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Are fake tanning products safe for your skin?

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Team MoleMap Creator
Posted 04/12/19
Can Fake Tans Damage Your Skin 1000

There’s a plethora of fake tanning products on the market these days, all promising varying shades of bronzed, shimmering or sun-kissed skin. For a while now, self-tanning products have been touted as safer alternatives to sunbathing and tanning beds (and yes, we agree they definitely reduce your skin cancer risk!).

But what is the long-term cost of that golden glow? And are fake tanning products all they’re touted to be?

Well, actually, on that front, the news looks pretty good. Dermatologists agree that as long as they’re used as directed (i.e. topically), there is no indication that fake tans are harmful.

DHA – your secret, ‘glowy’ ingredient

Most fake tan products contain an additive called DHA (dihydroxyacetone) as their active ingredient, and this is what temporarily darkens the skin. DHA reacts with the topmost layer of dead skin cells, which is why fake tans only last between around  seven to ten days, as your skin cells shed naturally.

DHA is approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. In the past, there were some concerns over toxicity from highly concentrated DHA, but self-tanning lotions, sprays and creams generally only contain DHA at levels between 3-5%. ( levels considered non-toxic and non-carcinogenic).

However, there are some concerns that inhaling or ingesting DHA can be harmful,  particularly when applying fake tanning product in aerosol form – or when having it professionally sprayed at a beauty clinic or tanning salon.

To avoid any risks, always apply fake tan in a well-ventilated area, protecting the eyes, nose and mouth. This is particularly important if you’re getting a spray tan in a clinic – ask if you can have a mask to protect your face and ensure the room is well ventilated. 

Are Fake Tans Safer Than Sunbeds 1000

Does fake tan offer sun protection?

It’s a common misconception that fake tans offer some sort of sun protection, but they’re cosmetic only and shouldn’t replace sunscreen. While some fake tanning products claim to include an SPF, this can be misleading as it usually wears off within a couple of hours after application.

It’s important to apply at least SPF30+ broad-spectrum sunscreen as well to completely protect yourself from Australia’s harmful UV rays, especially during the summer months. Just wait until your fake tan has dried completely, then layer on the sunscreen.

How do you apply fake tanning products?

To avoid those tell-tale streaks if you’re applying it yourself, it’s essential follow the directions to the letter. Here’s a general guide:

  1.  If you haven’t used fake tan before, patch test a small amount behind your ear 24 hours beforehand.
  2.  Exfoliate first to remove the build-up of dead skin cells, paying special attention to your knees, elbows and ankles. Some people like to moisturise dry areas such as legs, knees and elbows first, but let it soak in for at least ten minutes before applying fake tan.
  3. Apply the tanning lotion or spray in sections, and massage it into the skin in circular motions. To avoid a build-up of colour on your palms, wash your hands thoroughly after each section.
  4. Wipe joint areas such as knees and elbows with a damp towel or face cloth, as these areas tend to absorb more product.
  5. Make sure you give your skin enough time to dry. Wait at least ten minutes before dressing, and wear loose clothing.
  6. Once the fake tan is completely dry, add sunscreen if you’re going out in the sun.
  7. Remember to apply it in a room with plenty of ventilation and avoid breathing in any fumes.
Fake Tan Products Are They Safe 1000

Can you use fake tan if you’re pregnant?

Keen to make that pregnancy glow a little more golden? There’s no evidence that fake tanning creams and lotions are harmful during pregnancy, but as with any product, always do a small patch test first. The active ingredient of DHA reacts with the cells in the outermost layer of your skin, producing a brown pigment, but the DHA isn’t absorbed into the blood stream. Fake tan can dry out your skin, so ensure you use plenty of moisturiser – and if you get a rash, don’t use the product again.

However, experts recommend avoiding having a salon-administered spray tan during pregnancy, for the same reasons mentioned above – it’s possible to inhale some of the DHA during the spraying process.(2)

The consensus: ‘fake it, don’t bake it’.
The consensus from dermatologists and other experts seems to be that fake tanning products won’t harm your skin (as long as you take care not to inhale or ingest the spray).

And the good news is that fake tans have come a long way since the streaky orange shins of the 90’s! These days, most of the products are very sophisticated, with a wide range of shades available for different skin colours – and offer great results as long as you apply them as directed.

At MoleMap, we definitely recommend ‘faking it’ over baking in the sun, because we see the results of sun-damaged skin, every day.

“Using a fake tan is considerably safer than lying in the sun or using a tanning bed,” says MoleMap Clinical Manager, Maria Buckingham. “Sunbathing exposes you to UV radiation that damages your skin and increases the risk of skin cancer, including melanoma. Unlike sunbathing, there's no direct evidence that DHA increases the risk of cancer.”

Fake tanning? Check your skin at the same time.

Applying fake tan is the perfect time to self-check your skin for any early signs of skin cancers, such as melanoma. “The ideal time to apply fake tan is usually after a bath or shower, so use the time to give your body a once-over before you apply the tan,” says Maria Buckingham.

“Check your whole body in a well-lit room with the aid of a mirror, looking closely at the entire body - including your scalp, buttocks and genitals, palms and soles, and between your fingers and toes. And if you see anything that concerns you, see your GP or book a Full Body MoleMap as soon as possible.”

Sources: 1. https://www.netdoctor.co.uk/beauty/skincare/a28445/can-fake-tan-damage-your-skin 2. https://www.bodyandsoul.com.au/health/ask-a-gp-is-it-ok-to-use-fake-tan-while-pregnant/ 3. https://www.cbhscorporatehealth.com.au/news/2016/07/25/is-fake-tan-bad-for-you- 3. Huffington Post: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/fake-real-tanning-health-risks

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