Spray tans might be a fast and safe way to add a golden hue to your skin, but that doesn’t mean it’s risk-free. It’s possible to have an allergic reaction to spray tan solution that can put a damper on your skin goals.
Actress Jennifer Coolidge found that out the hard way.
“For The White Lotus, I didn’t want to look like a big, white marshmallow on the beach in Hawaii, so I got a spray tan,” she wrote in an essay in Allure. “I got on the plane, and I started to feel really weird. By the time I got off the flight, I had to go to the emergency room.”
Coolidge didn’t elaborate on the severity of her allergic reaction to spray tanning or which ingredients caused the issues, but it’s safe to say she’s recovered.
However, it’s essential to understand that allergic reactions can range from mild to severe — or even life-threatening. And, unfortunately, you can experience a reaction to a spray tan even if you’re a fake take veteran and don’t have sensitive skin.
Causes and Symptoms
Our bodies are pretty good at fighting off things it doesn’t like.
That’s essentially what happens when you have an allergic reaction: your body identifies an allergen — in this case, an ingredient in a spray tan — and produces a protein called IgE that grabs the allergen. At the same time, histamines are released into the bloodstream, creating reaction symptoms.
Both store-bought and professional self-tanning products contain dihydroxyacetone (DHA). DHA is a sugar derived from plant sources that create a chemical reaction with the amino acids in the top layer of your epidermis (the outer layer of your skin).
This chemical reaction creates a pigment called melanoidin, which creates the illusion of tanned skin.
DHA is generally considered safe for skin use and is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for external application in cosmetic products in concentrations of up to 15%.
However, it’s still possible to experience adverse reactions to DHA. One animal study found that long-term exposure to DHA products led to contact dermatitis. That said, it’s more likely that any allergic reaction stems from spray tans’ other ingredients, including:
- Preservatives (like formaldehyde)
The reaction symptoms depend on how the allergen comes into contact with your body. In the case of fake tans, it’s usually hives and red itchy rashes. Skin can become swollen, too.
First thing’s first: Always seek medical attention immediately if you experience swelling or difficulty breathing.
If your reaction is mild, you can likely relieve your symptoms at home by first cleaning off any spray tanning or self-tanning products on the skin. While it won’t be possible to wash it all away — especially if you’ve had it on for a few hours — washing with a gentle cleanser can help relieve itching and pain (just be sure to pat your skin dry).
Afterward, consider taking an antihistamine and applying a soothing lotion, like calamine, to any hives or itchy areas. It’s also a good idea to wash any towels, sheets, or clothing that came into direct contact with your skin.
Preventing an Allergic Reaction to a Spray Tan
As we mentioned, it’s possible to experience an allergic reaction to spray tan, even if you’re a regular in the spray tan booth.
That’s why it’s a good idea to always do a patch test at least 24 hours before using a self-tanner or getting a spray tan. A patch test can quickly clue you into any potential angry reactions your skin may have to the products without exposing your entire body.
Also, don’t get a spray tan if you’re about to have surgery or are pregnant (or suspect you might be).
If all else fails, consider skipping the fake tan altogether and embracing your natural hue — you’re already flawless the way you are.
Meagan Morris is the editor in chief of Celebribody. She's veteran health and wellness editor with over 15 years of experience. Her work has been featured in The Atlantic, Yahoo Health, Cosmopolitan, SELF, and Women's Health, among others. She spends most of her time writing, but her favorite part of the day is spent under a barbell doing squats.