Are Tanning Pills Safer Than Sun Bathing or UV Beds?

How Tanning Pills Work and Whether They're Worth the Risk

woman about to take yellow pill
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Thanks to public health announcements and education in sun safety, most people now know about the perils of sunbathing or suntanning in a tanning bed. Unfortunately, the sun-kissed glow of the skin that most people seek is still in high demand, creating a new market in sunless tanning.

Many drugstores now carry tanning pills that promise to give you that healthy glow without having to be exposed to natural or artificial UV rays as you would be outside or in a tanning bed.


Are Tanning Pills Safer Than Tanning Beds or Laying out in the Sun?

To understand if the tanning pills being sold at the drugstore are safer than tanning outside or in a bed, let's first examine how these pills actually work and consider what the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has to say about it:

How Tanning Pills Work

Tanning pills contain an ingredient called canthaxanthin, a natural carotene-based color additive that is added to many foods to give them an orange hue (the same substance that gives an orange hue to carrots). When you swallow one of these pills, the canthaxanthin additive is absorbed by the whole body, temporarily changing the hue of your skin as well—most likely to an orange-brown color.

Are Tanning Pills Safe?

Even though canthaxanthin is approved for use by the FDA, it is only approved in small amounts, particularly for coloring food—not for higher doses as required in tanning agents.

Tanning pills contain several times the recommended amount of canthaxanthin, so the FDA has not approved these amounts. In fact, adverse side effects have been reported with their use, such as skin and liver damage and a condition called canthaxanthin retinopathy, which causes crystal deposits to form on the eyes— which may cause injury and impair vision.

Tanning Accelerators in Pill Form

In addition to tanning pills, there are also other products referred to as tanning accelerators which are marketed as lotions and pills that stimulate the body's own tanning process. These lotions or pills contain the amino acid tyrosine or its derivatives. The FDA considers these products to be unapproved new drugs that do not have scientific evidence to show that they are safe and effective. In fact, most evidence suggests that these products don't work and may be dangerous.

Your Best Bet for a Safe Tan Is...

Sunless tanning products that are FDA approved and regulated are your best bet for a safe tan. They are an effective and safe alternative to traditional sunbathing and tanning beds. Marketed as self-tanning products which come in creams, lotions, sprays, and mists, they give a sun-kissed glow without the risk of developing skin cancer.

These self-tanning products are known as bronzers and extenders, and are classified as types of cosmetics that are used on the skin's surface and are not thought to be harmful if used properly:


  • When applied correctly, bronzers stain the superficial layer of the skin for a short amount of time
  • Ingredients include color additives that are approved for cosmetic use by the FDA
  • Washable—requiring only soap and water

Extenders, Sunless Tanners or Self-Tanners:

  • Interact with proteins on the surface of the skin to produce a darker color
  • Like a tan, the color fades and wears off after a few days
  • Look at the ingredients list—the only FDA-approved color additive for extenders is dihydroxyacetone (DHA)

Read More About Self Tanning


FDA. Product Information: Tanning Pills. January 12, 2005. Accessed March 15, 2011. 

American Cancer Society.What about tanning pills and other tanning products? 

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