Ask the Doctors

Avoid indoor tanning with sunless tanning products

Question:

My daughter wants to be tan when we she goes to Florida for spring break. I am trying to convince her not to do indoor tanning. What about so-called sunless tanning products? She says they don't look natural. What do you think?

Answer:

Keep trying to convince her to avoid indoor tanning. Not only does she need to worry about skin cancer. Let her know how much older it can make it skin look later on.

Sunless tanning products have been around for decades. The old products, especially the ones you applied yourself, were streaky and they turned the skin an orangey-brown.

Today, the results are much better. People get an even, natural look, especially from the spray-on products applied by hand or by airbrush in booths at salons and other businesses.

Although people associate a suntan with good health, a tan is actually the skin's response to sun damage. The color comes from production of melanin, a brownish pigment. So strictly speaking, sunless tans aren't really tans at all.

The active ingredient in most of the products is a chemical called dihydroxyacetone. It causes a chemical reaction with amino acids in the stratum corneum, the upper layer of the epidermis, turning it a tan-like color.

The color fades as the dead skin cells of the stratum corneum flake off. So these sunless tans are temporary and wear off after several days to a week.

Dihydroxyacetone has been around for a long time. It was approved by the FDA as a color additive for cosmetics in the 1970s. It seems to be safe. The concentrations in the products vary. The higher the concentration, the darker the tan.

You might have heard of "bronzers." They are in a separate category and don't contain dihydroxyacetone. They are tinted cosmetics that may come off on clothing and wash off with water.

The main problem with the sunless tanning products is that people believe they're getting some sun protection from their artificially darkened skin. But they aren't. So they end up getting sunburned and increasing their risk of getting skin cancer.

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