Health Canada classifies sunless tanning products that you apply to the skin as cosmetics.
Bronzers are cosmetics that temporarily tint the skin’s surface a golden-brown to give it a tanned look and can easily be washed off with soap and water. Tinted moisturizers and brush-on powders are bronzers. Bronzers are generally considered to be safe to use.
Self-tanners that you apply to your skin are available in many forms, including lotions, creams, gels, mousses, cosmetic wipes and sprays. The most common ingredient used in self-tanners is dihydroxyacetone (DHA). DHA is a sugar compound that comes from plant sources and is a colour additive. When absorbed, DHA reacts with the top layer of the skin and darkens or stains it, giving the skin a bronzed colour and the appearance of a tan. The “tan” is temporary and fades when you stop using the product and as the skin cells slough off. It usually disappears within about a week unless the product is reapplied.
Spray tanners are like self-tanners, but they can be applied professionally by airbrushing or in spray tanning booths, which use sprays or misters to apply a solution to the body in a very short time. The most common ingredient in these solutions is DHA.
Safety of cosmetic sunless tanning products
Bronzers, self-tanners and spray tanners have not been shown to pose a health risk and are considered safe to use – if they're applied correctly and carefully. They should only be applied externally to the skin and should not be used on any area covered by mucous membranes. If the sunless tanning product is being sprayed or airbrushed on professionally, you need to protect your lips, mouth, nose and area around the eyes. You should be careful not to breathe in (inhale) or ingest any of the products. If you’re applying the product yourself, follow 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 by any major scientific organization.