The Pros and Cons of Sunless Tanning

Sunless tanning, ever since the association of exposure to ultraviolet light with the development of skin cancer, has become a popular alternative to traditional sun tanning. Sunless tanning comes in a variety of different forms, including: 1) lotions, sprays, gels, mousses, and wipes containing a chemical called dihydroxyacetone which reacts with the amino acids found in the dead layer on the skin’s surface, resulting in the tanned-color change. 2) Tanning pills containing canthaxanthin, a carotenoid which, when consumed in large quantities, changes the color of your skin to an orange-brown (kind of like if you were to eat massive amounts of carrots).

Young woman getting a tan

Neither of the sunless tanning methods above require any UV exposure (hence the name “sunless tanning” right? – but actually there are certain products still considered as “sunless” tanning that require minimal exposure to UV rays in order for them to take effect). Still, we have to ask: are these products safe? Here are some of the pros and cons of each type of product to have a look at before you make your decision about which is the best and safest way to get a tan:

Dihydroxyacetone (DHA) sprays, lotions, etc.

Pro: These products require no exposure to the sun, which saves you from worrying about the negative side effects of traditional sun tanning such as wrinkled, leathery skin in old age, or skin cancer.

Pro: Unlike some other sunless tanning products like bronzers, DHA products do no wipe off or cause smudges on clothing. It is the layer of dead skin itself that is “dyed” (or which changes color when it reacts with DHA), so your tan cannot be wiped off; it will, however, fade naturally after 3 to 10 days as your skin sheds.

Con: DHA has been known to cause contact dermatitis, a type of rash or irritation of the skin resulting from contact with a foreign substance. Contact dermatitis can cause large, burning, and itchy rashes.

Con: DHA, when applied as a spray, is often done so at a professional salon, in a kind of spray “tanning booth” where the product is sprayed all over the body at once. The FDA, however, has not approved exposure to DHA in the forms of 1) eye contact, 2) contact with the lips, 3) contact with the mucous membrane, 4) ingestion, or 5) inhalation. The risks involved with inhaling DHA are currently unknown (in other words, it’s probably not something you want to do).

Canthaxanthin pills

Pro: Like DHA products, these pills require no exposure to the sun, and are therefore not subject to the risks of wrinkled, leathery skin or skin cancer.

Pro: Unlike DHA, there is no risk of inhaling a potentially harmful substance unapproved by the FDA (for inhalation – DHA has been approved for topical use).

Con: The FDA has not approved the use of canthaxanthin as a tanning agent. It has also issued warnings regarding its use in this way.

Con: The use of canthaxanthin pills has been linked to cases of hepatitis, as well as canthaxanthin retinopathy, a condition that causes yellow deposits to form in the retina of the eye. They can also damage your digestive system as well as the surface of your skin. According to the Mayo Clinic, canthaxanthin pills can also cause hives, turn your skin orange (not orange-brown, just straight up orange like Garfield) and can damage your liver.

So: you are now left with a choice between: 1) traditional sun tanning, the side effects being wrinkles and skin cancer; 2) DHA sprays, gels, etc., the side effects being potentially severe rashes, as well as the unknown potential side effects of inhalation or ingestion; 3) Canthaxanthin pills, the side effects being hepatitis, yellow eyes, digestion system damage, skin damage, hives, orange skin, and liver damage.

You may now weigh the pros and cons, you may consider which option holds the most risk and which option holds the least risk, or you may search out additional guarantees about which is the best option from pundits or institutions. All the while you are doing this, however, you are neglecting a very obvious fourth option, namely: 4) Do not do anything to tan your body, the side effects being: none.

This is a very obvious option, and obviously the safest. In the first place, why would anyone, when considering the best and safest options, take it as a given that they must tan? Why is this most simple and safe option – namely, to not tan at all – not featured in people’s lists of options? Options 1, 2, and 3 all bring with them dangers both known and unknown – so why on earth would anyone choose the least dangerous among three dangerous options, when there is absolutely nothing requiring them to choose any of them at all? If you had to choose between: 1) fighting a bear, 2) fighting a lion, 3) fighting an alligator, and 4) not fighting any animal, which option would you choose?

The fact that people will risk their health for the sake of their appearance, not to mention that fact that there is an entire industry surrounding this type of radical superficiality and oversight, is absolutely flabbergasting – yet it passes for something ordinary and every-day. Is there any way that we can make sense of this? When did sun tanning originally come into style, and why?

According to Wikipedia, Coco Chanel, after accidentally getting sunburn, partly started the trend of sun tanning (or at least of making tanned skin desirable) when her fans were influenced by her tan (on the back of her status, wealth, and reputation). Prior to the 20th century, however, tanned skin was considered undesirable, because it was associated with the lower classes (who often worked outdoors).

The two observations above gives us our first clue to our flabbergasting phenomenon (risking one’s health for the sake of their appearance); namely, status. It was social status which made tanned skin undesirable, and it was also social status (that of Coco Chanel) that (apparently) turned the tables, making tanned skin desirable. Interestingly, in both cases, our sun behavior for status causes health issues – in the case of the extreme avoidance of the sun by upper class women prior to the 20th century (they would completely cover themselves and hide from the sun under parasols – something that is happening today in certain Asian countries like South Korea), the result was Vitamin D deficiency, a contributing factor to conditions such as lupus vulgaris and rickets.

So, it seems to be the case that we are willing to risk our health, not simply for the sake for our appearance, but for the sake of showing our status in society. Prior to the 20th century, pale skin was considered to reflect higher social status and leisure from outdoor work associated with the lower classes. Today, tanned skin is associated with higher social status and leisure, and although Wikipedia suggests that this was caused by Coco Chanel, that every tanner is imitating the success, wealth, and status of Coco Chanel to this very day, I suspect there is another reason.

The work done by the lower classes has changed. Whereas prior to the 20th century, a significant amount of the work done by the lower classes consisted of manual labor (done outdoors, in the sun), this is no longer the case. Today, the lower classes are working in call centers, office buildings, et cetera; in other words: indoors. Whereas prior to the 20th century, tanned skin was a sign of work, today –because the nature of the work we do has changed – pale skin is now a sign of work, or of being otherwise trapped indoors and prevented from enjoying the sun, or the outdoors at our leisure.

This being said, we can now add another element to our previously overlooked fourth option: 4) Do not sun tan at all, because there are no dangerous side effects associated with this, and because sun tanning as an act of class performance (by that I mean, as an act of representing ourselves as possessing leisure and therefore wealth and social status) has now become transparent to us. In other words, by learning to think critically about why our society does some of the flabbergasting things that it does, we can dissolve the illusion of status, and finally see sun tanning for the ridiculous and potentially dangerous activity that it really is.

So, to sum it all up: choose option number 4 (to not sun tan in any form whatsoever) not only because it is the safest of all the options, but because it has become transparent to you as a vain act of class performance. In other words, do not choose between the bear, the lion, and the alligator, when you can so very simply and safely choose none of them – especially not if you have, through critical thinking, uncovered the false reasons for which you would want to fight a bear, lion, or alligator to being with.

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