Fake Tan - the cost of looking healthy - Building Biology
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Fake Tan – the cost of looking healthy

Fake Tan – the cost of looking healthy

Remember the good old days sunbaking in the nude slathered in coconut oil? How things have changed! As a result of concerns associating excessive sun exposure with skin cancers, an entire industry has grown providing fake tans. But at what cost? The demand for fake tan products has grown significantly in the past decade, however, there is mounting research questioning the adverse health effects associated with many of the ingredients in fake tan products and in particularly its impact on women of reproductive age and pregnant woman.

Chemicals in fake tans

Here is a list of chemicals found in the majority of fake tan products and their adverse health effects.

  1. Dihydroxyacetone or DHA reacts with amino acids in the sweat and skin to turn the skin brown in colour. It is an eye, skin and lung irritant and there are concerns it may damage DNA and cause cancer.
  2. Hormone disrupting chemicals –  include oxybenzone (benzophene-3), padimate-O, phenylenediamine, tricloan, artificial fragrances to name just a few of a long list of hormone disrupting chemicals. Many of these are associated with birth defects, infertility and breast cancer
  3. Carcinogens (known and suspected) – the majority of these are preservatives including bronopol, urea derivatives, DMDM hydantoin, triclosan, quarternium 15, parabens, triethanolamine, formaldehyde exchangers and so on.
  4. Nanoparticles such as titanium dioxide are found in fake tan products with sunscreen effects (contain an SPF rating). Whilst nanoparticles do not penetrate the skin, they are a concern if they are inhaled, so spray tans are not recommended.
  5. The great majority of ingredients in fake tans are known skin and lung irritants.

For more information about the adverse health effects refer to Ellicot (2012) and Hamilton (2012).

Do all fake tan products contain these ingredients?

Yes, they do. The very nature of fake tans is to make the skin turn brown. To achieve this, you are required to use harsh chemicals with preservatives. I am yet to find a product that has been proven to be safe.

How can I achieve a safe tan?

You are best to gradually build up a tan with sensible sun exposure over time.


Whilst I do not recommend the use of fake tan products (until such time that research can prove it is completely safe), if you insist on using them, I recommend you do the following:

  • Always use a cream and not a spray, in order to reduce the amount of chemicals you inhale
  • Apply the cream in a well ventilated room
  • Follow the manufacturers recommendations in the use and application of the product
  • Buy a product free from fragrances


  • Wear a P2 respirator with a built in carbon filter
  • Wear eye goggles
  • Wear a uniform that is only worn at work and can be laundered at your workplace (not washed at home where it can contaminate other clothes)