Spray Tanning May Cause Cancer, Too — Ask for a Nose Filter

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The chemical responsible for the 'faux glow' given by spray tanners, DHA, may cause genetic mutations and DNA damage. The FDA recommends protective undergarments, nose filters, lip balm, and eyewear.

RTR31GMVmain.jpgJason Redmond/Reuters

The chemical responsible for the 'faux glow' given by 'spray-on' tanners, may cause genetic mutations and DNA damage. One of the biggest concerns is the absorption of dihydroxyacetone, or DHA, into the bloodstream through the mucous membranes.

Rey Panettieri, a toxicologist and pulmonary specialist at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine in Philadelphia, told ABC News, "The reason I am concerned is the deposition of the tanning agents into the lungs could really facilitate or aid systemic absorption - that is, getting into the bloodstream."

Concern for operators who spray tan 15 to 20 clients per day, and do not use protective gear because they believe the chemical is safe.

The FDA advises consumers to request protection for their eyes and mucous membranes and prevent inhalation. These preventive measures include the use of protective undergarments, nose filters, lip balm, and eyewear.

Panettieri said that a spray tan or two is unlikely to negatively affect on one's health. He did, however, express concern for operators who spray tan 15 to 20 clients per day, and do not use protective gear, because they believe the chemical is safe.

Darrell Rigel, a professor of dermatology at New York University in New York City, told ABC News that he was concerned about repeat visitors to spray tanning salons and those considered to be in high risk groups, such as pregnant women and children.

The experts ABC News talked to, including Panettieri, said that more studies on the effects of DHA exposure should be done. However, red flags for serious health concerns exist. "These compounds in some cells could actually promote the development of cancers," Panettieri said. "If that is the case, we need to be wary of them."

The FDA originally approved DHA in 1977 for use in sunless tanning creams. Use of DHA has recently increased due to the growing popularity of spray tans, which give a better tan than the original lotions. Spray tans are also popular because they are considered a safe alternative to tanning beds that use ultraviolet light.

Lynn Goldman, dean of the School for Public Health and Health Services at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., told ABC that the increasing popularity of spray tans means that more people will be exposed to DHA in ways that have never been reviewed by the FDA. She said that the use of DHA is growing, but "it is not prompting re-evaluation, and I think that is a serious problem."

The agency never imagined that DHA would be used in spray tanning, and cautioned that the chemical should not be inhaled or ingested. On its web site, the FDA tells consumers that, "The use of DHA in 'tanning' booths as an all-over spray tan has not been approved by the FDA, since safety data to support this use has not been submitted to the agency for review and evaluation."

Panettieri told The Doctor Will See You Now in a telephone interview, "I think new studies will now be done in rodents and other animals to predict toxicity when animals are made to inhale the compound." He went on to say that if the animals did develop toxicity, there will consequences for the spray tanning industry and for frequent users of spray on tans.

It is important to note that the report is not based on published, peer-reviewed research. The panel reviewed scientific studies about the safety of DHA, including a 1999 Food and Drug Administration report obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, at the request of ABC News. The six member panel comprised experts in dermatology, toxicology and pulmonary medicine. In addition to Panettieri, Rigel, and Goldman, other members of the panel were Arthur Grollman of the State University of New York at Stony Brook and Fred Guengerich of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

The FDA has a product information page about sunless tanners and bronzers.


This article originally appeared on TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com, an Atlantic partner site.

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Charlotte LoBuono, has a Master's of Science degree in biology from Seton Hall University. Her work has appeared in New Scientist and Daily Glow. 

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