By Dr. Huy Nguyen

You probably know that UV radiation from the sun or from indoor tanning beds can cause sunburns and skin cancer. But did you know that there are health risks to so-called “sunless tanning,” too?

DHA – the shorter name for “dihydroxyacetone” – is an active ingredient in many sunless tanning products. It works by reacting with proteins in the outer layer of the skin to cause the skin to darken.

Studies have shown that DHA can cause damage to the DNA in skin cells, although research hasn’t yet shown a strong link to causing cancer.

And if you thought getting a sunless tan would protect you from getting a real sunburn, think again. The skin coloring from sunless tanners is not effective protection from the sun or other sources of UV radiation.

The good news? If you choose to use a sunless tanner, you may be able to reduce your exposure to DHA. Use a cream or lotion product instead of a spray or mist. Don’t apply it on areas where it could be absorbed like around the eyes, on the lips, in the nose, or on the genitals. Wash your hands carefully after applying.

Click here to learn more about DHA and sunless tanning. (pdf)

Most importantly, always use sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or higher to reduce the risks of skin aging, skin cancer, and other harmful effects of the sun.

Dr. Nguyen is the medical director at the Boston Public Health Commission and a pediatrician at the Dorchester House Multi-Service Center.

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