Harvard Women's Health Watch

Ask the doctor: How safe are sunless tanners?

Q. Instead of tanning outside in the sun, I've been using a sunless tanner. Are sunless tanners safe?

A. Using a sunless tanner is much safer than tanning by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light—either outdoors or from tanning booths—which can increase skin cancer risk. Nevertheless, some scientists have voiced concern that the compound dihydroxyacetone (DHA)—an agent in sunless tanners that darkens skin by reacting with proteins on the skin's surface—may itself damage skin and make it more vulnerable to sun-induced damage. Despite these concerns, the FDA has approved sunless tanners for external use, but you need to avoid your eyes, nose, and mouth when using these products. This is more of a challenge if you go to a spray self-tanning booth or use a spray preparation yourself than if you use a topical cream or gel.

Regardless of the nice bronze you get from a sunless tanner, you will still need to regularly apply a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 to protect your skin from sun damage. UV radiation may cause basal cell or squamous cell cancers, or the most deadly of skin cancers—melanoma. Melanoma accounts for about 4% of cases of skin cancers, but it causes more than 75% of skin cancer deaths.

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