Parisian tan safe; use gel sunscreens

June 1, 2005

A Parisian tan is a brown staining of the skin produced by dihydroxyacetone (DHA) that is sprayed on the body, usually in a tanning salon. This tan needs to be distinguished from a tan that is created by UVA light exposure, also in a tanning salon.

Q: What is a Parisian tan? Is it safe?

The tan is created by using a liquid solution of DHA, which is a white, crystalline powder, chemically characterized as a three-carbon sugar. DHA interacts with the free amino acids present in sweat and keratin. The reaction result is a brown substance, mimicking a suntan, referred to as melanoidins. Melanoidins create the orange-brown color characteristic of the Parisian tan. The liquid DHA is sprayed on with the aid of a nozzle and an air compressor, usually in a booth that mimics a shower with a shower curtain.

The most important message a dermatologist can give to a patient who chooses to undergo this procedure is that sunscreen must still be worn for sun protection. The sun protection provided by DHA is minimal, yielding an SPF of 2. The brown color should be viewed simply as a cosmetic and nothing more.

The Parisian tan is the only safe tan that can be administered in a tanning salon. For the patient who insists on a professionally applied brown body color, the Parisian tan is a good alternative.

Q: What is the best sunscreen to recommend for my patients who are going to the beach?

A: Selecting a good beach-wear sunscreen is difficult. There can be no doubt that avoiding peak sun hours and wearing lots of clothing are the best sun protection, but no patient will take kindly to these suggestions. In general, my favorite sunscreens are those that contain the broad spectrum particulates, such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Zinc oxide paste is a wonderful protectant, but it is white, sticky and attracts sand. Compliance with this recommendation would certainly be low.

My favorite beach wear sunscreens are the gels that create a thin polymer film over the skin surface (Bullfrog Face Gel and Body Gel, Chattam). It is not possible to put a particulate, such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, in a gel, thus these products must rely on octyl methoxycinnamate and other chemical sunscreening agents. Gels are available in squeeze bottles or tubes and sprays. The sprays can be sprayed on the skin and then rubbed to achieve even coverage, but the thickness of the protective film may not be sufficient. Products that are squeezed from a bottle or tube generally leave behind a thicker film.

Gel sunscreens should be applied about 15 minutes to 30 minutes before going out on the beach to allow the film to thoroughly dry and stick to the skin. This improves the water-resistant characteristics of the sunscreen. The gel can be applied to the scalp and face, as long as the eyes are closed. The volatile vehicle may produce stinging if the eyes are left open. Stinging may also occur if the gel is applied to open wounds or dermatitic skin. Gel sunscreens can be used both on children over the age of 6 months and adults.

The main advantage of a gel sunscreen when going to the beach is that it does not attract sand because the film is not sticky. Also, it is more difficult to sweat off than a creamy sunscreen. However, it should be reapplied every one to two hours depending on humidity and water contact. The gel is easily removed with soap and water at the end of the beach holiday.