If you're looking to get a natural-looking glow fast, you might be asking yourself, "Is spray tanning safe?"

Whether you're a spray tan veteran wondering for the first time about the safety of the process or you're exploring all your options before bronzing your body for the first time, this article has you covered. Read on to learn everything you need to know about spray tans.

What Is a Spray Tan?

To quickly get the titular question out of the way, yes, spray tans—artificial pigmentation applied to the skin—are safe. According to the Mayo Clinic, spray tanning (a.k.a. sunless tanning) is considered completely harmless as long you use such products as directed. More on safety later, though.

How do they work, then? Spray tans give you that sunkissed glow by using a tanning agent called dihydroxyacetone (DHA). When the product is applied onto the skin, the DHA reacts with dead skin cells sitting on the top layer and temporarily darkens them. How dark your skin may turn depends on how much you put on, and it generally fades after several days.

Sunless tanning comes in two main forms. First, there are self-tanners, which are lotions and sprays containing DHA that you can use at home to get some faux color. You simply apply it like you would a moisturizing body lotion, lathering product all over the parts of your body you want to get tan. Spray tans, on the other hand, involve a fine mist being sprayed all over your body by a professional.

Note that DHA is the only tanning agent approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). And, it is only approved as an "external application." The FDA states that it shouldn't be inhaled or used in certain areas such as the lips, nose, and around the eyes, so you'll want to be careful to limit your exposure there.

How Do You Get the Best Results?

To make sure your faux tan goes on evenly, there are a couple of ways to prep the skin before treatment. The most important thing to do beforehand is to exfoliate the skin. If you have dry, flaky skin, the tan may appear streaky and uneven. You'll also want to avoid using a moisturizer before a spray tan appointment. Lotions and oils can repel the tan from locking in and reacting to the skin.

Aftercare once you're done getting spray tanned is simple. Depending on how much of a spray tan you get, you'll want to avoid taking a shower for a few hours. The higher percentage of DHA used, the sooner you can shower. Be sure to wash off well with gentle soap and sponge off any dripping water quickly once you're done so those drips don't cause any streaks or runs.

Is Spray Tanning Safe vs Indoor and Outdoor Tanning?

Getting a spray tan is much safer than using a tanning bed or sitting out under the sun all day. In fact, there's really no comparison safety-wise.

Most tanning beds use both UVA and UVB radiation to help you get that glow. According to the FDA, though, both types of radiation can damage the skin and cause skin cancer. The FDA also mentions a review done by the International Agency Research on Cancer (IRAC) that found the following:

  • When using a tanning bed before the age of 35, an individual's risk of melanoma increases 75 percent.

  • There are links between indoor tanning and squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma.

  • There is a link between tanning beds and ocular melanoma (eye cancer).

The IRAC also recommended banning anyone under the age of 18 from using commercial tanning beds to protect them from these risks.

And hopefully, if you're at all aware of the dangers of tanning beds, you know about the dangers of and myths surrounding tanning under the sun. Although you do still get a slight tan when you wear sunscreen, a tan is nothing more than skin damage that can lead to skin cancer over the years. This is not to mention the other issues that tanning causes, including sunburns, eye damage, and signs of premature aging.

So, if you're looking for a safe way to get some color, spray tans are your best bet. You'll get that glow without risking your skin's health—it's a win-win.

Does a Spray Tan Provide Sun Protection?

Just as having a base tan doesn't protect you from getting a sunburn, having a spray tan isn't enough to protect you from the sun's harmful UV rays. According to the Mayo Clinic, most tanning products don't contain sunscreen. And, the ones that do aren't as effective as dedicated sunscreens. Using something like EltaMD's UV Shield Broad-Spectrum SPF 45 is still essential for sun protection. If you're looking for subtle color with your protection, opt for a tinted product like EltaMD's UV Clear Tinted Broad-Spectrum SPF 46.

So, it's more than possible to get that desired glow without having to risk damage to your skin (and health). If you want to look like you spent 10 days vacationing in Bora Bora without actually doing so, spray tans might just be for you.


  • Audrey Noble

    Audrey Noble is a New York City-based reporter specializing in features, celebrity profiles, and beauty topics. Her work has appeared in Vogue, Harper's BAZAAR, Allure, Vanity Fair, Refinery29, and more. She is a University of Southern California alumna with bachelor's degrees in print journalism and creative writing.

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