We Asked Brands Why They Sell Tan Accelerators & Struggled To Get A Straight Answer

Welcome to Sun Blocked, Refinery29’s global call to action to wake up to the serious dangers of tanning. No lectures or shaming, we promise. Instead, our goal is to arm you with the facts you need to protect your skin to the best of your ability, because there’s no such thing as safe sun.  Of all the questionable beauty trends to return recently, tanning is one of the most frightening. On TikTok alone, the hashtag #sunbed has racked up an enormous 871.5 million views and climbing. Despite the countless risks associated with tanning, you’ll discover influencers and even celebrities normalising weekly sessions and perpetuating tanning myths.  If you happen to find yourself in a similar TikTok rabbit hole, you might come across something equally as contentious as sunbeds: That an abundance of skincare brands are promoting sunscreen and proudly selling so-called “tanning accelerators” simultaneously. This is undoubtedly contradictory, not to mention worrying, considering that tanning accelerators encourage potentially dangerous tanning behaviour.  What is a tan accelerator? For the uninitiated, tanning accelerators — also known as tan activators or enhancers — are usually lotions or creams intended to be applied before sunbathing or indoor tanning. Often including ingredients like beta carotene (derived from carrots), Tanositol SPE (from the carob plant) and tyrosine (an amino acid), these products are purportedly activated by UV light. In turn, they are said to increase the production of melanin, a natural pigment found in the skin, to develop a deeper tan more quickly. Accelerators are also controversially sold as nasal sprays and even injections, many of which can contain Melanotan II, an unregulated artificial hormone that is illegal in the UK. But it’s most common to find them as creams and lotions. According to Google Trends, searches for “tanning accelerator” are steadily increasing, while the online beauty retailer LookFantastic told Refinery29 that searches for the same term rose by 117% from 2022 to 2023 on its website. It isn’t the only brand to sell these products, though. Tanning accelerators are just as widely available online (at retailers like Amazon and ASOS) as they are on the high street at Boots and Superdrug.  Dermatologist Dr Ellie Rashid likens tanning accelerators to creating shorter cigarettes: “Saying they are safer because they limit the length of time you smoke just doesn’t make sense.” Considering that tanning accelerators are so easy to obtain, it’s no surprise that countless people perceive them — and by association, tanning — to be safe. Phrases like “healthy glow” and “sun-kissed skin,” which often grace the labels on bottles of tanning accelerators, glamorise the idea of a tan. But in reality, any tan is your body’s way of signalling skin damage.  “The sun emits UV radiation, and this UV radiation is absorbed by our skin cells, damaging the bonds between our DNA,” says Dr Ellie Rashid, consultant dermatologist and pro medical director for the personalised skincare brand Klira. To protect itself from this DNA damage, our skin produces melanin, the brown pigment that results in a tan. “The more tanned you get, the more indicative this is that you have exposed your skin cells to DNA damage from UV radiation,” adds Dr Rashid. This damage can manifest as signs of premature ageing, including hyperpigmentation, wrinkles, sagginess and rough skin texture.   Why are tanning accelerators so dangerous?  Skin damage aside, tanning can lead to skin cancer — the most common form of cancer, reports the British Skin Foundation. In fact, 86% of melanomas (the most dangerous type of skin cancer, these start in melanin-producing cells) are caused by overexposure to UV radiation. Data suggests that just one sunbed session before the age of 35 increases someone’s risk of developing melanoma by 75%. Research also shows that one blistering sunburn in childhood or adolescence more than doubles your chances of developing melanoma later in life.  While most tan accelerators, particularly those available to buy in the UK do not necessarily contain “harmful” ingredients, their premise is undoubtedly dangerous since they encourage sunbathing and tanning bed use. Sadly, young people are most at risk, reports Cancer Research UK. In addition, a 2023 report from the American Academy of Dermatology looking into the tanning behaviour of Gen Z adults found that 40% of young people are unaware of tanning risks, while 20% believe that getting a tan is more important than preventing skin cancer.  A perturbing misconception around tanning accelerators is that they are believed to reduce the amount of time needed to achieve a tan. The fewer hours spent sunbathing, the better, right? But it’s not quite so cut and dried. Tanning accelerators lull users into a false sense of security, suggests Dr Paul Banwell, plastic surgeon and previous head and founder of the Melanoma and Skin Cance

May 21, 2024 - 19:40
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We Asked Brands Why They Sell Tan Accelerators & Struggled To Get A Straight Answer

Welcome to Sun Blocked, Refinery29’s global call to action to wake up to the serious dangers of tanning. No lectures or shaming, we promise. Instead, our goal is to arm you with the facts you need to protect your skin to the best of your ability, because there’s no such thing as safe sun. 

