May 31, 2012 at 9:56 am EDT | by Kevin M. Norris
Soaking in some color

Paul Corrie of Fit to Be Tan. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

May was National Skin Cancer Awareness month, dedicated to increasing awareness for prevention, early detection and treatment of skin cancer. But I already know what you’re thinking — I don’t want to look pasty white!

So what are the alternatives to sun exposure and skin cancer? How can you get that healthy glow without the risk of skin cancer or ruining your skin? Sunless spray-on tanning is your best bet and is a practical alternative to sunbathing. “Airbrushing” Hollywood-style is popping up everywhere, but is it safe?

Applied correctly and carefully, most sunless spray-on tanning products containing Dihydroxyacetone, DHA are safe. For the purposes of this article I am referring strictly to spray-on tanning and in particular hand-held airbrushing and not sun tanning lotions and creams, which may contain additional chemicals.

I was first “exposed” to a sunless tanning product almost 20 years ago and I came out looking like a Sunkist orange, not pretty. And I was at one time a spray-on tan devotee and was also airbrushed, but never really thought the results looked authentic. Not to mention my trepidation when inhaling the unknown chemicals, staining my clothing and having orange palms. While I won’t mention the brand of equipment I was using it was the more typical stand-up booth style and while updated, it still exists today.

So how have these techniques evolved over the past couple decades? I discovered a new spray-on tanning salon that specializes in airbrushing that opened recently on the U Street corridor between 16th and 17th Street, NW. Fit To Be Tan, has joined the ranks of a strip of businesses that is dedicated to helping you look and feel your best. From VIDA Fitness, AURA Spa and Bang Hair Salon to Caramel clothing, your options are many. And now makeup and spray-on tanning has been added to the repertoire of image-conscious businesses located all in one area.

Interior designer Paul Corrie, also known as the famous local Peaches from the Dupont Social Club, and his husband, Steve Ewens, opened Fit to be Tan in February. Corrie, an avid spray tanner for 17 years, after his own skin cancer scare, decided to turn his passion for this sun tanning alternative into a business. The flagship shop is in Arlington. The Dupont location also offers professional makeup services by renowned makeup specialist Jaime Vasquez. The technicians go through extensive training and all necessary standardized precautions are used.

The average cost of a single tan is around $50 with package discounts available. While this may seem like a hefty price to pay, think of the risk and cost involved in treating skin cancer.

Most reputable sunless spray-on tanning businesses are using DHA, which was accidentally discovered by the Germans in the late 1920s when it spilled on the skin and produced a brown color.  DHA was approved by the FDA in the early 1970s as a safe cosmetic color additive approved for topical external use only. Today DHA is used worldwide. It’s a simple sugar (glycerin) derived from the sugar cane plant. This colorless chemical interacts with the amino acids in dead skin cells to produce a brown color change. And since these dead skin cells are sloughed off continually, the color change generally lasts five to seven days. DHA is not absorbed through the skin and into the body and has no known toxicity.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, the most effective sunless tanning products are those that contain DHA. Local dermatologist Howard Brooks, medical director for Georgetown Skin, prefers spray tanning to sun tanning and tanning beds and says they’re safe and natural looking.

There are some important caveats to sunless spray-on tanning that should be considered. It’s always advisable to check with your medical doctor who knows about your personal health history before using any sunless tanning products.

And DHA alone does not protect you from sun exposure. There’s no SPF protection and it doesn’t contain UVA or UVB protection.  Also certain medications, such as some anti-depressants, may affect the PH balance in your skin thus altering the efficacy of the product creating a blotchy effect. Hormonal imbalances, allergies and certain foods may also result in a blotchy cover.

It is important to recognize that DHA is not approved by the FDA for inhalation or internal use.  The area of the eyes, nose, lips, and mucous membrane should be fully protected.

Before using sunless spray-on tanning there are certain preparations and aftercare involved such as exfoliating, moisturizing, wearing loose fitting clothing and noting what soaps and cosmetics should be avoided. A qualified technician should have a printed list of instructions to discuss with you prior to tanning. And don’t be afraid to consult with the manager of the salon or lead technician.

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