Spray-on tanning: A better way to brown
For those who want the bronzed look without the radiation, many tanning salons now offer full-body spray-booth tanning. We asked six volunteers to try it. Our informal evaluation found that the spray could produce color resembling a real tan; the color faded in three to seven days. But the results were so variable that beginners seeking a "tan" for a special occasion should try it at least a week in advance.
The active ingredient is dihydroxyacetone, or DHA. That's the same coloring agent used in sunless-tanning lotions since the 1960s, although our October 2004 report found that today's products tend to yield more natural-looking colors than the earlier ones did.
DHA gradually stains the dead cells in the skin's outer layer; the color develops within a day and lasts until the dead cells slough off. The more vigorously you wash, the faster the tan will fade. We paid $25 to $42 for the treatment at facilities in the New York metropolitan area last fall. The estimated national average for a sun-bed session in 2003 was about $7.
All six volunteers showed noticeable darkening, with no streaks, blotches, or spots. Some tanned in pleasing colors, especially those with naturally dark skin. Others had somewhat poorer results. One volunteer’s naturally fair skin looked yellowish on the first day but toned down to a more natural color soon afterward.
In some cases, the procedure temporarily stained body areas that normally don’t tan, such as the palms and soles, making them look dirty. Some parlors offered protective hand lotion, booties, or hair coverings, which we recommend for everyone. The spray also darkened some clothing worn during or immediately after, though stains came out in the wash.
The Food and Drug Administration is investigating a published report that DHA was toxic to skin cells in a test-tube study. But an FDA spokeswoman says, "There probably is not much cause for concern." The agency approved DHA only for external use and advises against inhaling the mist or getting it into the eyes, nose, ears, or other openings.
To limit such exposure, start by asking whether the salon has installed ventilation for that purpose. Ask for eye goggles and foam nose and ear plugs, or bring your own. And hold your breath as much as possible during the spraying, which lasts anywhere from about 5 to 60 seconds.
Since fake tans do not stimulate production of the protective pigment melanin, they afford very little protection against sunburn. In comparison, tans from UV exposure typically confer a sun-protection factor of about 3--helpful but no substitute for the recommended SPF of at least 15 provided by sunscreens.