Spray tanning is a popular form of sunless tanning. Among the chemicals used in the solutions for spray tanning, DHA is the most recognized. Regardless of what many tanning salons may advertise, DHA is not a naturally derived extract. DHA is a chemical, and it does have chemical reactions. Some side effects are mild in some people and nonexistent in others. It is a good practice to stay out of the sun when using sunless tanners, and to research the chemicals you plan to put on your body.


DHA stands for dihydroxyacetones. It is a non-colored chemical that when applied to skin, causes a browning effect catalyzed by amino acids. The browning does not cause significant damage to the skin; the browning process affects only the outer layers of the epidermis. Tanning solutions use this chemical because it is only a short-term darkening (6 to 7 days maximum), it is safe for the skin and it is FDA approved.

Common Side Effect

Contact dermatitis, or irritation dermatitis, is the agitation and drying of the skin. Most products that use DHA have a preservative in them. These preservatives are sometimes sugar based and can agitate or provoke an allergic reaction to the skin. Treatment of this side effect is a simple regimen of antiseptic balm or eczema cream.

Non-Related Side Effects

Sunburn is sometimes blamed on DHA-laden solutions, but often the individual is at fault for this particular side effect. DHA does contain some mild UV protection, but it is still necessary to apply sunscreen before participating in activities outdoors. Neglecting the use of sunscreen can cause more darkening, because of the active DHA still on the skin shortly after a tanning session. Consistent lack of sunscreen while using a DHA tanning system could lead to skin cancers.

Risk Factors for Contact Dermatitis

Women experience more cases of contact dermatitis than men, and the dermatitis usually occurs around sweat glands such as in the armpits and even closer to the genital area. The chances are that 2 in 5 women using the system will suffer from a minor case of contact dermatitis. The best way to reduce one's chances is to exfoliate and moisturize the skin well in the days leading up to tanning. You might want to confer with a dermatologist to make certain you aren't allergic to any of the common preservatives used in a DHA tanning system. Age is not a risk factor for this side affect.

Other Disadvantages

DHA-formulated tanning solutions have a tendency to be too short lived, for the prices you have to pay for them. The average DHA tanning system will darken the skin for 7 days maximum. Frequent reapplication can be costly and does nothing to help the elasticity of your skin. Frequent staining of the skin is also inconvenient. In addition to the possibility of contact dermatitis, DHA can be inhaled during the tanning process. DHA is not meant to be absorbed into the lungs and can cause unhealthy reactions in individuals who may have asthma and other breathing disorders. It is advised that you hold your breath during the misting of the tanning solution. This process usually lasts less than 30 seconds.


There are several alternatives to using a DHA system, including a tanning pill. The tanning pills are formulated with beta carotene, the same substance that gives carrots their color. This method is FDA approved, but not common or desired, as the coloring is more orange than tan. Some chemical bronzers that carry little to no DHA will not give the skin as deep a color as spray tanning, but will give a small pigment change and warm the complexion. Bronzers are compatible with sunscreen. The healthiest alternative, of course, is proper sun protection via sunscreen and a love of your skin color, whatever it may be.