I don’t have to tell you that lying in the sun—especially without sunscreen—is a dangerous way to tan, since it ages your skin and raises your risk for skin cancer. Baking in a tanning booth also is harmful, of course, for the same reasons.

But what about salon spray tans and over-the-counter self-tanning lotions and sprays? Many contain dihydroxyacetone (DHA)—a chemical that interacts with amino acids in the skin to produce a bronze color and creates a tan that lasts a while (three to 10 days or even longer). Are they safe?

Earlier this summer, an ABC News report raised questions about the safety of DHA for tanning. A panel of medical experts reviewed 10 lab studies and concluded that DHA tanners have the potential to alter or damage DNA if the products are absorbed in a certain way. Here’s the thing: DHA was approved by the FDA in 1977 for external use, but—especially when it’s used in spray form—you can accidentally inhale or swallow it, or it can get in your eyes, or it can enter your body through your genitalia or anus, and therefore it can enter your lungs, your digestive tract and possibly even your bloodstream.

There are other kinds of self-tanning products available in stores that are DHA-free, but Daily Health News did not find any DHA-free spray tans offered by salons. DHA-free tans tend to last a very short time, only about 24 hours. What they do, essentially, is dye your skin. Are they considered safe, even with repeated use? Daily Health News did not uncover any negative reports, but it’s possible that rigorous research on these types of tanners has not yet been done.

Many people aren’t interested in looking tan at all—but plenty are. So for tips on how to get a safe faux glow, I called New York City dermatologist Neal B. Schultz, MD.

SHOULD YOU USE DHA—OR AVOID IT?

In Dr. Schultz’s opinion, over-the-counter DHA tanning products have been used externally for 35 years with no ill effects—with the exception of occasional skin rashes—so he still considers this type of application safe. Just choose a lotion instead of a spray, he said, and then apply the lotion carefully to avoid getting it in your nose, mouth or eyes. To test for an allergic reaction, he recommends that you test DHA lotion on a small patch of skin before applying it to your entire body. If no rash appears within 24 hours, it’s safe to use all over. If you do develop a rash, then he recommends using a DHA-free product.

As for DHA-based spray tans at salons, Dr. Schultz said, if you go this route, tell the workers that they must not get any spray into your nose, mouth or eyes—and then, for insurance, insist on wearing nose plugs (they’re like earplugs for your nose), lip balm and eye covers, and, of course, underwear during the spraying. The FDA recommends that all tanning salons provide customers with protection for the nose, mouth and eyes, but the recent ABC News investigation found that many salons do not offer that sort of protective gear—and even when they do, salon employees sometimes discourage their use. If your tanning salon doesn’t offer the gear, buy it and bring it with you. (You can find these products at such online retailers as TheTanningStore.com or TheVanityGirl.com.) Then, after you get the tan, wait a few minutes until it feels dry before touching your eyes, nose or mouth.

TIPS FOR THE BEST-LOOKING FAKE TAN

If you decide to use an over-the-counter self-tanner or get a salon spray tan, to make your fake tan look as good as possible and last longer, follow these tips from Dr. Schultz…

Before you tan:

  • The day before you tan, exfoliate to remove dead skin with a whole-body scrub in the shower or use a glycolic chemical exfoliant after the shower. This helps you avoid a blotchy tan.
  • Do not apply any moisturizer, body oil, deodorant, sunscreen or makeup before you use a self-tanner—if you’ve put on any of that stuff since you’ve last showered, then shower again. These create barriers to tanning. Skin should be clean and dry when tanner is applied.
  • Do apply moisturizer to the palms of your hands and any other skin areas that you don’t want to tan, such as fingernails and toenails, just before you use tanner.
  • Buy topless, strap-free sandals that stick to the soles of your feet (available for about $10 at StickySandals.com, or make your own out of cardboard and tape). Put on these sandals and a shower cap just before you apply tanner. This will keep the lotion (or spray at a salon) from getting in your hair or on the bottoms of your feet. If the spray tan gets on parts of the soles of your feet (but not on every single part), then the soles of your feet may look blotchy.
  • If using a lotion, apply it with a towelette or sponge—this makes the lotion easier to apply evenly than if you use your bare hands.

After you tan:

  • Water drops leave spots that will spoil your tan. So if it’s raining the day you use a self-tanner, wear rainwear when you go out…avoid strenuous activity that will make you perspire…and wait eight hours after you get the tan before showering.
  • You always want to avoid excessive sun exposure, but be especially careful in the 24 hours after you tan. At that point, your skin may be more vulnerable to free radical damage from sunlight due to the reaction of DHA with your skin. Keep in mind that a sunless tan does not protect you from UV rays. When you go outside, apply sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher.
  • To keep your tan longer, ease up on exfoliation and shaving—these speed the fading process—and moisturize your skin daily.