Skin Cancer Prevention and Early Detection

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What about tanning pills and other tanning products?

Several products claim to give a tan without exposing a person to UV radiation. Some may be safe and effective, but others may not work, and some may even be harmful.

Tanning pills and accelerators

Tanning pills contain color additives similar to beta-carotene, the substance that gives carrots their orange color. Once swallowed, the additives are deposited throughout the body, especially the skin, turning it an orange-like color. Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved some of these additives for coloring food, they are not approved for use in tanning agents. They may be harmful at the high levels that are used in tanning pills. The main ingredient in most sunless tanning pills, canthaxanthin, can show up in your eyes as yellow crystals, which may cause injury and impair vision. There have also been reports of liver and skin problems.

Tanning accelerators, such as lotions or pills that contain the amino acid tyrosine or its derivatives, do not work and may be dangerous. Marketers say these products stimulate the body’s own tanning process, but most evidence suggests they don’t work. The FDA considers them unapproved new drugs that have not been shown to be safe and effective.

No tanning pills have been approved by the FDA.

Bronzers and extenders

Two other sunless tanning products, bronzers and extenders, are considered cosmetics for external use. They are not thought to be harmful when used properly.

Bronzers, made from color additives approved by the FDA for cosmetic use, stain the skin for a short time when applied and can be washed off with soap and water.

Extenders (also known as sunless tanners or self-tanners) are applied to the skin as lotions or creams, where they interact with proteins on the surface of the skin to produce a darker color. Like a tan, the color tends to wear off after a few days. The only FDA-approved color additive for extenders is dihydroxyacetone (DHA).

Applying these products by hand can sometimes lead to uneven coloring, so some tanning salons have begun to offer whole body sprays in tanning booths. A concern here is that DHA is approved for external use only and should not be inhaled or sprayed in or on the mouth, eyes, or nose. People who choose to get a DHA spray tan should make sure to protect these areas.

These products can give skin a darker color (although in some people it may have a slight orange tinge), but they don’t offer much protection from the damaging effects of UV radiation. Even if they contain sunscreen, it would only be effective for a couple of hours. You should read the label carefully to determine whether or not a product provides any protection, but in most cases it’s safest to continue to use sunscreen and wear protective clothing when going outside.


Last Medical Review: 12/11/2013
Last Revised: 02/20/2014