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Sunless tanning products

Many people tan because they think it improves their appearance. Some expose themselves to ultraviolet (UV) rays to get a tan. There are also many different kinds of sunless tanning products on the market. These products offer consumers a tanned appearance without having to go out in the sun or using artificial sources of UV radiation (indoor tanning). Health Canada classifies sunless tanning products that are applied to the skin as cosmetics.

Self-tanning products

Self-tanning products (self-tanners) are sunless tanning products that you apply to your skin and are available in many forms, including lotions, creams, gels, mousses, cosmetic wipes and sprays. The most common ingredient in self-tanners is dihydroxyacetone (DHA). DHA is a sugar compound that comes from plant sources, such as sugar beets or sugar cane, and is a colour additive. When absorbed, DHA reacts with basic amino acids (proteins) in dead skin cells on the top layer of the skin. DHA darkens or stains the cells, giving the skin a bronzed colour and the appearance of a tan.

Self-tanning products contain DHA in different concentrations, ranging from 1%–10%. Most drug or cosmetic store products range from 3–5% and professional products can range up to 15%. The intensity of colour the product produces on the skin depends on the amount of active ingredient in the product, as well as the number of applications and the frequency of use. The “tan” is temporary. It fades when you stop using the product and as the body sheds dead skin cells. The tan usually disappears within about a week unless the product is reapplied.

Other ingredients, such as vitamins, herbal extracts, antioxidants and alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), may be added to some self-tanning products to increase their effects.

Spray tanning

Self-tanning products can be applied professionally by airbrushing or with spray tanning booths. These techniques use sprays or misters to apply a solution to the body in a very short time. The solution is only to be applied to the outside of the body (externally) and should not be used on lips, the eye area or any area covered by mucous membranesmucous membranesThe thin, moist layer of tissue that lines some organs and body cavities, including the nose, mouth, lungs, airways, vagina and gastrointestinal (GI) tract..

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Bronzers are cosmetics that temporarily tint the skin’s surface a golden-brown to give it a tanned look. They include tinted moisturizers, foundations and brush-on powders. Bronzers are generally considered to be safe to use and can easily be washed off with soap and water.

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Safety of cosmetic sunless tanning products

Bronzers, self-tanners and spray tanners, whether applied at home or professionally, have not been shown to pose a health risk. They are considered safe to use if they are applied correctly and carefully.

The possible health risks of DHA, if any, are not known. Because sunless tanners contain DHA, they should only be applied to the skin. They should not be breathed in (inhaled), swallowed (ingested) or used on any area covered by mucous membranes, including the lips, nose and areas in and around the eye. Precautions should be taken when sunless tanning products are applied, especially when using sprays and misters.

  • During application, take steps to protect your eyes and lips, and to prevent inhaling or swallowing the product.
  • Precautions during professional spray tanning or airbrushing may include wearing eye protection (goggles), a lip balm or petroleum jelly for lips and a nose plug or filter.
  • If you are applying the product yourself, take the same precautions and follow the directions on the label.

There have been some reports of allergic reactions and contact dermatitis (redness or itching of the skin) associated with sunless tanning products. These reactions may be either to DHA or other ingredients in the products. Contact dermatitis is a very uncommon reaction to DHA.

The Canadian Dermatology Association says that self-tanning creams are safe and do not harm the skin. DHA has not been classified as a cancer-causing substance (carcinogen) by any major scientific organization, including the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the U.S. National Toxicology Program (NTP).

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Oral and injectable tanning products

Oral tanning products (also known as tanning pills) and injectable tanning products are classified as drugs, not cosmetics. When taken in large amounts, the additive typically used in tanning pills can cause health problems, including hives, liver damage and an eye disorder in which deposits form in the retina (retinopathy). Health Canada has not approved the use of any of these products for tanning purposes. These products should not be used until they have been fully reviewed and experts believe they are safe.

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Sun protection and tanning products

Sunless tanning products do not protect your skin from sun damage, so you still need to use sun protection. Some self-tanning products may contain sunscreen, but their sun protection factor (SPF) is generally low. Don’t make the mistake of thinking your fake tan will protect you from being harmed by UV rays.

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