Are Tanning Pills Safe?

Sunless Tanning Under the Glare of Scrutiny

woman about to take yellow pill
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While an increased awareness about sun safety has led many away from tanning beds, the desire to achieve that copper-toned glow is still in high demand. To address this need, entrepreneurs have begun to cash in by creating a wide range of sunless tanning solutions.

Among them are commercially available tanning pills that promise to give you a healthy glow without the dangers or ultraviolet (UV) radiation exposure.

How Tanning Pills Work

Under normal conditions, we get a tan when skin cells are exposed to the sun. The body responds by pumping more melanin into these cells, causing them to darken. This not only provides us a sun-kissed hue, it helps shield our skin and body from direct UV damage.

Tanning pills don’t work this way. Most contain an ingredient called canthaxanthin, a natural carotene-based additive that is used as a colorant in many foods. They do not alter our body’s natural melanin but are instead absorbed by many different cells of the body, including the skin.

Results vary from person to person with some achieving a rich brownish hue while others appear more orange-ish or yellow.

Tanning Pill Safety Under Scrutiny

Even though canthaxanthin is approved for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a food colorant, it has not nor has ever been approved for use as a sunless tanning aid.

Tanning pills are known to contain several times the recommended amount of canthaxanthin. Whether those levels are safe have yet been determined.

With that being said, the FDA has received reports about a number of side effects, one in particular from a company which withdrew its application after a user experienced blurred vision due to the formation of crystals in his retina (a condition commonly known as canthaxanthin-induced retinopathy).

Others have described users who had had nausea, cramping, diarrhea, severe itching, and welts after taking the pills. Skin injury and liver damage have also been reported.

In addition to tanning pills, there are a number of products marketed as tanning accelerators which claim to stimulate the body's natural tanning process. Available in lotion or pill form, they contain an amino acid called tyrosine which is key in the body's production of melanin.

Again, these products have not received FDA approval, and most evidence suggests that they don't work and can even be dangerous.

Safer Tanning Alternatives

For those who desire a tan but would rather not risk the effects of UV exposure, there are several products  which have received FDA approval as sun-safe alternatives:

  • Bronzers are classified by the FDA as a cosmetic meant to simulate a suntan. Ingredients include topical color additives and require little more than soap and water to remove.
  • Extenders, sunless tanners, and self-tanners are topical products that react with proteins on the skin to produce a darker hue. Like a natural tan, the color gradually fades after several days. The product’s active ingredient is dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a simple carbohydrate derived from sugar beets and sugar cane.

    Sources:

    U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). “Product Information: Tanning Pills.” Silver Spring, Maryland; updated January 12, 2005. 

    American Cancer Society. “Tanning Pills and Other Tanning Products.” Atlanta, Georgia; updated March 19, 2017. 

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