephanie, the name of the self-tanner I found is called Caribbean Solutions Natural Beach Colours made by Caribbean Sol.

Mon, June 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAngela

The product you mentioned does still contain DHA. The Cosmetics Database rates it lower because the other ingredients are ok, but do remember that the EWG risk score for a product is just based on a mathematical formula--you don't have people actually personally rating the products. One thing that they're not considering is this--there does not appear to be a preservative in the product. How is it keeping from growing mold and bacteria? I would stay away from it for both reasons.

Fri, June 15, 2012 | Registered Commenter[Stephanie Greenwood]

Is there a sunless spray/lotion you could recommend that is Dha free?

Sat, June 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHillary

Hi there. After reading your article, I tossed a full shelf of self tanners. I have a question about this one though. Sally hansen airbrush. What do you think about that product?

Sun, August 25, 2013 | Unregistered Commentertatyana

Hi Stephanie
I used a tanner a couple of weeks ago. Now I've developed a serious and irritating rash on the back of my legs because of it. How can I completely remove the product from my skin!

Wed, May 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDebbie

I used a cheap self tanner and it didnt burn on my stomach but my side stomach it cased a burning sensation but there are no irratation signs anywhere i immediately took it off but i am concerned because one of the ingredients was ddihyroxyacetone. Any advice would be helpful ive never used self tanner and im not sure how these things work.

Fri, May 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDebbie Lee

@Debbie--it definitely could have been the dihydroxyacetone that your skin was reacting to.

Thu, May 29, 2014 | Registered Commenter[Stephanie Greenwood]

Hi I had read somewhere about the DHA thing doing the things you mentioned and have used self tans (not spray ones as have asthma) on/off when I wasnt using a tanning bed. I did find when I used a tanning bed it did help with my depression. I didnt over do it and kept my skin moisturized. I have noticed a few 'wash off tans' online and was wondering if you have any info comments on those? One thing I cant stand is the self tan smell (I think its the developing with your amino acids in your skin and each persons level of stinky tan is different?) ...Self Tan is a big $$$ thing, being white is ok with me but tans do hide dark circles and flaws make your eyes look whiter and your teeth lol Anyone out there use a wash off tan that stays good?

Wed, March 30, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSherry WG

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