You already know that the same ultraviolet rays that tan skin also cause skin cancer, whether you get them from lying on a beach or in a tanning booth. So, you may have opted for "fake bake" —tans that come in a bottle. They've come a long way from the orange, streaked tans of the past and have been promoted as a safe alternative for tanning beds, and are surprisingly realistic. But did you know that an ingredient in many of the sunless tanning products — both used in bottles and spray tan booths — can also raise your risk of developing deadly lung cancer?
The chemical dihydroxyacetone, or DHA, is the active ingredient in many fake tanning products. It creates a tanning effect by reacting with dead skin cells on the skin's surface, and is often sprayed on the skin in tanning booths. (This form of DHA — dihydroxyacetone — is completely different from the omega-3 fatty acid — docosahexaenoic acid — that's found in salmon and also shares the same "DHA" abbreviation.)
DHA was approved by the FDA back in the 1970s as a tanner, but only for external use. At first, it was only used in self-tanning creams. Spray tanning booths, which spew the chemical into the air, weren't envisioned, and that's where the danger lies. The FDA warns that DHA shouldn't be sprayed on or in the mouth, eyes, or nose, and recommends using protective undergarments, nose filter, lip balm, and protective eyewear when being sprayed, but many owners of tanning booths ignore the suggestions as do people who use spray-tan products at home.
Last year, a group of experts reviewed 10 scientific cell and animal studies of the chemical and found it could cause mutations in DNA. The possible danger of cancer is a real concern to experts.
Previously, scientists had believed that DHA only reacted with dead skin cells on the surface, but they learned that about 11 percent of the DHA applied was absorbed by living epidermis and dermis and not just the dead cells on the surface.
"What we're concerned about is not so much that reaction that creates the tanning, but reactions that may occur deeper down with living cells that might then change DNA, causing a mutation and what the possible impacts of that might be," Dr. Lynn Goldman of George Washington University told ABC News. "I'd be very concerned for the potential of lung cancer."
Dr. Rey Panettieri, a toxicologist and lung specialist at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine, agrees, but suggests the cancer concern reaches beyond just one type. "The lungs have a huge surface area and these compounds could get into the bloodstream and promote the development of cancers," he told the Daily Mail.
Experts also worry about the possibility of birth defects, especially if the mom was exposed to DHA during pregnancy. And the concern also extends to young children who get spray-tans when they participate in beauty contests.
People most at risk are those who spray-tan frequently or work in salons. Inhaling DHA on a regular basis "could potentially lead to cancer or the worsening of asthma or other lung disease," said Dr. Panettieri.
If you use self-tanners, choose creams, gels, or foams over mists or spray, and use in a well-ventilated area. If you use a tanning booth, use nose filters and protect your eyes and lips.
Last, don't forgot to use sun screen. Your fake tan is simply that — a fake — and it doesn't protect you from sun damage.
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