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Tan or Sunless Tanning, Which is Better?

The answer to this question might seem really obvious, but the answer might surprise you.

Let’s start with the obvious, we all know that too much exposure to the sun is bad for you. However, sunlight in small doses is effective in lowering your chances of being Vitamin D deficient. Vitamin D is necessary for good bone health. It can also help prevent and treat ailments such as eczema, rosacea, high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer. Scientists have recently theorized that since many of us have resorted to staying out of the sun completely, we are becoming Vitamin D deficient as a society, which is why some of these ailments are on the rise. Experts say that you can add a little glow to your skin and keep your body healthy by putting on at least SPF 30 and sitting in the sun for a few minutes a day. But please don’t bake, you’ll increase your chances of melanoma, and your skin will get leathery and wrinkled in time….not pretty.

Sunless tanning was supposed to be the silver bullet for those who wanted a tan, but didn’t want to risk skin cancer and early signs of aging. But did we trade one set of ailments for another? Some of the sunless tanning products on the market are harmless, while others are a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Tanning pills seem to be the worst of the bunch. There are two kinds of tanning pills: ones that turn your skin brownish-orange from the inside out, and ones that hasten tanning from sunlight. 

Although outlawed in the US, the tanning pills that tan you from the inside out are available over the internet and from shady sources. They contain high levels of carotenoid and tyrosine, which turn your skin various shades of orange to brown. Sometimes you get a good color, and sometimes you get carrot orange. Not attractive. They not only color your skin, but also internal organs like your brain, liver and eyes as well. The pills also contain canthaxanthin which can cause hepatitis, and yellowing of the retina, which can eventually cause partial blindness. Overall, these pills are bad news.

The tanning pills that speed up the sun tanning process only contain tyrosine, which increases the production of melanin. The user takes the pills, and then exposes themselves to sunlight to activate the tyrosine resulting in faster tanning. The side effects include nausea and headaches. It’s also not known if there are any long-term side effects, and whether or not they also hasten the aging process. It stands to reason that if you’re baking in the sun without sunblock, you’ll eventually have the same results: leathery skin and wrinkles.

Sunless tanners that work on the outside seem to be less dangerous than tanning pills. However, there are some that contain byproducts called nitrosamines. Since these don’t have to be listed on the label, it is very important for you to do your homework.

When choosing sunless tanning sprays or creams, make sure the salon or manufacturer will disclose the product ingredients. If using a tanning service, make sure you call in advance to find out what product they’re using. Then take the product name and search the Skin Deep database or do internet research. The Skin Deep database does not have every known product on the market, but you can also enter single ingredients as well. Also, don’t take it as gospel, use it in conjunction to your own research to make informed choices.

The sunless tanning sprays and creams that don’t contain nitrosamines seem to be the best bet out of all of the tanning products. Since they work on the outer layer of dead skin, they are thought to have much less chance of long-term side effects. They don’t last quite as long as long as a regular tan, but reapplication is simple. The creams like BC’s Triple Glow tend to be less expensive, and you can reapply as often as you like. Spray tans are easy, but can start to get costly if you go very often.

One thing to remember is that you’re not protected from sunburn or sun damage just because you have darker skin from sunless tanning. This is a common misconception and can have dire results. Fair skinned people have reported sunburn or sun poisoning shortly after using sunless tanning products. This was found to be because they failed to use sunblock before outdoor activities. Make sure you continue to wear as much sunblock as you did prior to sunless tanning (I prefer sunblock over sunscreen, see my SPF article). Or use a sunless tanning cream, like Triple Glow that also contains sunblock and kill two birds with one stone.

Hope this helps you make an informed choice about the sunless tanning products you may be considering.


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