Chemical in Spray Tanning Could Cause Genetic Alterations

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COLUMBIA - Spray tanning may no longer be the safest alternative to sun tanning. Dihydroxyacetone (DHA), the active chemical used in spray tans, has the potential to cause genetic alterations and DNA damage according to a panel of medical experts who recently reviewed ten scientific studies on the chemical. 

DHA is a colorless chemical that interacts with the amino acids in dead skin cells to produce a brown color change. Since these dead skin cells are constantly being shed, the color change produced by DHA usually lasts only five to seven days. Medical experts are worried because the chemical stays in the body even after the tan has completely faded.

The percentage of DHA used in spray tan mists determines the "color" of the tan. 6% DHA strength is found in solutions designed to be used on very fair skin; 9% for light to medium skin tones; 12% for medium to dark skin tones; and 14% DHA is used in solutions for the darkest of skin tones. One issue with this, medical experts have found, is that companies using spray tanning booths (as opposed to having someone physically spray the client) do not change the solutions out for clients of different skin tones. Instead, the tanning salon will just use the solution designed for the darkest of skin tones containing the highest percentage of DHA.

The Food and Drug Administration originally approved the chemical for "external" use in the late 1970s when it was being used in tanning lotions.  In the last ten years, the use of DHA has extended into the newer "spray" application of the product, which provides a more even tan for consumers without making them look orange.

The FDA tells consumers on their website, "The use of DHA in 'tanning booths' as an all-over spray 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."

The agency goes on to say consumers who spray tan are "not protected from the unapproved use of this color additive" if they are inhaling or ingesting the mist or allowing it to get inside their body. The FDA recommends that consumers request eye goggles, nose plugs and lip balm to prevent inhalation of the chemical.

But some local tanning salons are not advising their clients to wear this protective gear according to those who frequent them. Patrons who use the spray tanner services, said salons told them that the spray tanning mist was completely harmless and that wearing eye goggles or nose plugs would "ruin the tan" by causing tan lines.

The FDA is currently conducting more research on this chemical and the effect it has on people who spray tan.