Burning Question: What's so bad about spray tanning?

Spray tans can actually pose health risks, health experts warn.

New Jersey has become the only state to ban anyone under the age of 14 from receiving a commercial spray tan. What gives?

Typically, spray tans have been thought of as a safe alternative to tanning beds, which can pose serious risks because of the high concentration of UV radiation the beds deliver to a person's skin.

That may be changing, however.

On Monday, New Jersey became the first state to enact a law that limits minors' access to spray tanning, a practice health experts say is dangerous to teens' self-image and also to the long-term health of both teens and adults. New Jersey's law makes it illegal for anyone under the age of 14 to receive a spray tan at an indoor tanning facility in New Jersey.

How is spray tanning harmful, and why are children and teens susceptible?

Dr. Jennifer Stein, an assistant professor of dermatology at NYU Langone Medical Center, told MSN News that she believes New Jersey is trying to nip a problem in the bud by targeting youth tanning practices with both spray tanning and tanning beds. She said keeping kids away from tanning salons and promoting healthy, natural skin is something she hopes the bill will help accomplish.

 

Related: Are you a tanning addict?

Spray tanning creates a less-reported medical quandary that doctors have increasingly become more concerned with, both for children and adults.

Dihydroxyacetone (DHA) is the active chemical used in spray tans. While the substance was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1977 for "external" uses, the organization does not currently approve of DHA as an "all-over spray" because "safety data to support this use has not been submitted to the Agency for review and evaluation."

The FDA has not approved DHA exposure to the eyes, lips or mucous membrane, and warns it may be difficult to avoid this type of all-over exposure.

In 2012, ABC News consulted with a team of six medical experts to review 10 studies on DHA. All six concluded they had concerns about DHA, which they said had the potential to cause genetic alternations or DNA damage.

Related: Did a tanning salon tell a woman she was too fat for their tanning bed?

Under a 2012 Freedom of Information Act request, the FDA released a 1999 report to ABC News about DHA absorption. While it was previously believed that DHA only interacted with proteins on the outer protective layer of the human skin where skin cells are already dead, and DHA exposure could pose no risk, the 1999 report revealed that 11 percent of the absorbed DHA remained in the living epidermis and dermis, ABC reported.

Four years later, the FDA issued a follow-up report concluding that "probably" only 0.5 percent of each DHA application became "systemically available," meaning distributed throughout the body after arriving at the bloodstream, according to ABC. The FDA called 0.5 a small absorption rate and did no further toxicological impact testing because it concluded the health risks would be minimal if only a scant amount reached the bloodstream.

However. Dr. Darrell Rigel, an NYU professor of dermatology, told ABC that any absorption into living cells could pose a risk. The doctors were especially worried about long-term exposure, incurred by customers and providers.

"These compounds in some cells could actually promote the development of cancers or malignancies, and if that's the case, then we need to be wary of them," Dr. Rey Panettieri, director of the Airways Biology Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania, told ABC News.

The FDA told ABC News that no American manufacturer has ever attempted to go through a safety review for DHA spray tans. The organization does not regulate commercial enterprises like tanning salons, only the chemicals they use.

 

Related: 8 truths about tanning

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