Are 'Spray-On' Tans Safe? Experts Raise Questions as Industry Puts Out Warnings

Medical experts have sounded the alarm about DHA, a chemical in "spray-on" tans.

ByABC News
June 11, 2012, 3:07 PM

NEW YORK, June 12, 2012 — -- The active chemical used in spray tans, dihydroxyacetone (DHA), has the potential to cause genetic alterations and DNA damage, according to a panel of medical experts who reviewed 10 of the most-current publicly available scientific studies on DHA for ABC News, including a federal report ABC News obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

Six medical experts in areas ranging across the fields of dermatology, toxicology and pulmonary medicine said they "have concerns" after reviewing the literature and reports about DHA, the main chemical in the popular "spray-on" tan, which has conventionally been referred to as the "safe" alternative to tanning under ultraviolet lights.

None of the reviewed studies tested on actual human subjects, but some found DHA altered genes of multiple types of cells and organisms when tested in different labs by different scientists after the chemical was approved for use in the consumer market.

Click here to view a web extra video: "DHA Health Risk: Potential Lung Complications"

"I have concerns," said Dr. Rey Panettieri, a toxicologist and lung specialist at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine. "The reason I'm concerned is the deposition of the tanning agents into the lungs could really facilitate or aid systemic absorption -- that is, getting into the bloodstream."

Panettieri, like all the experts ABC News consulted with, said more studies should be done. He emphasized the available scientific literature is limited. Still, he said, he has seen enough to say the warning signs of serious health concerns exist.

"These compounds in some cells could actually promote the development of cancers or malignancies," he said, "and if that's the case then we need to be wary of them."

The FDA originally approved DHA for "external" use back in 1977, when it was popular in tanning lotions. Those lotions, previously famous for turning skin orange, were never as popular as current products that produce better tans. In recent years, the use of DHA has exploded in the newer "spray" application of the product, which provides a more even tan for consumers.

The FDA told ABC News it never could have envisioned the chemical's use in spray tan back in the 1970s, and says "DHA should not be inhaled or ingested" today. It tells consumers on its website, "The use of DHA in 'tanning' booths as an all-over spray has not been approved by the FDA, since safety data to support this use has not been submitted to the agency for review and evaluation."

The agency advises consumers who spray tan they are "not protected from the unapproved use of this color additive" if they are inhaling the mist or allowing it to get inside their body. The agency recommends, "Consumers should request measures to protect their eyes and mucous membranes and prevent inhalation."

However, ABC News found some tanning salons offering consumers advice that directly conflicts with what the Food and Drug Administration has recommended.

In response to ABC News' findings, the tanning industry has announced it will launch a major national training initiative that will hit thousands of salons across the United States over the next few weeks, intended to inform both salons and customers who "spray tan" about the FDA recommendations.

Tanning Salons: Undercover Investigation

However, in an attempt to see if that message was reaching consumers, ABC News sent undercover cameras into a dozen randomly selected tanning salons in New York City ranging from a large corporate location to smaller mom-and-pop salons.

Every salon ABC News visited said spray tanning was completely "safe" with or without protective gear.

When asked, nine out of 12 salons did not have any eye covers in stock. Similarly, nine out of 12 salons did not have nose plugs in stock. Eleven out of 12 failed to have any protective gear for the mouth available.

However, even if salons had some of the gear in stock, every salon ABC News visited discouraged using it.

"You don't need it. You really don't need it," one salon employee said.

Another discouraged eye protection, saying it would impact the appearance of the tan.

"We wouldn't recommend for you to wear them because when you spray your face that part is going to be not tan," a salon employee said.

A different salon said, "We also have goggles but you don't need them."

Yet another salon wrongly told undercover ABC News producers that DHA is so safe, it is used to help treat diabetes and can be injected into the body.

The findings by ABC News were enough to convince the industry's top tanning salon trainer to launch the comprehensive national program to reinforce the FDA's safety recommendations.

"As a result of your investigation I will be developing a unit to emphasize training points on the usage of the protective measures by spray tanning clients," said Joe Levy in an email to ABC News.

Levy is the executive director of the International Smart Tan Network, the educational institute for the North American sun bed community.

"I am going to personally review protocol in facilities that are doing this effectively and, based on that assessment, immediately put training in place to improve compliance everywhere," he said.

Levy said his message will go out in several phases over the next few weeks and estimated that it should hit "nearly every salon in the United States."


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."


posting signs in every room stating 'As per FDA guidelines, we recommend the use of protective eyewear, nose plugs and lip balm during every sunless tanning session.'


updating our website to include the FDA recommendations on all pertinent pages: Sunless Booth page, Airbrush tanning page and Airbrush FAQ's;


retraining our staff to more actively recommend the protective gear.

"We know that our actions go above and beyond the FDA recommendations," Oliver wrote, "but we feel, in light of the unknown effects of the DHA mist, it is in everyone's best interest to take these proactive steps."

Oliver later told ABC News he is also purchasing new top-of-the-line industrial fans for his salons that will remove as much of the DHA from the air as soon as possible after application. He said that was intended to provide the safest possible experience for consumers who wish to continue to spray tan.

He said that would make using salons such as his safer than using at-home products that can be purchased over the counter and applied by consumers in a closed-in shower.

ABC News' Teri Whitcraft and Mollie Riegger, and former medical residents Murtaza Akhter and Rishi Sharma, contributed to this report.

Our panel of six experts included Dr. Arthur Grollman of Stony Brook University, Dr. Lynn Goldman of George Washington University, Dr. Rey Panettieri of the Univ. of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, dr. Fred Guengerich of Vanderbilt University, and Dr. Darrel Rigel of NYU.