What Are the Dangers of Self-Tanners?

Written by misty barton
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What Are the Dangers of Self-Tanners?
Sunless tanners are an alternative to sunbathing which is known to cause cancer, (Goodshoot/Goodshoot/Getty Images)

There are three kinds of sunless tanner currently available on the market: spray or rub on tanner applied to the skin's surface; sunless tanning pills, which contain a brown food colouring called canthaxanthin; and an injectable drug, which supposedly increases the body's production of melanin. Sunless tanners applied externally are relatively safe when used according to packaging instructions; but other forms of sunless tanner can pose a serious health risk for users and are illegal for use in the United States.

Allergic Reaction

Some people experience an allergic reaction called contact dermatitis when sunless tanning lotion is sprayed on their skin. The reaction is most likely to dihydroxyacetone or DHA, and can cause itching, burning and hives. DHA is a simple carbohydrate made from sugar beets that interacts with the amino acids in the first layer of skin, causing it to look brown. If you experience an allergic reaction, stop using the lotion immediately. Take an antihistamine to ease symptoms and stop the symptoms from progressing. Purchase your sunless tanner from a store where you can use a tester. Dab a sample on the inside of your arm and check your reaction.


Using sunless tanner can increase your risk of sunburn if you do not use sunscreen. Many people mistakenly believe that a sunless tan provides the same tan base as a real tan. This is not the case. People who use sunless tanner burn at the same rate as people with no tan. Use sunscreen with SPF15 or greater when going outdoors regardless of how tan your skin appears.


Taking the oral tanning drug canthaxanthin, is not only illegal but can also cause an eye condition called retinopathy, whereby yellow crystals form in the retina. Symptoms include photosensitivity, blurred vision, double vision, and eye pain.Laser treatments may be conducted to remove scar tissue and replace damaged eye fluid with new saline. However, any tissue damage that occurs is irreversible.

Liver Damage

Continual use of canthaxanthin can also cause liver damage, leading to hepatitis. Symptoms include inflammation of the liver, abdominal pain and distortion, dark urine, fatigue, fever, itchiness, jaundice, loss of appetite and vomiting. See your doctor if you are experiencing these symptoms to be treated appropriately and to prevent liver failure.

Injectable Suntan Risks

The injectable drug Melanotan, which is illegal in the United States but still widely distributed through Internet sales, is supposed to increase the body's production of melanin to speed tanning and bronze the skin. The drug can cause moles to change shape and colour rapidly, increasing the risk of undetected skin cancer. The drug also damages the immune system, causing vomiting, facial flushing and severe skin irritation. US drug trials for Melatontan were cancelled when it caused dangerously high blood-pressure spikes in test subjects.

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