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Let’s face it, we all look and feel better when we’re slightly sun kissed. With summer fast approaching, let’s investigate the safest options to attain a golden glow.


First let’s get the absolute no no’s out the way.

British celebrities made sun-beds popular in the 80’s and 90’s. Sun-beds, sunlamps and tanning booths emit both UVA and UVB waves similar to natural sunlight. These both cause the kind of DNA damage that can lead to skin cancer. About 95 % of the light is UVA which additionally breaks down the natural collagen in the skin causing skin to age prematurely making it look coarse, leathery and wrinkled.

Cherie Cochrane consultation
UVB rays make up about 5% and boost the production of melanin which causes a tan. A tan is your body’s attempt to protect itself from the damaging effect of UV rays. Using a sun-bed is NOT safer that tanning in the sun. It may even be more harmful depending on your skin type, your age, length of sun-bed usage and how often you use it. There have been studies linking sun-bed use, especially under the age of 30, to an increase in melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers.

The second undesirable option is a laboratory made chemical called Melanotan II which is similar to a hormone found in humans called melanocyte-stimulating hormone (MSH) which increases the production of melanin without exposure to the sun (sunless tanning). The Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA) issued a warning in 2015 regarding the availability and illegal sale of Melanotan II as a subcutaneous injection and a nasal spray as cases of malignant melanoma (the most dangerous type of skin cancer) have been scientifically described following the use of this substance. Of note, melanin is not only found in the skin but also in the eye and lining of the brain, and an induced change in MSH may affect the melanin levels here too. I like a tan as much as the next person, but treasure two of my most necessary organs.

So there really is no such this as safe tanning… other than putting a fake colour on your skin.

Cherie Cochrane consultation

Sunless tanning products/ self-tanners available commercially as lotions, creams or sprays contain the active ingredient dihydroxyacetone (DHA). DHA is not a stain or a dye. It’s a sugar that interacts with protein particles in the top layer of dead skin cells. This causes a chemical reaction and produces pigment. The reaction is similar to the way a cut apple is exposed to oxygen. DHA can be manufactured or it can be derived from natural sources like cane- or beet sugar. What does the research about DHA safety tell us? While the FDA approved DHA for external application to the skin, it should not be inhaled, ingested or come into contact with any mucous membranes.

Even though research shows that DHA does not migrate past the outer layers of the skin, I suggest looking for self-tanners that are made with natural rather than synthetic DHA.

Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should be careful when having a spray tan because the aerosol fumes may not be safe for your lungs when inhaled. They may even enter your bloodstream, which means they could potentially affect your developing baby.

So if you are not feeling as “attractive” as you have not got that sun kissed tan, the good news is that there are more organic or natural ingredients rather than synthetic DHA in self-tanning lotions, creams, and foams. I suggest looking for self-tanners that are made with natural DHA, wearing a mask to prevent as much of the fumes from being in-haled and stay away from the skin cancer causing sun beds and Melanotan II chemicals!

Cherie Cochrane

Written By Specialist Dermatologist Tessa Hoffman

Tessa Hoffman is a specialist dermatologist at Atlantic Dermatology and Laser. As a fifth generation doctor from an accomplished medical family, Tessa was always destined to do medicine and was awarded an academic scholarship to the University of Cape Town in 1995. After qualifying as a doctor, she worked in various fields of internal medicine in the UK and locally. More recently she has developed an interest in integrative dermatology, a healing oriented medicine that looks at the patient as a whole rather than at specific symptoms.She feels lucky to be able to help patients with disfiguring skin conditions, building relationships with interesting people from different generations and different backgrounds. Her empathy and pragmatic approach, makes her the dermatologist of choice to a varied patient base.