How safe is spray tanning?

safety of spray tanning ingredientsSpray tanning—a temporary bronzing service offered at salons and spas—owes its success to the finding that ultraviolet rays cause not just a summery glow, but serious skin cancer.

Not surprisingly, many spas and salons market them as a safer alternative to sunning (or tanning beds). But then these spas don’t provide a list of ingredients for what’s in a spray tan. So how do you know what your skin is soaking up?

We set out to determine what magic potion could turn people varying shades of bronze (or occasionally orange-ish), and it was more difficult than we imagined. Here’s what we were able to learn.

What we know

Nearly every product contains Dihydroxyacetone, or DHA, a carbohydrate that can be derived from glycerin or plant sources such as sugar cane or beets. DHA reacts with the amino acids in the surface layer of the skin, and is generally safe for external use.

The key word here is “external.” Most spray tans coat your face with the formula, and the FDA actually warns against inhaling DHA, saying it should not touch the lips or any area around the eyes, including eyebrows or eyelids.

What we don’t know

So what else in a typical spray-tan cocktail? Who knows? “Salon products are exempt from labeling,” explains Stacy Malkan, author of Not Just a Pretty Face. “This makes no sense, since salon products are typically more potent than at-home versions.”

When we asked a handful of spas and salons for a list of ingredients in their spray tan, most weren’t able to provide it. That’s partly because many salons use mass-produced formulas, and may not know—or ask—what’s actually in them, says Susie Hatton, the founder of Chocolate Sun, a California-based company that uses a 100 percent natural (and mostly organic) formula and is offered at the Mandarin Oriental Spa in New York.


After leaving two unreturned messages at Portofino’s corporate offices (the Starbucks of tanning), a receptionist finally answered on the third try. “We don’t manufacture it—it’s not our formula, ”she said. She took a message, but no one got back to me. (Not surprising for a company that calls the link between UV exposure and melanoma a myth on their website, I guess.)

Ingredients revealed

Mystic Tan, whose spray-tan booths are ubiquitous in city salons, was willing to share an ingredient list. We applaud the company for its transparency and for eliminating parabens, but it’s not all pretty. There’s more propylene glycol than DHA in the formula, and ingredients like retinyl palmitate (which has been shown to speed the development of skin tumors in the presence of sunlight) and an unspecified fragrance are there, too.

Mystic’s at-home tanner, which has a similar but not identical ingredient list, rates a 7 (10 being the most toxic) on the EWG’s Cosmetics Database.

So what’s a health-conscious glow-loving girl to do?

If you’re going to go for it anyway, bring goggles and nose plugs—and try your best to avoid inhaling. (Choosing an airbrush spray tan over a booth will help with this.)

Even better, apply a natural-leaning at-home self-tanner, which lists the ingredients right on the bottle. Stay tuned for our picks next week. —Lisa Elaine Held

More Reading
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How to choose a non-toxic sunscreen
The most toxic cosmetic? Traditional lip glosses, study finds

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8 Comments | ADD YOURS

  1. July 20th, 2011 at 6:50 pm

    This was super helpful. It made me cringe that back in the day when I tried a Mystic Tan, I was dousing myself in propylene glycol (yuck!!). Right now I just use natural bronzing products because I haven’t discovered any good non toxic sunless tanners yet. I’m looking forward to your list!

  2. July 27th, 2011 at 3:54 pm

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  3. August 2nd, 2011 at 6:31 am

    […] on a beach chaise has been verboten for a couple decades now. And recently, we reported on the hidden chemicals that may be lurking in your salon spray tan.One safer option? An all-natural, organic self-tanner. Because you apply it yourself, you’re […]

  4. August 4th, 2011 at 4:40 pm

    […] Slathering your body in baby oil and baking on a beach chaise has been verboten for a couple decades now. And recently, we reported on the hidden chemicals that may be lurking in your salon spray tan. […]

  5. November 17th, 2011 at 3:38 pm

    […] all Johnson & Johnson products are free of carcinogens and other chemicals of concern,” says Stacy Malkan, the co-founder of the Campaign, and author of Not Just A Pretty Face. “Many companies are […]

  6. June 4th, 2012 at 7:09 am

    […] Why most people can't ID the most common skin cancers How to apply sunscreen (and how not to) How safe is spray tanning? Sunburn in the city: 5 tips on how to avoid frying your skin during outdoor workouts    […]

  7. August 5th, 2013 at 8:41 pm

    I have had a mobile spray tanning business for the last couple of years. I have always valued and respected my client’s right to protect themselves. I carry nose plugs, chapstick (for lips and blemishes), and goggles. If your spray tan technician does not offer things for your safety.

    Find another one!

  8. Erin
    February 12th, 2015 at 11:00 am

    I get the concern, but these days it seems like just about everything we do carries some risks. Like everything else, being educated and smart about what you do is key, as well as moderating yourself. Sunless tanning can be a great alternative to regular tanning as long as you arm yourself with knowledge and ensure that you’re taking care of your skin and keeping yourself protected from too much sunlight. I use Mystic Tan at Acapulco Beach, and I’m glad that they actually released their ingredients to the public, to let people make their own decisions, knowing the risks.

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