Skin Care

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!

Remember, while focusing on achieving that perfect tan, it's equally important to prioritise your skin health by scheduling regular skin check, mole check, and visits to the skin cancer clinic for professional examinations.

Sources: 1,3,4. Huffington Post: 2. World Health Organisation: 5.

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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