ABC News also discovered many tanning salons across the nation wrongly telling consumers on their websites that DHA is so safe that it is "food grade," and, "approved for ingestion by the FDA."
One potential source of the inaccurate information was one of the largest manufacturers of spray tan product in America, Norvell Skin Solutions, ABC News found.
The company runs what it calls "Norvell University," a detailed educational course designed for tanning salons and technicians who wish to offer spray tans to clients. ABC News found Norvell wrongly training salons online and in its course material by saying that "DHA is a food grade product approved for ingestion by the FDA. In fact, the largest user of DHA in the world is the health supplement industry."
The salons and Norvell may have been confusing two very different kinds of "DHA," each with the same abbreviated name. The type of DHA the FDA tells consumers not to inhale or ingest, also called dihydroxyacetone, is the chemical that turns your skin brown.
However, an omega 3 fatty acid called docosahexaenoic acid also shares the same abbreviation "DHA." That type of DHA can be found in salmon or milk. It is approved by the FDA to be eaten and is thought to help reduce the risk of coronary disease.
"We were absolutely in error," said Rick Norvell, president of Norvell Skin Solutions, after ABC News contacted him about the discrepancy.
Norvell subsequently removed the inaccurate claims from the company's course material and took it offline. He also issued a letter to all of the tanning salons and distributors who use the company's product nationwide. In that letter, Norvell referenced the ABC News report and said, "In our most recent review of the Norvell and Norvell University documents and websites we have removed the term 'food grade' in reference to our products."
The manufacturer also informed tanning salons it is now recommending full implementation of the FDA recommendations for consumers to use protective measures when spray tanning.
"As many of you may be aware, the FDA has suggested guidelines as to the recommended use and operation of our products within the sunless industry," Norvell wrote to his customer base. "We should also point out these guidelines apply to at home use products such as aerosols and bag-on-valve self-tanning sprays containing DHA. Our professional industry should not be singled out. ... Although not mandated, anything the FDA suggests, we at Norvell take seriously."
Norvell went on to specifically note:
"When spraying DHA the FDA recommends and Norvell concurs with utilizing the following guidelines:
" Use of Protective Undergarments
" Use of Nose Filters
" Use of Lip Balm
" Use of Protective Eyewear."
Norvell told ABC News in an email, "This reminder was sent via Eblast, Twitter and Facebook to approximately 14[,000]-16,000 contacts."
Further, Norvell provided those contacts with a printable sign "for use at your front counter or within your sunless spray rooms," which informs consumers of the safety recommendations.
DHA: 'A Potential Health Hazard'?
The FDA recently released a report to ABC News, following a Freedom of Information Act request, in which agency scientists wrote, "New information regarding the genotoxicity and carcinogenicity of DHA has become available since the listing of DHA as a color additive."
In the report, dated 1999, agency scientists cited the "new information" discovered by non-FDA researchers who had tested DHA in laboratory settings and 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, including bacteria, salmonella, ecoli and mice skin cells grown in a lab. None of the tests done at the time tested human cells or humans themselves. Still, the results were enough to prompt the agency in the 1990s to attempt to determine how much DHA might be seeping into the living areas of the body when applied to the skin to tan.
Prior to the FDA release this year of its 1999 report to ABC News, the tanning industry and even many in the field of dermatology thought 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.
However, in the report released to ABC News, FDA scientists concluded that DHA does not stop at the outer dead layers of skin.
They wrote: "The fate of DHA remaining in skin is an important issue, since high DHA skin levels were found."