Do Spray Tans Cause Cancer?

They're Safe, but Not Completely Risk-Free

Silver Spoon Hollywood Buffet - Day Two. Credit: Jaimie Trueblood / Contributor

"I want to get a tan without going out in the sun, and I know that spray tans are available at tanning salons. Is a spray tan safe? Will it cause cancer?"

With sun safety becoming an increasingly more prevalent issue, it seems like tanning salons should be avoided at all costs. Everyone looks better with a healthy glow, but the tanning beds that provide them are dangerous and deadly. That's where the magic of a spray tan comes in.

You're not alone in wondering if spray tans are safe. Many people wonder the same thing, particularly because the service is so widely available at tanning salons: skin safety's public enemy number one. A spray tan allows you to get that coveted sun-kissed look without ever stepping foot in the sun - or a tanning bed, for that matter. You might get a spray tan in a tanning salon, but it's a safe, not to mention increasingly popular, way to get a little color.

What Makes a Spray Tan Safe

As far as research tells us, spray tans are safe and will not cause skin cancer. Exposure to UV rays is what puts you at risk for developing skin cancer, but since there is no UV light used during a spray tan there's no risk involved. It's a quick and easy way to get a gorgeous, natural-looking glow without any exposure to harmful UVA and UVB radiation whatsoever. 

The active ingredient in spray tans is DHA, or dihydroxyacetone, a glycerin derivative.

When DHA is applied to the skin, it reacts and binds with the amino acids in the dead skin cells on the outermost layer of the skin, giving the illusion of a tan that gradually fades over time.

The skin continuously sheds dead skin cells, so spray tans only last up to week or two. Maintaining a spray tan by visiting the salon every few weeks is a hassle, but it's better than putting yourself at risk for skin cancer.

Because time is of the essence, a spray tan is a great way to get a glow before a wedding, prom or other special occasion. Alternatively, you can try at-home self-tanner creams and gels.

The Risks of DHA

If you're interested in getting a spray tan, do so with caution. Because sunless tanning is a relatively new thing, there is very little research about its effects, specifically with DHA. In one study DHA was found to alter the gene of different cells and organisms, although no human subjects were involved in this particular study. When DHA is inhaled it can enter the lungs and bloodstream, and can even lead to health problems like cancer.

This presents a serious issue not only for the person receiving a spray tan, but for the technician who is administering multiple spray tans a day. It's ultimately your own decision. Spray tanning is definitely safer than laying out in the sun or inside a tanning bed, but it isn't without its own risks.

During Your Spray Tan Session

If you choose to visit a quality salon, you will likely end up walking out with a great tan. Prior to your session, a spray tan technician will do a quick consultation with you. They will assess your skin tone in order to achieve the most natural-looking tan.

They will also ask you about any allergies you might have. DHA is the active ingredient in a spray tan. Spray tans also often include aloe vera, latex, fruit and nut extracts and other potential allergens.

After Your Spray Tan Session

Once you've been spray tanned you can't shower for at least 8 hours. The first shower after receiving a spray tan should be a rinse. Keep water lukewarm and do not use any shampoo or body wash in order to keep pigment sealed in.

Shower water will appear brown, but it's no cause for alarm. It's just the cosmetic bronzer washing off. Once the water runs clear, pat dry and apply a moisturizer immediately.

A spray tan can last up to 10 days. The more diligently you apply moisturizer, the longer the tan will last and the more evenly it will fade. Don't use any products that exfoliate the skin: scrubs, loofahs, washcloths, toners, etc.

The face is the first place where a spray tan starts to fade. Wash the face with a gentle cleanser and a light moisturizer. Products that contain naturally-derived ingredients are always best. Shower water should be a lukewarm temperature for the duration of the tan.

See Also

  • Video: See What Happens During a Spray Tanning Session
  • How to Apply a Self-Tanner


J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2015 Feb; 8(2): 43–47.

Continue Reading