Consultant dermatologist Dr Anjali Mahto gives us the inside scoop on fake tanning and your health.
Medically reviewed by Dr Roger Henderson and words by Sophie Goddard
Longing for tanned limbs? Thankfully, things have come a long way in fake tanning since the nineties (streaky orange shins are now a thing of the past!) but there is still plenty of conflicting information surrounding the safety implications of home bronzing.
Is fake tanning really safe for your skin or should we all embrace what Mother Nature gave us? Dr Anjali Mahto, Consultant Dermatologist at the Cadogan Clinic, breaks it down for us – covering everything from DHA risks to whether you can fake tan while pregnant:
Is fake tan safer than the real thing?
There’s been a lot of discussion about the safety of DHA recently. DHA stands for dihydroxyacetone, the substance that darkens the skin by reacting with amino acids in dead skin cells (it’s responsible for that biscuity odour, too). But according to Dr Mahto, it’s no real cause for concern.
‘Using a fake tan is considerably safer than lying in the sun or tanning booth,’ she says. ‘Real tanning works by exposing you to UV radiation that damages the skin and increases the risk of skin cancer. Any risks associated with DHA are widely-debated and remain purely speculative and, unlike sunbathing, there’s no direct evidence DHA increases the risk of cancer.’
It’s still best not to breathe it in
Tanning mitts at the ready? Think about how you apply your tan, and whereabouts you do it. ‘Evidence suggests DHA is safe in the concentrations used in fake tan, but special care should be taken to avoid inhaling, ingesting, or getting it in your eyes – especially when using sprays,’ says Dr Mahto.
Her advice is to always apply fake tan in a well-ventilated area, protecting the eyes, nose and mouth – and then you’re good to go. ‘As long as you follow product instructions, there’s no reason to be concerned,’ she says.
Are organic tans ‘healthier’?
Tempted to pick up an organic fake tan? You could be wasting your time. ‘Like regular fake tans, organic ones still usually contain DHA, but the main difference is they claim to derive it from natural ingredients – such as sugar beets – as opposed to man-made, synthetic types,’ says Dr Mahto.
Like regular fake tans, organic ones still usually contain DHA, but claim to derive it from natural ingredients.
‘They claim to react to the amino acids only in the dead top layers of the skin, whereas non-natural and non-organic fake tans could contain chemicals added to weaken the skin’s surface.’
The result is a faster-developing tan, with the product being absorbed into the bloodstream. Still, Dr Mahto is quick to point out there’s actually no conclusive evidence of this, so if your favourite fake tan is not organic, then it’s probably not worth losing sleep over.
Yes you can still burn wearing fake tan
While it’s easy to feel smug fake tanning while your friends are getting a real one, don’t relax too much. ‘Getting your tan from a bottle doesn’t mean your skin hasn’t – or won’t – encounter sun damage, so a broad-spectrum factor 30+ sunscreen should still be regularly applied,’ warns Dr Mahto. Be mindful of SPF claims, too.
‘Some fake tans claim to include an SPF, but, this can be misleading as any SPF within the fake tan will wear off a couple of hours after application. Proper sun protection should never be substituted – don’t kid yourself a fake tan offers any protection.’
Skin patch tests are a must
Have a big event coming up and plan on fake tanning? It’s always worth doing a patch test. ‘Skin types and allergies vary from person to person (some develop over time, too) so it’s always safest to conduct a patch test behind the ear 24 hours beforehand,’ says Dr Mahto.
‘Most people don’t have a reaction to fake tan, but if you have sensitive skin it could flare up due to any perfume or alcohol in the product – or if you’ve never used a product containing DHA before.’
Can you fake tan when you’re pregnant?
There’s plenty you probably shouldn’t do while pregnant (bye bye soft blue cheese) but the good news is, fake tanning isn’t one of them. ‘It’s generally considered safe to use fake tan during pregnancy, but you should stick to self-application products and avoid spray tans, as there is unconfirmed speculation around the effects of inhaling the spray,’ says Dr Mahto.
It’s generally safe to use fake tan during pregnancy, but stick to self-application products and avoid spray tans.
‘Either way, the DHA isn’t thought to go beyond the outer of skin, so it won’t be absorbed by the body and is therefore unable to harm the baby. But bear in mind that pregnancy can heighten your risk of having an allergic reaction, as the changes in your hormone levels can make your skin more sensitive than normal.’
Can you use oil when fake tanning?
Most fake tanners know that hydrating your skin is essential when it comes to maintaining the longevity of your tan (it’s important day-to-day, too). But it’s crucial to make sure the lotion you’re using is oil-free. ‘Oils break down the DHA in fake tan, and cause the tan to fade faster,’ explains Dr Mahto.
Is laser hair removal off the table?
Fake tan and laser hair removal don’t mix – if you apply fake tan before a laser hair removal appointment, you’re increasing your risk of blisters and burns. ‘Self-tanning products darken the surface of the skin, and when this happens it creates a competing target for the light energy of the laser, the other target is the colour in the hair,’ explains Dr Mahto.
‘It means more laser energy will be absorbed at the skin’s surface rather than at the base of the hair follicle, which is where we want the light energy to be absorbed for the treatment to be effective. This results in too much light energy being absorbed at the surface of the skin, creating unwanted heat which can then cause blisters or burns.
Don’t forget to check your moles
How many of us honestly take the time to regularly check our skin? Thought so. According to Dr Mahto, self-exams should be conducted on a monthly basis to detect unusual growths or changes early on. ‘The ideal time is usually after a bath or shower, so use your fake tanning time to your advantage and give your body a check before you apply the tan,’ says Dr Mahto.
‘Carry it out in a well-lit room with the aid of a full-length mirror, looking closely at the entire body – including the scalp, buttocks and genitalia, palms and soles – including the spaces between the fingers and toes.’