Tanned skin is something that most people associate with health, radiance and the beginning of summer. Swimsuit models are always coppery brown, and the cast of Jersey Shore has brought a new wave of tanning obsession. Despite the aesthetic appeal, tanning can be dangerous. With both overexposure to sunlight and the use of tanning beds linked to skin cancer, many people decide to turn to other sources for their summer skin tone. Some lotions or sprays have the effect of looking like a real tan but without the exposure to dangerous UV rays. Are spray tans a safe alternative?

Why Regular Tanning is Dangerous

The sun emits a wide spectrum of light, but the kind that affects skin tone is ultra-violet radiation, or UV rays. This long-wave light cannot be seen by human eyes, but it emits heat that actually probes through the upper layers of skin and applies heat to it. In effect, the sun literally cooks the the skin. You will feel these effects any time that you get a sunburn.

A person’s skin color is regulated by melanin, which provides pigment and helps protect the lower layers of skin from burning. This is why people with naturally pale complexions are more likely to get sunburned easily when exposed to sunlight. When the skin is damaged, it responds by producing more melanin, which in turn causes the overall skin tone to darken. Essentially, a tan isn’t the glow of healthy skin; it’s the last defense of damaged skin before burning.

Both the sun and tanning booths rely on UV radiation to create the darkened skin color. Skin that is repeatedly damaged must regenerate more often, leading to an increased risk of skin cancer. It also causes premature aging such as wrinkles or age spots.

How Spray Tanning Works

Spray tans do not rely on UV radiation. They also are not cosmetic products that can wash easily off of the skin. Instead of laying over the skin like a dye, spray tans have a chemical effect on the skin that makes it darken in color. The reactive chemical is dihydroxyacetone, more commonly known as DHA.

The DHA enzyme is a type of colorless sugar harvested from natural sources, such as sugar beets. When sprayed on the skin, it has a chemical reaction with the amino acids in the dead cells at the skin’s surface, turning them brown. This effect is similar to the browning that happens on cut apples or avocado, and will last for a few days until the dead skin cells are naturally shed.

Because the chemical does not penetrate into deep layers of tissue, it is safer than UV radiation. The DHA works on skin cells that are already dead and lying on the surface of the skin, not by modifying living tissue. Most spray tans will last for about three days to a week.

The chemical process of a spray tan does take some time to complete. Because most people want immediate results, spray tanning formulas include a bronzer or other cosmetic in addition to the DHA. This rests on the surface of the skin and has no chemical interaction with the skin cells, but it does temporarily give the appearance of a tan. The bronzer can be washed off after its application. Some spray tans also include ingredients like aloe vera to help promote overall skin health and softness.

Is Spray Tanning Safe?

DHA is completely safe when applied externally and has no toxicity. It’s not designed for internal use, however, and the FDA suggests that people avoid consuming it or having it sprayed on or near sensitive areas and mucous membranes. The additional bronzing agent in spray tanning solutions may also be an eye irritant.

There is no known direct link between DHA and skin cancer, although users do need to continue being vigilant about being in the sun. A real suntan provides some protection against sunburns, but spray tans do not offer these same beneficial effects. Therefore, if you go outside, you must use sunscreen to prevent damage to your skin. Sunburns have the same cancer-causing effects on the skin as tans, and they can be very painful as well.

Otherwise, spray tans are a completely safe product, although they can quickly become expensive if you apply them frequently enough to maintain a constant tan. As the dangers of skin cancer become more apparent, tanning will become less popular and people will not feel the need to maintain a sun-browned complexion. Until then, spray-tanning is a viable alternative to damaging UV rays.