If you’ve developed an itchy rash after using self-tanner and wonder if your new bronze glow has anything to do with it, you might be surprised to learn that, yes, you can be allergic to the bronzing ingredient in most self-tanning or “fake tan” products.
If this is the case for you, you’re a miracle. ;) Only about 2 in every 100,000 people are allergic to self-tanning DHA, and the reactions are typically very mild (and are technically known as contact dermatitis).
How to tell if you’re having an allergic reaction to DHA
There are no known cases of severe allergic reaction to the DHA in self-tanners.
If you are one of—statistically speaking—about two in every 100,000 people who are allergic to self-tanning DHA, your skin will likely feel itchy and irritated within a few minutes or hours after you use the product.
Unlike more severe allergens (like eggs or peanuts) the DHA in self-tanner is very, very unlikely to cause a serious reaction. Thus shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, etc., is likely not a reaction to self-tanning, which is important to know as if you are experiencing these things, they more or less rule out dihydroxyacetone as the cause.
The “technical term” for what you would be experiencing with a DHA self-tanning allergic reaction is contact dermatitis.
And on that note, the Mayo Clinic has a few words for you:
“Contact dermatitis is a red, itchy rash caused by direct contact with a substance or an allergic reaction to it. The rash isn’t contagious or life-threatening, but it can be very uncomfortable.• Mayo Clinic, Contact Dermatitis, June 19, 2020
“Many substances can cause such reactions, including soaps, cosmetics, fragrances, jewelry and plants.
“To treat contact dermatitis successfully, you need to identify and avoid the cause of your reaction. If you can avoid the offending substance, the rash usually clears up in two to four weeks. You can try soothing your skin with cool, wet compresses, anti-itch creams and other self-care steps.” – Mayo Clinic
What is dihydroxyacetone [DHA], and why is it used in self-tanners?
Dihydroxyacetone (DHA) is an ingredient derived from sugar cane or sugar beets that is used in many self-tanners, hair dyes, and skin coloration products. If you have ever gone to a tanning bed or bought a spray-on tan, you may be exposed to this chemical. When used in self-tanners, it turns your skin brown instead of an orangey color. DHA may be used in what are generally regarded as pregnancy-safe self-tanners as well.
Where can you use DHA self-tanners?
There are many self-tanning products on the market these days, and they come in lotions, gels, and sprays. Some contain DHA, which reacts with your skin’s proteins to produce a brown color.
Many people suffer from allergies. When they have an allergic reaction, finding the exact cause can be challenging. The same goes for DHA—the main active ingredient in self-tanners. A certain percentage of the population will react negatively to products that contain this ingredient.
Are you one of those people? Before using products with DHA, always test a small area first and wait a few to 24 hours. There are a few things you should look out for:
- Does it itch or cause a rash? Examine the area where you applied the self-tanner.
- Did it give you red blotches or splotches?
Contact your dermatologist (or just stop using the product) if you notice anything out of the ordinary after using a DHA self-tanner. If you have no symptoms, you can use self-tanners on your arms, legs, chest, back, and sometimes even your face. However, you should always avoid eye contact and wash your hands thoroughly after application.
What to do if you suspect a DHA allergic reaction
So you’ve used a tanning product that contains DHA, and now you’re breaking out in hives, have a runny nose, or have wheezing? Does this mean you’re allergic to self-tanner? Unfortunately, the answer isn’t simple.
There are many ingredients in self-tanning products that can cause reactions. Here is a list of the most common ingredients and what they cause in people who have skin allergies or sensitivities:
- Fragrances: Fragrances can be one of the most common causes of reactions. Some of the most common fragrances are: limonene, linalool, citronellol, geraniol, and fragrance. These can cause itching and sometimes swelling.
- Skin Conditioners: These ingredients are added to make your skin smoother using self-tanner. Common ones include lactic acid, urea, and salicylic acid. These are usually well tolerated by people with sensitive skin but can cause an allergic reaction for those who have known skin conditions.
- Tropical Oils: Tropical oils are derived from coconuts, palm trees, etc., and are added to make the product smell good and help it blend in with your skin tone.
If you have been using a self-tanner and are experiencing an allergic reactions, you’ll likely want to discontinue use of the product and, if symptoms are bad, see a doctor.
First, the doctor will perform a physical exam to rule out other potential causes of your symptoms. Once they determine the allergen causing your symptoms, they will likely prescribe you an antihistamine for relief. You may also be prescribed an epinephrine pen if your symptoms become severe.
If your doctor has identified DHA as the allergen source, you’ll probably to told to watch the ingredients of the skin products you use in the future since a fair amount contain this ingredient.
Using a self-tanner with DHA will give you a natural-looking glow, but be cautious of developing a skin irritation—a hallmark of an allergic reaction. As long as you take precautions and remain vigilant when first starting, you likely won’t develop any allergy to DHA in self-tanners, and you can enjoy your new healthy look.