PUBLISHED: 11:24 EST, 12 June 2012 | UPDATED: 13:07 EST, 12 June 2012
The chemicals used in the process are absorbed far deeper into the skin than had been thought and can spark a ‘mutagenic’ effect on genes.
They can also be inhaled into the lungs during the tanning session where they can go into the bloodstream more easily with potentially deadly results.
Of particular concern are pregnant women who spray tan and could be raising the risk of birth defects in their unborn children.
The warning comes from a panel of medical experts who have reviewed existing studies and one previously unpublished report from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Written in 1999, the FDA report has only now been made public and contains disturbing findings on the active color-additive chemical used in spray tans, dihydroxyacetone (DHA).
ABC News asked a panel of six experts across the fields of dermatology, toxicology and pulmonary medicine to review the report, as well as nine other scientific studies, which they concluded were serious grounds for concern.
Dr Lynn Goldman, the dean of the School of Public Health and Health Services at George Washington University, said: ‘The substance (DHA) seems to have a potential for what they call ‘creating mutations’ or changing DNA in living cells, which is a serious problem that needs to be further investigated, yet hasn’t been.
‘I’d be very concerned for the potential of lung cancer.’
Dr Rey Panettieri, a toxicologist and lung specialist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, added: ‘Frankly, right now, given the evidence I’ve seen, it’s time to pursue this question in a more rigorous fashion and really answer: Is it safe or not.’
The FDA report from 1999 concluded that DHA had the potential for ‘mutagenic’ effects on genes.
The university studies were carried out on a variety of cells including mice skin grown in a lab, bacteria and salmonella, though none involved human cells.
Previously, the tanning industry, and even many in the field of dermatology, thought DHA only interacted with proteins in the outer protective layers of human skin, also called the stratum corneum, where the skin cells are already dead and where DHA could pose no health risk.
FAQS ON SPRAY TANNING
Does this health risk also include at-home tanning lotions?
No, the concern medical experts have with DHA, the chemical in tanning products, only includes its absorption into living cells – the eyes, lips and lungs. At-home tanning lotions are able to be safely applied to outer skin cells only, avoiding the potential for DHA to enter the bloodstream.
Why are spray tanning booths allowed to operate if their use is not FDA approved?
DHA, the color-additive that turns skin brown, was approved in the 1970′s by the FDA for external skin use only, before spray-tanning booths were conceivable. While the chemical itself is already approved, its use in tanning booths as an all-over spray is not, since safety data surrounding this specific use has not been submitted to the FDA for review and evaluation.
If I have had only one spray tan, am I at risk?
Medical experts believe the dose from an individual spray tan or two is low enough to not have a demonstrable impact on someone’s health. However there are concerns for those who regularly spray tan, week after week.
What are steps I can take to lower my risk of using spray tans?
The FDA recommends people wear protective undergarments, nose filters, lip balm and protective eye wear while spray tanning to reduce the risk of the mist entering the body.
However, the FDA report found that DHA does not stop at the outer dead layers of skin.
In the U.S., DHA was approved for use in the 1970s by the FBA, but only for external use, such as at-home tanning lotions.
However at the time, the agency did not envisage it being used the way it is now, as a high-impact spray, or to such an extent.
For this reason, the FDA implores tanning salons to provide goggles and nose filters to stop the chemical mist being inhaled, but ABC News found that most do not offer them and some even tell concerned customers the chemical is ‘completely safe.’
Dr Goldman said: ‘I think a lot of people assume that because things are on the market that it means somebody has very carefully evaluated them and that they’re safe.’
Dr Panettieri noted that the lungs have an unusually large surface area and are built to absorb oxygen and distribute it throughout the body, into the bloodstream.
They will do the same thing with chemicals like DHA that reach them, and unlike the skin, the lungs do not have a protective layer.
Dr Panettieri said those who are particularly at risk are those who work in tanning salons, people who repeatedly use spray tans, pregnant women, and children whose parents allow them to go through the process.
Dr Darrell Rigel, an NYU professor of dermatology and former president of the American Academy of Dermatology, said: ‘The concern here is we never thought this was getting absorbed. We thought it’s binding to the surface of the skin and that’s where the stain is. So this is … news that, in fact, it is penetrating beyond that.’
Most notably, the FDA said it does not step in to stop what it calls on its website ‘the unapproved use’ of DHA because the agency ‘does not regulate the operation of commercial enterprises such as indoor or sunless tanning salons.’
Instead it is up to the Occupational Safety Health Administration or public health regulators to take on the responsibility of overseeing the safety of spray tanning booths.
No local regulators in New York City regulates spray tan applications, and the New York Department of Health, which regulates UV tanning, also does not regulate spray tans.