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Ingredient used in many “spray-on” tanning products may cause cancer, birth defects

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Use of home and salon applied “spray-on” tanning products, marketed as a safe alternative to sunbathing and tanning beds, may be exposing people to a potentially dangerous compound.

An ABC News investigation has revealed that sunless tanning sprays contain a compound shown in laboratory studies to alter genes of cells, changes that health experts fear may lead to development of cancer or birth defects, and that spray-on tan manufacturers and salons are not adequately warning consumers of risks and safety precautions.

Most sunless tanning products, including sunless tanning lotions, gels, wipes, mousses and spray-on products, contain an ingredient called dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a color additive that darkens the skin by reacting with amino acids in the skin's surface. Dihydroxyacetone (DHA) should not be confused with docosahexaenoic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid also widely known as DHA.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved dihydroxyacetone for use in externally applied cosmetics, those rubbed onto the skin, in the 1970’s. The FDA has not approved use of dihydroxyacetone in products applied to the lips, any body surface covered by mucous membrane or a rather large area surrounding the eyes.

While use of spray-on tanning products has increased substantially in recent years, consumers should know that dihydroxyacetone is not approved for use in spray-on tan products, including those used for commercial application by salons.

“The use of DHA in "tanning" booths as an all-over spray has not been approved by the FDA, since safety data to support this use has not been submitted to the Agency for review and evaluation,” the FDA website says. “When using DHA-containing products as an all-over spray or mist in a commercial spray "tanning" booth, it may be difficult to avoid exposure in a manner for which DHA is not approved, including the area of the eyes, lips, or mucous membrane, or even internally.”

Long thought to only color dead skin cells on the surface of the body, research data now shows that dihydroxyacetone is absorbed not only into living skin cells, but also into the blood stream. When applied in spray form, the sunless tanning product becomes a fine mist easily inhaled into the respiratory tract that can expose users to a higher level of dihydroxyacetone than products rubbed onto the skin. Spray-on tan users have reported adverse events such as coughing, dizziness and fainting with use of these products, primarily in spray tanning booths.

“What we're concerned about is not so much that reaction that creates the tanning, but reactions that may occur deeper down with living cells that might then change DNA, causing a mutation and what the possible impacts of that might be," Dr. Lynn Goldman, dean of the School of Public Health and Health Services at George Washington University, told CBS News. “I'd be very concerned for the potential of lung cancer.”

Dr. Goldman also warned that researchers should be concerned about other health effects of dihydroxyacetone in spray-on tan products, such as birth defects when used by pregnant women.

As part of the investigation, ABC News went undercover into twelve salons in New York City offering spray-on tan services. Every salon visited described spray tanning as safe. Few salons had any equipment to protect the eyes, nose or mouth. Every salon in the report discouraged the use of safety equipment even if it was available.

While product information for many sunless tanning spray products available to consumers on the internet advise not to spray directly on the face, few specifically advised against inhaling the spray.

What about spray-on tan technicians and salon workers suffering exposure to dihydroxyacetone on the job? The hidden camera showed them applying the spray-on tan product without gloves, protective clothing or respiratory protection. One salon employee even drank the product to illustrate its safety.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have not established guidelines or standards for occupational exposure to or work place allowable levels of DHA.