The Surprising Way Self-Tanning Might Be Sabotaging Your Skin

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The message is clear: The sun’s rays are sinister—they’ll not only make your skin age faster, but they also come with the very proven risk of leading to more serious diseases, like skin cancer.

But, summer is here and almost everyone out there loves the look of a sun-kissed tan, and luckily, that’s pretty easy to achieve sans the sun and tanning beds thanks to today’s very sophisticated (and stink- and streak-free!) self-tanners.

It all sounds like a slam-dunk for healthy skin, except that now one doc in the UK is questioning whether or not the whole self-tanning reaction (basically, when the main ingredient of DHA reacts with the outer layers of your skin, which causes the “browning” effect) is actually causing oxidative stress—the very thing we are trying to avoid by staying out of the sun.

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“We don’t know the long-term effects,” Dr. Stefanie Williams told the DailyMail. “They may be insignificant, but oxidation is linked to aging and disease.” In addition, Dr. Williams warns that while DHA has been around for a long time, its safety record does not include inhalation, which is exactly what you are doing when you get a spray tan.

“This has been controversial for awhile,” says New York dermatologist Doris Day, MD. “Every sunless tanner has DHA and it’s an ingredient that has been around for the longest time—it basically causes a browning reaction in the skin (the outer layer) and creates a discoloration that looks like a tan. The old formulations could be streaky and they stunk. But the newer ones have new ingredients and they go on the surface of the skin more smoothly.”

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Sounds pretty straightforward, but Dr. Day says there is a problem, and it has to do with how we’ve changed the way we apply self-tanner. “The problem is this: As spray tans became more popular, we realized you were inhaling and even ingesting the formula and the DHA, which may increase asthma and other respiratory issues, so our recommendations grew to avoid spraying the face and just spraying on the body.”

The good news: Dr. Day says you don’t have to throw out all the self-tanners you are applying at home because of fear of oxidative stress and free-radical damage. “Initially, there could be some free-radical damage, but that’s always happening when skin cells turnover or are stressed. Still concerned? Dr. Day says apply self-tanner at night as opposed to the morning so you aren’t stimulating it, which will lessen the risk for oxidation. 

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