Watch CBSN Live

Report: DHA ingredient in spray-on tans may wreak havoc on DNA

Spray-on tans may be hazardous to your health. AP

(CBS News) Could your spray-on tan destroy your DNA? According to a panel of independent medical experts commissioned by ABC News, one of the ingredients used to give you that bronze color - dihydroxyacetone (DHA) - may actually be breaking apart your genes.

Looking over 10 of the most current, publicly-available scientific studies, the six doctors and scientists concluded that they "have concerns." Though none of the reviewed studies were done on human subjects, DHA was shown to have altered the genes of different kinds of cells and organisms. When inhaled, DHA can enter the lungs and eventually get into the bloodstream and has the potential to create many health problems, including cancer.

The experts concluded that more research was needed to be done to see the extent of the effect DHA could have on humans, including potential birth defects, if the spray-tan client was pregnant when she inhaled the compound. Also, they raised concern about workers because their constant exposure to 15 to 20 spray tans a day could put them at risk of inhaling much of the product.

Perhaps more troubling, ABC News found out that one of the largest manufacturers of spray tan product in the U.S., Norvell Skin Solutions, has mislabeled DHA as a "food grade" product safe for human consumption that was used by the health supplement industry. While it is true that DHA - docosahexaenoic acid - has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, the DHA used in spray on tans is a completely different product that the FDA warns consumers not to consume or inhale.

"We were absolutely in error," Rick Norvell, president of Norvell Skin Solutions, told ABC News. The company said they have since emailed, tweeted and Facebooked around 14,000 to 16,000 of their contacts to tell them of the mistake and have since removed the "food grade" designation from their documents and websites.

Only time will tell if the salons that administer the tans to their clients will adopt these changes. Out of the 12 salons that ABC News visited during their study, nine did not have any eye covers, another nine didn't have nose plugs and 11 didn't have protective gear for the mouth. Every salon discouraged the use of the protection, mainly because it would affect the look of the tan, and they were convinced the tanning product was safe.

The European Commission, which advises the European Union on different issues including health, ruled that DHA was safe for human use in 2010. However, many of ABC's panelists saw problems with the review, saying that the cosmetic industry mostly sent the commission studies about DHA that were never published or peer-reviewed. Many were conducted by the cosmetic companies themselves or industry groups that were tied to the manufacturing of DHA.

One of the panelists, Dr. Darrell Rigel, an NYU professor of dermatology, admitted to ABC News that he used to advise his patients that spray-on tans were safe.

"(I would) tell my patients what every other dermatologist tells them: 'If you want to be tanned, [tanning with DHA] is effective, it's not being absorbed and there's no long-term problems.' After reading these papers, I'm not sure that's true anymore," he said to ABC News.

View CBS News In