Who can forget the leather face of the New Jersey mother arrested after taking her 5-year-old daughter to a tanning salon?
The “Tan Mom,” as she was dubbed, became the national punchline of extreme tanning. It was also a serious reminder that tanning can be harmful and addictive. Why else would anyone want to look like burnt toast?
Most people don’t go to that extreme yet still go for some bronze because the rays feel good and they think it makes them look good.
Exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun or tanning beds is the main factor for skin cancers and also one of the most preventable. According to American Cancer Society, about 3.5 million skin cancers are diagnosed each year. Melanoma, the deadliest, is one of the most common cancers in young adults.
Washington law recently banned those under 18 from using tanning beds because of the health danger. The Everett Clinic dermatologist Dr. Robin Hornung was part of the original group testifying to create tanning bed laws in Washington.
“Sun tanning beds have large amounts of radiation, more than the sun,” Hornung said. “The sun is probably safer. Ideally, I don’t want them to get a tan. What tanning means is there has been DNA damage in the skin. The DNA damage is what triggers the tanning response.”
Enter DHA, not to be confused with DNA.
DHA stands for dihydroxyacetone, an FDA-approved color additive for external use. Rub it on. Spray it on. DHA isn’t a dye or stain. It doesn’t alter underlying pigmentation, rather it causes a chemical reaction with the amino acids in the dead layer skin surface. Skin cells are constantly being shed, so the DHA-induced “tan” fades away within about a week.
DHA products are generally safe, Hornung said, if users protect airways and eyes — and use sunscreen. The products do not offer protection from the sun. Stores have do-it-yourself DHA lotions for less than $10. It’s not mistake-proof, but the streaks and splotches are less frequent with practice. And, no, you don’t turn orange.
Salons take it to the next level. Some have automated booths like enclosed shower stalls that spray a DHA mist. Step inside, close the door and get a full body spray … as in no tan lines.
Hand-operated sprays are another option. Heidi Brager, owner of Glo and Tell in Arlington, uses a hose and spray gun attached to an air compressor to spray bodies as if airbrushing a statue.
“The air pushes the tanning solution out as a mist,” Brager said. “It comes in different shades. I can custom blend. I want to make it look like it is from the sun.”
It costs $30 and takes about 15 minutes from start to finish. About 2 ounces of liquid turns into a mist that tans an entire body, with or without tan lines.
“It’s basically sugar beets, vitamin E, aloe, different plant extracts and water,” Brager said.
Still, she takes precautions. DHA is not approved for internal use. Clients wear a ringed nostril clip and eye shields. She wears a mask.
Brager, a professional makeup artist, expanded her business to include spray tanning for health reasons. “I hated to see brides tanning in tanning beds before their weddings to get color. It’s such a common thing,” she said.
She knows the lure of a tan.
“We wore baby oil and just laid out on tinfoil and got fried,” said Brager, 35. “Tanning beds came along in the ’90s and we were all using them. Now I’m starting to hear about all these melanoma scares. It’s weekly that I hear about somebody. A lot of my clients are reformed tanning bed users. They still want that color. It makes them feel better. It makes me feel better.”
Men come in for sprays, too. “Not as many,” she said, “but I would say it’s increasing.”