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“More and more people realize that a ‘healthy’ suntan is anything but,” says Jennifer Wong, a certified registered physician’s assistant specializing in dermatology with Advanced Dermatology PC. “The ultraviolet rays that cause a tan – whether from the sun outside or a bulb in a booth – damage skin cells, triggering premature aging and most cases of skin cancer.”
So how to meet the desire many have to be sun-safe but look sun-kissed? “Sunless ‘tanners’ have filled that gap,” observes Wong.
With an annual market now topping $1 billion globally, sunless tanners got their start by accident: In the 1950s, doctors were using an oral sugar derivative to treat children with glycogen storage disease, a rare disorder that interferes with the body’s ability to break down stored sugars – or glycogen – for energy. During treatment, doctors noticed that skin exposed to the medicine turned tan – the result of a reaction between the medicine’s sugar chemical dihydroxyacetone – or DHA – and surface skin proteins.
With FDA approval in the 1970s, DHA was repurposed and repackaged – and is now widely available as a solution to the vexing problem of how to look tan without the sun.
“Groups like the American Association of Dermatology and the American Cancer Society advise that sunless-tanning products offer a safer option,” Wong points out.
The chemistry behind the combination of DHA and our skin proteins is known as the Maillard reaction. “Researchers are continuing to explore how this reaction affects our skin as it creates a ‘tan,’” observes Wong. “As we learn more, sunless tanner formulas are improving. And so is our ability to help people achieve their desired ‘tan’ in the safest way possible.”
With that in mind, Wong offers the following suggestions.
6 Tips to Maximize Sunless ‘Tan’ Safety
1. Add in antioxidants: “The Maillard reaction,” Wong explains, “can create free radicals. In chemistry terms, these are molecules with unpaired electrons that are looking for partners. People should look for formulas that include antioxidants to help neutralize those free radicals and stabilize our skin cells.”
2. Get your glow in the dark: “The free radicals from sunless tanning are actually activated by exposure to the sun,” notes Wong. “For that reason, it makes sense to apply sunless tanners in the evening. Optimally, waiting 24 hours for any sun exposure can minimize the action of free radicals.”
3. Stay away from the spray: “The FDA has made very clear that approval of DHA is specific to lotions and creams,” emphasizes Wong. “The safety of spray-on tans is still TBD because of concerns about inhaling droplets, as well as exposing sensitive areas: our eyes, lips, and mucous membranes. Those who still want spray-on should request eye and mouth protection, nose filters, and disposable underwear.”
4. Check the other ingredients: “For example, formulas may include preservatives that some may be sensitive or allergic to,” says Wong. “Just like with foods, it’s important to consider the full list of additives.”
5. Don’t pop any ‘tan’ pills: “The FDA has not approved any sunless tanning supplements, such as those with canthaxanthin,” emphasizes Wong. “These may cause vision and organ damage.”
6. Let up before a skin check-up – or surgery: “Sunless tanners cause skin-pigment changes,” notes Wong, “so people should consider taking a break before a skin evaluation so that the specialist can observe the patient’s skin in its natural state. Likewise, before any surgery, as sunless tanners may interact with materials such as adhesives and antiseptics.”
“Of course,” concludes Wong, “we also need to be vigilant about sun protection: using sunscreen and protective clothing and seeking shade. These steps are essential to really have a sunless ‘tan.’”
Bio: Jennifer M. Wong, RPA-C Physician Assistant. Ms. Wong has comprehensive experience in medical and cosmetic dermatology for all ages.
Advanced Dermatology P.C. and the Center for Laser and Cosmetic Surgery (New York & New Jersey) is one of the leading dermatology centers in the nation, offering highly experienced physicians in the fields of cosmetic and laser dermatology as well as plastic surgery and state-of-the-art medical technologies. advanceddermatologypc.com