Safety Concerns About Spray Tanning During Pregnancy

Woman body paint with airbrush

The tanning and cosmetics industries view spray tan as safe, but there is little information about its safety in pregnancy. Given that there are questions about the safety of the ingredients and the mode of application, you should limit or avoid at-home or professional spray tan during your pregnancy.

The Ingredients and Concerns

Spray tan products contain the active tanning ingredient, dihydroxyacetone (DHA), with professional products having a higher concentration than at-home products. Some products may also contain fragrances and preservatives, such as parabens, which may induce a skin allergy or other toxicities.

Concerns About DHA Absorption and Toxicity

There are no human studies on the use of DHA or spray tan during pregnancy, but an ABC News investigation in 2012 highlighted concerns about spray tan safety.

DHA darkens the skin by a chemical reaction with the amino acids in the outer dead layers of the skin, the stratum corneum. At least two studies raise the possibility that DHA could penetrate to deeper layers of the skin and enter the circulation to reach the baby and cause fetal defects:

  1. Deeper skin absorption: A 2004 report in the journal of Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology found that DHA penetrated beyond the dead layers of skin in the lab, and that about 22% of applied DHA remained in the skin after 24 hours. Though the authors state that "little of the DHA that penetrates into the skin is become systemically absorbed," this raises the potential of absorption from the skin into a woman's circulation.
  2. DNA and cellular toxicity: A study reported in the journal, Mutation Research in 2004, found that DHA can bind to the amino acids of DNA in live skin cells in the lab and cause extensive DNA damage and cell death. These changes were greater the higher the dose and the longer the exposure. This study raises the potential for of damage to a person's skin cells and to dividing fetal cells, especially in the first trimester.

Concerns for Other Routes of DHA Absorption

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) information on DHA warns about the potential for internal absorption through the lungs and mucous membrane of the mouth, and damage to the eyes from the spray mist.

DHA, according to the FDA, was approved as a color additive for use in self-tanning lotions in the 1970s, not for use in a spray. The FDA does not approve of applying DHA by spray in tanning salons because of the lack of safety data on this route application.

Potential Toxicity of Parabens

Some spray tan products contain parabens, which are widely used by the cosmetics industry as preservatives to prolong the life of a product.

There are concerns about the safety of parabens and their estrogenic activities, according to a 2005 review in Critical Reviews in Toxicology. Though research indicates that the estrogenic activity of parabens is weak compared to natural estrogens, still the question remains of their potential to feminise the genitals of a developing male baby.

Repeated Use

Repeated, frequent use of spray tanning could increase the potential for any risk of birth defect. This is especially important during the first trimester, a time of rapid cell division and DNA activity when the risk for fetal harm is greatest.

Given the lack of research on the safety of spray tan during pregnancy, it is important to avoid or limit your exposure. This includes at-home spray tan products, as well as applications in tanning salons. Pregnant salon employees may be at even greater risk than customers from all-day exposure to the sprays and inhaling the mist.

Alternatives to Spray Tan

The tanning effect of DHA lasts for three to seven days. As an alternative to DHA spray tan, consider bronzers in lotions, gels, or sticks that you wash off at the end of the day or night. They don't absorb in your skin, so they are likely safer than DHA-containing products and can be applied to your face and body.

Speak With Your Doctor

Speak with your own doctor before using any chemical products that could potentially harm your baby. If you choose to use spray tan during your pregnancy, be sure to protect your eyes and avoid inhaling or ingesting the mist to reduce potential risks to you and your baby.

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Safety Concerns About Spray Tanning During Pregnancy