Given temperamental and often uninspiring weather conditions, it’s no surprise that more and more of us are keen to get that golden-brown, sun-kissed glow. An April report from The Grocer reported that, according to market analysts Kantar Worldpanel, sales of fake tan have increased massively – by 38.8 per cent – to £20.9 million in the past year. It’s also clear that alternative tanning options are still very much in use, like salon spray tans, tanning pills and, controversially, sunbeds. But is any tan 100 per cent safe for us? Let’s weigh up the options available.
Tanning in the sun
With everything that’s said about the risks of staying in the sun too long, it’s obvious that getting a tan the natural way isn’t problem-free. Sunlight contains both UVA and UVB rays. Both types have damaging effects – UVA can age your skin prematurely while UVB rays can potentially burn it, increasing your skin cancer risk. On top of this, you have to be especially careful in the sun if you fall into certain categories, including, but not limited to people with pale, white or light brown skin, people with freckles and people with a family history of skin cancer.
Yet, the NHS Choices website also highlights the pitfalls of a lack of Vitamin D, explaining that people can make enough of this themselves by “being out in the sun daily for short periods with their forearms, hands or lower legs uncovered and without sunscreen from late March or early April to the end of September, especially from 11am to 3pm”, so clearly some sunlight is good for you. However, you may not know that a natural tan is actually your body trying to guard itself from the negative consequences of UV rays. Given that tans are actually a bodily defensive mechanism, coupled with the risks of sunlight exposure, using this method to get a golden glow doesn’t seem advisable.
Sunbeds, sunlamps and tanning booths
These products emit ultraviolet radiation in an effort to give you a tan. While you generally lie down on a sunbed, you mainly tend to stand in a tanning booth.
Given that sunbeds don’t use natural sunlight, it might seem easy to believe that they are safer than lying out in the sun on a hot day. However, according to a page on the NHS Choices website, sunbeds, sunlamps and tanning booths give out the same kind of radiation as sunlight, with the page in question mentioning both UVA and UVB rays. NHS Choices also explains that sunbeds can actually be more dangerous than natural sunlight due to them using a concentrated source of UV radiation, with health risks from sunbeds including skin cancer, premature skin ageing, sunburn and eye irritation. It is illegal for under 18s to use them.
Salon spray tans
During a spray tan, a fine mist is sprayed onto your body. The best self-tanners now use dihydroxyacetone, or DHA, as the active ingredient, which provokes a chemical reaction with amino acids on the top layer of the skin. The effect can last up to ten days, and tans are often topped up by something called erythrulose to make them last longer. DHA is approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for cosmetic use and isn’t viewed as a toxic or carcinogenic substance. However, inhaling isn’t yet approved, and erythrulose isn’t currently okayed by the FDA for purposes of tanning. In 2012, ABC News claimed that “DHA has the potential to cause genetic alterations and DNA damage”.
If you must have a spray tan, the website Organic Authority offers advice including not using the booths that automatically shoot the tan, but seeing someone who will use an air gun to spray the tan. They also advise you to use companies that specialize in spray tans, to wear lip balm, earplugs and nose plugs and, when the air brusher reaches your face and tells you to hold your breath, to do so for as long as possible, keeping eyes and lips tightly closed, unless you want to forgo having the tan on your face and use bronzer instead.
Self tanning products
Again, these products mostly have DHA as their active ingredient, and generally come in the forms of lotions, sprays and creams. Clearly, the aforementioned issues with DHA apply here as well. It should also be noted that, according to Mayo Clinic, most sunless tanning products don’t contain sunscreen and if they do, protection will only last a few hours, so topping up on sun protection is essential.
A less well-known method of tanning are tanning pills. These , a dye used as a colour additive in food. The tanning effect is caused by it accumulating in the epidermis and subcutaneous fatty tissue. However, the US FDA only approves canthaxanthin as a food additive, not in tanning pills.
Some people who have taken canthaxanthin for tanning purposes have experienced eye damage and vision loss. Other side effects of canthaxanthin include diarrhea, nausea, stomach cramps, dry or itchy skin, hives, orange or red body secretions, the potentially fatal blood disorder aplastic anaemia and other effects. It’s a high price to pay if the use of the pills goes wrong. Canthaxanthin is also seen as likely unsafe for pregnant women when taken for tanning. Other pigment-based tanning pills are available offering other pigments, like carotene, while other pills, known as tanning accelerators, are supposed to speed up your body’s production of melanin. However, current research doubts the latter pills work. It must also be noted that in the US, the FDA states: “There are no such pills approved for [tanning purposes]. Nevertheless, pills bearing tanning claims continue to appear on the market.”
Melanotan, a synthetic hormone injected under the skin to increase the levels of the pigment melanin, is illegal in the UK as it has not been licensed under the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). There are two types available, Melanotan I and II, which require diluting in water before injection. Using non-sterile water to dilute the product can cause serious blood infections, while sharing needles can spread blood-borne diseases like HIV and hepatitis.
Clearly, some methods of tanning are far safer than others. However, it appears that, as with using many products, no method of tanning is completely harmless. If you want a tan this summer, serious thought needs to be given to whether your chosen method is worth the potential pitfalls that come with it.