Properties and safety of topical dihydroxyacetone in sunless tanning products: A review

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Photodermatology, photoimmunology & photomedicine


Sunless tanning products have risen in popularity as the desire for a tanned appearance continues alongside growing concerns about the deleterious effects of ultraviolet radiation exposure from the sun. Dihydroxyacetone (DHA) is a simple carbohydrate found nearly universally in sunless tanning products that serves to impart color to the skin. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates sunless tanning products as cosmetics, allows DHA for external use while maintaining that its ingestion, inhalation, or contact with mucosal surfaces should be avoided. Given its widespread use and a paucity of reviews on its safety, we aim to review the literature on the topical properties and safety profile of DHA. Available data indicate that DHA possesses only minimal to no observable photoprotective properties. In vitro studies suggest that, while DHA concentrations much higher than those in sunless tanning products are needed to induce significant cytotoxicity, even low millimolar, nonlethal concentrations can alter the function of keratinocytes, tracheobronchial cells, and other cell types on a cellular and molecular level. Instances of irritant and allergic contact dermatitis triggered by DHA exposures have also been reported. While no other side effects in humans have been observed, additional studies on the safety and toxicity of DHA in humans are warranted, with a focus on concentrations and frequencies of DHA exposure typically encountered by consumers.

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