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What Is DHA? Lets Get The Glow-down

What does DHA stand for and what is it?

In the world of self-tanning, DHA is an abbreviation for Dihydroxyacetone. This is an active ingredient that is a type of carbohydrate derived from plant sources like sugar canes, and may also be derived through glycerin fermentation. It interacts with the amino acids in our dead skin cells to darken their appearance, creating that sun-kissed glow even without direct sun exposure.

Is DHA safe to use for tanning?

As daunting as its chemical name sounds, topical DHA tanning lotions are generally considered to be safer than sunbathing the traditional way, as you can get a tan without the harmful UV rays that usually go with it. Studies have concluded that DHA is a much safer alternative to both indoor and outdoor tanning, which heightens the risk for developing melanoma – the deadliest type of skin cancer. The American Academy of Dermatology states that people who start using tanning beds before the age of 35 increase their risk of developing melanoma by at least 59%. 

Different agencies across the globe have approved DHA for self-tanning use for decades now. Used topically, the skin does not absorb DHA into the body, and is considered non-toxic. However, be careful not to inhale DHA and to keep it away from areas with mucous membranes, such as under the nose, near the lips, or around the eyes.

How does DHA tan your skin?

Despite being derived from glycerol (a non-toxic, sweet-tasting viscous liquid), DHA and sunless tanners are not be ingested. Microbial fermentation is used to create this glycerol from simple sugars, which then darkens the skin via the Maillard reaction. This term Maillard reaction describes the process where sugars react with amino acids.

Varied tanning products use different concentrations of DHA: gradual tanners typically have less DHA, while tanners that work quicker to darken the skin usually has a higher concentration of DHA. 

How did DHA become a tanning agent sans exposure to the sun?

Interestingly enough, the discovery of DHA as a tanning agent was entirely by accident. In the 1920s, German scientists used DHA as a normal component of the x-ray process. As spills were inevitable during these tests, scientists noted that the skin would temporarily turn brown after being exposed for a few hours.

The U.S. National Institutes of Health also adds that in the 1950s, a University of Cincinnati researcher made a similar discovery. Ms. Eva Wittgenstein was conducting a study where DHA was tested as an oral treatment for glycogen storage disease. During the tests, the children sometimes spilled the substance onto their skin, which turned their skin brown within a few hours.

Originally, DHA turned the skin more orange than brown. Thankfully, research and technology have allowed for the perfecting of a formula that created a more natural glow.

Is DHA safe for pregnant users?

Recent studies have shown that DHA does not pose any risks to pregnant women or unborn children. In 2011, the U.S. Institutes of Health published a study where they found that DHA applied topically, even with concentrations as high as 15%, had only 0.5% systemic effects.

The American Pregnancy Association seconds the motion. The association discourages pregnant women from exposing themselves to harmful UV rays, which includes tanning on the beach or in a tanning bed. As a workaround, they have stated that sunless tanning lotions are safer alternatives. However, there is still a risk of absorption, so the association recommends hitting the first trimester first before lathering on self-tanning products. It is also recommended to check with a doctor or healthcare professional as they are more familiar with a patient’s personal health history.

In general, a self-tanning lotion is the best option for pregnant or nursing women. They have advised against professional spray tans and spray tan booths due to the risk of ingestion, absorption, and inhalation, as many booths do not nose plugs, mouth covers, or eye covers.

Can you tan through fake tan?

Because the sun can still seep through self-tanning lotions, the answer is yes. However, it important to note that these lotions are not designed for sun protection, so applying your usual SPF is still highly recommended. Self-tanners are great for colder seasons or for when you want to get a head start on your tan before hitting the beach.

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