Walking into Holliston High School just a few days before prom, all one can see is a sea of bronze — and a few orange — girls who have just gotten their tans for the big night.
Junior Lauren Salley, one of the many girls who got a spray tan for prom, makes the point that everyone wants to feel beautiful at their high school prom, as it is an event that is so focused on looks. She likes spray tans because “they make you look tan and nice.”
Salley also mentioned that she had no idea of any health issues that can potentially be caused by chemicals in sunless tanners.
It is widespread knowledge that tanning beds can be dangerous. Lying under the concentrated UV rays can cause premature skin aging and skin cancer due to sustained skin cell damage according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. Because of this, people tend to switch to seemingly harmless sunless tanning products, especially spray tanning.
However, these products may not be as harmless as they appear. Most sunless tanning products contain the chemical DHA, or dihydroxyacetone which is used to dye the skin, making it appear tan. The FDA has approved DHA for external use only.
According to the Code of Federal Regulations, externally applied cosmetics are “applied only to external parts of the body and not to the lips or any body surface covered by mucous membrane.”
Although it was originally thought that “DHA only interacted with proteins in the outer protective layers of human skin, also called the stratum corneum, where the skin cells are already dead and where DHA could pose no health risk”, a report was released by the FDA to ABC News that revealed “DHA does not stop at the outer dead layers of skin.”
As stated in an ABC News article entitled “Are ‘Spray-On’ Tans Safe? Experts Raise Questions as Industry Puts Out Warnings” “non-FDA researchers who had tested DHA in laboratory settings… found it had the potential for what they called a ‘mutagenic’ effect on genes. The various studies, conducted mostly by university researchers, tested DHA’s effects on different types of cells and organisms.”
While these mutagenic effects have not occured yet, Dr. Lynn Goldman noted in the article “‘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,’… ‘I’d be very concerned for the potential of lung cancer.’”
Beyond the health concerns that are brought up by this article, there are other considerations that need to be made.
HHS chemistry teacher, Ms. Amanda Rivera, made the point that we have to question ourselves as to why. “Why are we doing this?” she said.
Ms. Rivera said that there is an “idealized” image that is portrayed in magazines and other media, which is often photoshopped and filtered.
When people decide to change their appearance to make themselves seemingly more beautiful, they may think they are only temporarily dyeing their skin, but they may in fact be taking a much larger risk than they intended.
A once a year spray tan will most likely cause no harm; however, prolonged exposure, such as weekly spray tans can cause issues. In an article in UK’s “The Sun,” “Dr Rey Panettieri, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, said: ‘lungs have a huge surface area so the DHA compound gets into the cells then into the bloodstream. For casual users, it’s probably fine. But for those who go regularly for spray tans it could lead to cancer or the worsening of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease [COPD].’”
Although the FDA has approved sunless tanning products sold in stores, such as lotions, there has not been enough research for the approval of spray tanning. However, the FDA has stated that “When using DHA-containing products as an all-over spray or mist in a commercial spray ‘tanning’ booth, it may be difficult to avoid exposure in a manner for which DHA is not approved, including the area of the eyes, lips, or mucous membrane, or even internally.”
Despite these concerns about DHA, those who still do decide to tan can avoid getting the spray tanning solution in eyes, lips, a mucous membrane, or internally by using protection such as goggles, nose plugs, or a nose filter, and lip balm, which will help prevent the spray from entering the body as suggested by the Mayo Clinic.
However, in the ABC News article, 12 different spray tanning salons were visited undercover. Every salon that they visited discouraged using protective gear such as eye protection because it was either unnecessary, or it would impact the look of the tan.
Salley, who got her tan at Blushtan in Wellesley, said that when she got her spray tan the technician offered her a hair net, lotion for her hands and feet, and instructed to close her eyes and mouth.
Despite the University of Pennsylvania studies, Colleen Loder, manager of Blushtan states “There [are]n’t any studies that show that inhaling [the solution] would be harmful in anyway, especially since ours is organic based, it’s free of alcohols and oils and it’s nut free and all that stuff. It’s vegan and everything. So it’s very harmless.”
However, the solution they use at Blushtan does include DHA, because it is the dye that makes the skin tan. The salon does have fans that are there to extract the excess spray from the air to limit extra inhalation. They do offer other forms of protection if needed such as nose plugs and eye protection, however, Loder also said that they do tell the client to close their eyes and mouth and to not inhale as they pass over the face.
“It’s not a long enough process that the client should worry about inhaling too much,” said Loder.
Loder said, “here at Blushtan we definitely make sure that we keep everybody feeling comfortable and safe… Since [the product] is organic based, there’s hardly anything in [it] that would cause any harm to anyone… We do our best to make everyone feel like they’re coming in here and leaving nice and healthy and natural.”
Although salons indicate that their desire is to make people feel healthy and safe, it is important to know that even if something is organic based it is not entirely harmless. As the FDA states, “An ingredient’s source does not determine its safety. For example, many plants, whether or not they are organically grown, contain substances that may be toxic or allergenic.”
While a once a year spray tan may have only slim chances of anything harmful occuring, one should ask themselves, as Ms. Rivera suggests, “why am I doing this? Am I doing it for me or for society? How does it make those around me feel? Is it healthy?”
Ms. Rivera poses these questions in aiming for all of her students “to feel beautiful as they are.”