Marmur Medical Blog

Faking A Tan

Even as I sit chained to a desk on the 11th floor of Mount Sinai reading textbooks on pathology and preparing for the test that will “define the rest of my life”, I can’t help noticing the sun is shining, the trees in central park have started leafing, the birds have returned and the children are playing. Spring is here and heralds that time of year when I start thinking about sun protection in a more serious manner than, “Does my face cream have SPF 15?” I realize that being the whitest of white is not quite the desired look our society looks for. We want “sun-kissed”; you know, that type of skin that signifies the luxury of having spare time to at least see the sun. Even though I am a huge advocate for sun protection, I too long for a little color in the summer (just so I stop reflecting the light for even a couple months). But how do we achieve this color while still maintaining proper skin health, and minimizing UV radiation induced sun damage which leads to premature skin aging and the possibility of skin cancer?

There are a couple ways to gain that sun-kissed glow without running off to Cabo for the weekend. First are tanning beds. Tanning (whether by exposure to the sun or sitting in the tanning booth) releases endorphins and makes us happy. Happiness ensures the sun-tanning cycle continues. So naturally like all things that make us happy, sun-tanning can actually become addictive. However, though addictive, people rarely realize that visiting the tanning salon will increase the risk of developing melanoma by 75%. One visit equals a 75% increase in the risk of developing melanoma! Kind of puts the priorities of life into perspective doesn’t it? Tanning salons use UV radiation, exactly like the sun, but at a much shorter distance and without the ozone to protect you. It’s basically like roasting yourself on high (with the sun being a nice low to medium depending on the season and location). The FDA released a statement in the summer of 2013 warning consumers that the use of tanning devices raises the chances of developing premature skin again, skin burns, skin cancer, as well as eye damage (both short and long term). So, although tanning salons are literally in every city and ads for tanning beds are in every magazine, they are not likely the best option to use for a little bronzing.

Since tanning in a salon is so bad for you, what are the other options to developing a “fake” tan and how safe are they? Well there’s also the sunless self-tanning. I had a rather unfortunate incident with self- tanner when I was about 20 years old and was tired of my pastiness. With a tube of L’Oreal self-tanner and YouTube as a guide, I decided to practice on my legs. The result was horrible. Since it wasn’t a “lotion” per say, I had body lotion and self-tanner to slather on every morning; it was a big greasy, smelly, orange mess. The self-tanner ran and I had the worst case of uneven streaks ever! Thankfully, I had only decided to practice on my upper legs, which were covered by shorts and skirts all summer, thus hiding my self-tanner shame. I was scarred for life. Then last summer, I got a sample of self-tanning, “instant glow” body lotion and I was in love. With the new age of BB, CC and DD creams, manufacturers have figured out a way to make self-tanner into a more inclusive all-in-one tanner and lotion (much easier application, much better texture and less uneven application).

Many self-tanners, as well as the spray-on tans in the booths, contain dihydroxyacteone (DHA) as the active ingredient. DHA is, like many organic compounds, a colorless sugar. The sugar interacts with the dead skin cells on the top-most layer of skin and magically creates a color change in about an hour (and thanks to the combining of self- tanner into a lotion format, there is little to no drying time). With either self-tanning or spray-tanning, the color will last for about a week after application (the time it takes to slough off the dead skin cells) and intensifies the more product you use (the more DHA applied, the more skin cells will interact with the sugar and the darker the color change will become). A good rule of thumb is to apply the tanner once every three days. Using self-tanner is a great way to watch your skin tone bronze as it is happening, and adjust your skin tone accordingly without exposing yourself to harmful UV radiation. Just remember, after applying self-tanner, wash your hands first before touching any part of your body that you don’t want tanned, or more importantly, that you don’t want tanned in the shape of a handprint.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, DHA is the most effective product for self-tanning and is also safe. However, just like any cosmetic product you do not want to apply it to broken skin, and if your skin should become irritated, discontinue use. In addition, protect your eyes and mucus membranes at all times! If you are in a tanning booth, use some physical barrier to protect your mucus membranes and prevent inhalation (such as googles for the eyes, nose plugs, mouth protective gear and protective undergarments).

So, there you have it. The “low-down” on the good and the bad when it comes to tanning in ways other than exposing yourself to the sun. Tanning beds alarmingly increase your risk of developing melanomas, while self-tanning products contain DHA, a safe sugar. Though the application of self-tanner takes extra time and care, it is worth it in the end to keep your skin safe and healthy. However, though self-tanner gives the impression of a tan, it does not prevent UV-radiation-induced skin damage. Remember to still apply sun protection and enjoy the outdoors safely!

Written by:
Margit Lai Wun Juhasz
Mount Sinai Medical Student