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Are fake tanning products safe for your skin?

Fake tan, your skin, and skin cancer safety.
MoleMap Team
April 29, 2021
6 minutes

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 or grad­ual-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 are fake tan­ning prod­ucts safe to use? Can they cause skin prob­lems? And is it safe to put fake tan on your face or use it if you’re pregnant?

Well, actu­al­ly, on that front, the news looks pret­ty good. Der­mo­tol­o­gists agree that as long as they’re used as direct­ed (i.e. top­i­cal­ly), there is no indi­ca­tion that self-tan­ning prod­ucts are harm­ful.1

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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, Gill Rolfe. ​“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.

In fact, the World Health Orga­ni­za­tion has iden­ti­fied solar UV radi­a­tion as a proven car­cino­gen, with stud­ies link­ing it to about 90 per­cent of non-melanoma skin can­cers and about 86 per­cent of melanomas, as well as pre­ma­ture skin aging.2

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).3

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.4

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.

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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 and oth­er sun-safe­ty mea­sures. 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 a SPF30+ broad-spec­trum sun­screen as well to com­plete­ly pro­tect your­self from our 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.
  8. Remem­ber to wash your hands.

Can you put fake tan­ning prod­ucts on your face?

Yes, you can, but again, there are some basic rules to fol­low to ensure you don’t look like an Oom­pa Loom­pa. The safest option here is to find a fake tan that’s specif­i­cal­ly tar­get­ed for the face – then patch test behind your ear first, to ensure you don’t have a reac­tion to it (see the steps above).

If you’re feel­ing ner­vous about fake tan­ning your face, try adding a pea-sized amount of tan­ning lotion with your mois­turis­er and apply it to your face as usu­al – this will help you build up your tan slow­ly and look more nat­ur­al. For a more pol­ished fin­ish, apply your usu­al mois­tur­iz­er to your skin first to ​‘plump’ any lines or wrin­kles – but wait at least half an hour for it to soak in before apply­ing your tan­ning prod­uct. And make sure you add a touch of mois­turis­er or Vase­line to your brows so they don’t turn orange!

Sources: 1,3,4. https://www.netdoctor.co.uk/beauty/skincare/a28445/can-fake-tan-damage-your-skin https://www.cbhscorporatehealth.com.au/news/2016/07/25/is-fake-tan-bad-for-you- Huffington Post: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/fake-real-tanning-health-risks 2. World Health Organisation: https://www.who.int/gho/phe/ultraviolet_radiation 5. https://www.bodyandsoul.com.au/health/ask-a-gp-is-it-ok-to-use-fake-tan-while-pregnant/

MoleMap Team

At MoleMap we check, detect and treat skin cancer. Find out how you can protect your skin at your nearest MoleMap skin cancer clinic.

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