Of all the questionable beauty trends to return recently, tanning is one of the most frightening. On TikTok alone, the hashtag #sunbed has racked up an enormous 871.5 million views and climbing. Despite the countless risks associated with tanning, you’ll discover influencers and even celebrities normalising weekly sessions and perpetuating tanning myths

If you happen to find yourself in a similar TikTok rabbit hole, you might come across something equally as contentious as sunbeds: That an abundance of skincare brands are promoting sunscreen and proudly selling so-called “tanning accelerators” simultaneously. This is undoubtedly contradictory, not to mention worrying, considering that tanning accelerators encourage potentially dangerous tanning behaviour. 

What is a tan accelerator?

For the uninitiated, tanning accelerators — also known as tan activators or enhancers — are usually lotions or creams intended to be applied before sunbathing or indoor tanning. Often including ingredients like beta carotene (derived from carrots), Tanositol SPE (from the carob plant) and tyrosine (an amino acid), these products are purportedly activated by UV light. In turn, they are said to increase the production of melanin, a natural pigment found in the skin, to develop a deeper tan more quickly. Accelerators are also controversially sold as nasal sprays and even injections, many of which can contain Melanotan II, an unregulated artificial hormone that is illegal in the UK. But it’s most common to find them as creams and lotions.

According to Google Trends, searches for “tanning accelerator” are steadily increasing, while the online beauty retailer LookFantastic told Refinery29 that searches for the same term rose by 117% from 2022 to 2023 on its website. It isn’t the only brand to sell these products, though. Tanning accelerators are just as widely available online (at retailers like Amazon and ASOS) as they are on the high street at Boots and Superdrug. 

Dermatologist Dr Ellie Rashid likens tanning accelerators to creating shorter cigarettes: “Saying they are safer because they limit the length of time you smoke just doesn’t make sense.”

Considering that tanning accelerators are so easy to obtain, it’s no surprise that countless people perceive them — and by association, tanning — to be safe. Phrases like “healthy glow” and “sun-kissed skin,” which often grace the labels on bottles of tanning accelerators, glamorise the idea of a tan. But in reality, any tan is your body’s way of signalling skin damage. 

“The sun emits UV radiation, and this UV radiation is absorbed by our skin cells, damaging the bonds between our DNA,” says Dr Ellie Rashid, consultant dermatologist and pro medical director for the personalised skincare brand Klira. To protect itself from this DNA damage, our skin produces melanin, the brown pigment that results in a tan. “The more tanned you get, the more indicative this is that you have exposed your skin cells to DNA damage from UV radiation,” adds Dr Rashid. This damage can manifest as signs of premature ageing, including hyperpigmentation, wrinkles, sagginess and rough skin texture.  

Why are tanning accelerators so dangerous? 

Skin damage aside, tanning can lead to skin cancer — the most common form of cancer, reports the British Skin Foundation. In fact, 86% of melanomas (the most dangerous type of skin cancer, these start in melanin-producing cells) are caused by overexposure to UV radiation. Data suggests that just one sunbed session before the age of 35 increases someone’s risk of developing melanoma by 75%. Research also shows that one blistering sunburn in childhood or adolescence more than doubles your chances of developing melanoma later in life. 

While most tan accelerators, particularly those available to buy in the UK do not necessarily contain “harmful” ingredients, their premise is undoubtedly dangerous since they encourage sunbathing and tanning bed use. Sadly, young people are most at risk, reports Cancer Research UK. In addition, a 2023 report from the American Academy of Dermatology looking into the tanning behaviour of Gen Z adults found that 40% of young people are unaware of tanning risks, while 20% believe that getting a tan is more important than preventing skin cancer. 

