DHA-Spray and Sunless "Tanning" Booths

Medical Author: Barbara K. Hecht, Ph.D.
Medical Editor: Frederick Hecht, M.D.

Tans continue to be popular, especially with people who naturally have light colored skin. A rich, bronze-colored tan can not only be cosmetically flattering, it can evoke a sun-filled vacation spent at the beach or, in winter, on the ski slopes. But given the fact that exposure to the tanning rays of the sun is accompanied by skin damage and an increased risk of skin cancer, these days many people are opting for "sunless" tans.

What is DHA?

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, the most effective sunless tanning products contain dihydroxyacetone (DHA) as the active ingredient. DHA is a colorless chemical (it is derived from glycerin) 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 about five to seven days.

DHA is not absorbed through the skin into the body and it has no known toxicity. DHA was first discovered by the Germans in the late 1920's when DHA spilled on the skin produced a brown color. DHA has been listed with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) since 1973, and has been used in cosmetic preparations for almost 30 years.

What is a DHA-spray "tanning" booth?

In commercial spray "tanning" booths, consumers receive an application of DHA in the form of a mist or spray. Is it safe to be sprayed with a product containing DHA? There is no evidence to suggest that DHA is not safe. The Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FD&C) authorizes the regulation of color additives, including their uses and restrictions. DHA is listed in these regulations as a color additive for use in imparting color to the human body.

Are there any restrictions about the use of DHA?

Yes, the use of DHA in cosmetics, including sunless "tanning" products, is restricted to EXTERNAL application only. According to the Code of Federal Regulations, "externally applied" cosmetics are those "applied only to external parts of the body and not to the lips or any body surface covered by mucous membrane. In addition, no color additive may be used in cosmetics intended for use in the area of the eye unless the color additive is permitted specifically for such use.

Are there any concerns about DHA spray "tanning" booths?

When using DHA-containing products as an all-over spray or mist in a commercial spray "tanning" booth, it may be difficult to control DHA exposure. The FDA states that commercial facilities should specifically protect clients from DHA exposure to the eyes, lips and mucous membranes as well as preventing the inhalation or ingestion of products containing DHA. We would think that these recommendations should apply to personnel working in these spray "tanning" booths as well as their clients.

Clients should be aware they are in for repeat sessions being sprayed with DHA if they wish to maintain their "tan" for more than a few days. There are also certain skin conditions which may result in an uneven, unattractive "tan." These conditions include skin that has been previously damaged by the sun, "older" skin, mottled or freckled skin and scars. Care should also be taken to prevent DHA coloration of the hair and nails.

Remember, too, that a sunless "tan" is not really a suntan and affords no protection whatsoever against the skin damage the sun may cause.


An average adult has about ________ square feet of skin. See Answer