The main chemical used in popular spray tans is raising cancer concerns. DHA—dihydroxyacetone—can lead to genetic alterations and DNA damage, said ABC News, citing a panel of medical experts.
The panel reviewed various data including 10 recent, publicly available studies on DHA and a federal report the news source obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. The six-member panel included experts in dermatology, toxicology, and pulmonary medicine said ABC News.
After reviewing the literature, the panel said it has “concerns” about DHA, a chemical used as a “safe” option to tanning under ultraviolet lights or the sun. ABC News noted that the reviewed studies did not test on human subjects, but studies revealed that DHA altered the genes of a number of cells and organisms when tested in a variety of labs and by different scientists, all conducted after DHA was approved for use in the consumer market, said ABC News.
“I have concerns,” Dr. Rey Panettieri, a toxicologist and lung specialist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, told ABC News. “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.” The ABC panel is calling for more testing. “These compounds in some cells could actually promote the development of cancers or malignancies,” he said.
The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) approved DHA for “external” use in 1977 in tanning lotions. Today, DHA is used in the spray applications that tout an even, allover tan without the dangers of UVA and UVB rays. The FDA told ABC News it never imagined DHA use in spray tans in the 1970s when the technology was not yet discovered and warned “DHA should not be inhaled or ingested.” The FDA states on its web site that, “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,” wrote ABC News. The FDA also warns that consumers are “not protected from the unapproved use of this color additive” should they inhale the mist or if it enters the body and recommends, “Consumers should request measures to protect their eyes and mucous membranes and prevent inhalation.”
ABC’s undercover investigation revealed that some salons provide advice in conflict with FDA recommendations and all claimed spray tanning was safe. Many claimed DHA is not only safe, but food grade, which may be a misinterpretation with the omega 3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic (also known as DHA), a different product approved by the FDA and found in salmon or milk, explained ABC News. Many salons ABC visited did not have eye or nose plugs or protective gear for the mouth; those that did recommended against the protective devices. In response, the tanning industry announced a major national training initiative over the next few weeks.
According to the FDA report released to ABC News, FDA scientists concluded that DHA absorption does not stop at the outer layers of dead skin and that “The fate of DHA remaining in skin is an important issue, since high DHA skin levels were found.” Much of the DHA applied to the skin was in the skin’s living layers. Dr. Darrell Rigel, NYU professor of dermatology cautions that DHA absorption into living skin is risky, said ABC News. “There’s a real potential problem … that has been identified and for public safety, more studies should be done,” said Rigel, a former president of the three major U.S. dermatological groups: the American Academy of Dermatology, the American Dermatological Association, and the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery.
Dr. Lynn Goldman, dean of the School of Public Health and Health Services at George Washington University, reviewed the same data and said DHA tested positive for mutating genes in far too many studies to ignore its health implications. “What we’re concerned about is … reactions that may occur deeper down with living cells that might then change DNA, causing a mutation and what the possible impacts of that might be,” she told ABC News. She added, “I’d be very concerned for the potential of lung cancer,” and also cautioned about birth defects. Goldman was a pediatrician appointed by President Clinton and approved by the Senate to serve in a top position at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) overseeing chemical safety, said ABC News.