A perturbing misconception around tanning accelerators is that they are believed to reduce the amount of time needed to achieve a tan. The fewer hours spent sunbathing, the better, right? But it’s not quite so cut and dried. Tanning accelerators lull users into a false sense of security, suggests Dr Paul Banwell, plastic surgeon and previous head and founder of the Melanoma and Skin Cancer Unit  in East Grinstead. 

“Realistically, people probably won’t be in the sun for less time [when] using tan accelerators,” Dr Banwell says, which means they are still putting themselves at risk. To that end, he is opposed to tanning and tanning accelerators: “Unsurprisingly, it has been shown that long-term use of tan accelerators increases the risk of skin cancer. I would not endorse using them,” he says. 

Considering that tanning accelerators are so easy to obtain, it’s no surprise that countless people perceive them — and by association, tanning — to be safe. But in reality, any tan is your body’s way of signalling skin damage. 

Dr Rashid is equally averse to tanning accelerators, and says that while they are often marketed as reducing the length of time spent in the sun to achieve a tan, this is misleading. “[They] might speed up the process of a tan, but they don’t protect against the harmful rays and skin damage, including sunburn and skin cancer,” explains Dr Rashid. The risk remains even if some do contain additional SPF. “Tan accelerators are increasingly incorporated into sun protection products offering SPF 50,” says Dr Rashid, “which suggests that we can safely bask in the sun.” 

But here’s the rub: “Damage is being sustained to your skin even before you reach the burning threshold,” says Dr Rashid. “Plus, the risk of skin cancer is cumulative,” meaning it can increase over time. Dr Rashid likens tanning accelerators to creating shorter cigarettes: “Saying they are safer because they limit the length of time you smoke just doesn’t make sense.”

Why do brands sell tanning accelerators despite the risks of tanning?

The concept of tanning accelerators is worrying, but the way that they are marketed to users is perhaps even more concerning. Product messaging can sometimes appear to be contradictory. Gatineau’s Tan Accelerating Lotion is one such product that inspired my investigation. During my research, I found that the brand’s website claims the product “activates the production of melanin and stimulates your skin’s natural sun defences.” This suggests that the skin can protect itself from UV rays. While skin with more melanin does afford slightly more sun protection than paler skin, a tan does not protect your skin from the sun’s harmful effects, reports the NHS. At the end of the product description, Gatineau recommends “always [using] high SPF sun protection.” 

The messaging is undoubtedly confusing, so let’s be clear: There is no such thing as a safe tan. “Tanning is a sign of sun damage, full stop,” says Dr Banwell. Alongside seeking shade and wearing sun-protective clothing, applying SPF 50 — and ensuring regular reapplication — is the best way to keep yourself safe in the sun, he says.   

Aside from Gatineau, Coco & Eve’s viral Tan Boosting Anti-Ageing Body Oil SPF 30 is particularly puzzling considering the abundance of data showing that tanning can damage skin cells and accelerate visible signs of ageing. The product’s tagline — “The secret to being sun-kissed and safe!” — is concerning. Considering there is no such thing as a safe UV tan, I contacted Coco & Eve to clarify. In its response, the brand seemingly acknowledged the dangers of tanning by answering my query with a question of its own: “How would this work, if tanning is known to be unsafe?”, before adding that the oil was formulated with a “tan-boosting peptide” that “prevents photoageing.”

I put this claim to Dr Rashid, who clarified, “A tan-boosting peptide cannot prevent photoageing,” adding that “exposing the skin to the damaging effects of UV light will lead to photoageing.” And though the product contains SPF 30, no sunscreen blocks 100% of the sun’s rays. Add to this the worrying research that suggests some people who use sunscreen tend to stay in the sun for longer periods under the illusion that they are protected, and it’s clear that sun safety is a public health issue. 

Confusing messaging aside, the marketing around tan accelerators contributes to a more-bang-for-your-buck mentality. One enthusiast I interviewed, Sarah*, who has fair skin and often uses tan accelerators before sunbeds, told me that she does so because she is convinced she’ll go darker quicker. As such, Sarah believes she doesn’t need to use sunbeds as often, which she says saves her money in the long run. 

Keen to cut through the clever marketing, I reached out to multiple online retailers and brands via email to ask why they continue to sell tan accelerators despite the deadly risks of tanning. Two were not willing to comment, and four ignored my request altogether. Ultrasun — which sells a tan activator with SPF 30, and an aftersun tan booster — did respond. The brand’s UK managing director, Abi Cleeve, told me, “Despite more awareness, we know from customer feedback and the data in the market that many customers still want to tan, especially when they’re on their main holiday each year.” Cleeve added, “These are the hardest group to reach in terms of the need to protect from UV rays, and it’s important that in the first instance we strive to meet them where they are. We want to offer options that customers will use whatever their stage in understanding UV protection.”

Clearly, more needs to be done to raise awareness of sun protection. Thirty-one-year-old Scottish National Party MP Amy Callaghan, who was diagnosed with melanoma at 19 and then again at 21, is taking a step in the right direction by calling on the UK government to slash VAT from sunscreen products — an important cause considering that many skin cancers are caused by sun exposure. While Callaghan’s melanoma diagnosis was not preventable, so many are. 

Secondhand fashion stylist Jen Graham knows from experience how risky it is to tan and use tanning accelerators. “I used to go on sunbeds a lot from when I was about 16 up until 18, and when I went on holiday I was out in the sun, tanning,” Graham tells R29. Then she discovered a cancerous mole on her leg in 2012. Since her initial mole removal, she’s had four more cancerous moles removed, all of which have returned. “I’m not saying don’t go on holiday or enjoy the sun, but please be sensible,” warns Graham. “I want people to learn from my mistakes.” 

Will we ever get rid of tanning accelerators? 

In spite of the very real evidence that shows tanning can be life threatening, it was clear from most of the brands and retailers I spoke to that they would not consider removing tanning accelerators from their lineup. There was one exception: the cosmeceuticals and skincare retailer Face The Future. Following in Callaghan’s footsteps, the website is cutting VAT across its sunscreen products until 31st May 2024. However, after reaching out to the brand, I found its response in regard to potentially phasing out tanning accelerators to be somewhat lacklustre. Kimberley Medd, clinic lead at the brand, shared: “This is something that we are currently evaluating with our skincare professionals, given the findings of our campaign.” 

While brands have done a terrifyingly good job at somehow convincing us that these products are protecting our skin or encouraging us to spend less time in the sun, the fact remains: A tan accelerator certainly doesn’t make tanning safe.

LookFantastic has recently unveiled a similar campaign, What The SPF?!, running a 20%-off sale across its core SPF line. In a press email, the retailer said that it aims to “change attitudes towards sun safety” and make its SPF line “more accessible this summer.” However, it continues to stock 37 products labelled as “tan activators and enhancers.” I asked if LookFantastic would ever pull the category from its site and received a reply from Dr Ishrat Ahmed, GP and group medical director at The Hut Group (THG), which owns LookFantastic. 

“There is a lot of misinformation and confusing language around tan accelerators and how to use them,” Dr Ahmed acknowledged. She continued, “People who enjoy tanning and who may use tan accelerator lotions may forgo using SPF under the misconception that it inhibits tanning. However, this is not the case and at LookFantastic we emphasise the essential use of SPF and promote sun safety in conjunction with these products.” Dr Ahmed concluded that she recommends limiting excessive UV exposure. With retailers taking a bold stance to educate on sun protection, yet selling products that contribute to the very opposite, it’s no wonder we’re getting mixed messages. 

One thing is true: Unless it’s faux, a harmless tan doesn’t exist. Like smoking and drinking, tanning is, of course, a personal choice. But at Refinery29, we’re taking a stance against it. This is why you’ll never see a tanning accelerator or enhancer on the website in the future. We simply cannot endorse them. While brands have done a terrifyingly good job at somehow convincing us that these products are protecting our skin or encouraging us to spend less time in the sun, the fact remains: A tan accelerator certainly doesn’t make tanning safe.

*Name changed for anonymity 

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