Yes, your fake tan could be making you sick. And there's a surprising reason behind it.

Summer is upon us.

Which, for some of us, means it’s time for certain body parts like our legs and arms to come out and play.

But how to create the ~illusion~ that they have been kissed by the sun despite hiding under a lovely, warming layer of hair all winter (and as much of spring as we could push for?).

Sun in a bottle – otherwise known as fake tan – of course.

Watch: Beauty expert Brittany Stewart shows us how to multimask. Post continues after video.

Video via Mamamia.

Self tanners can save us from pastiness in desperate times of need… but while the risk of overdoing it to Oompa Loompa level was once our only fear of self-tanning, it turns out there might be some other risks to be aware of.

Well, for some of us…

When chatting with some girlfriends recently about fake tan, one made a startling revelation.

“I can’t fake tan, it gives me diarrhoea,” she said casually, sipping on her almond milk latte.

Excuse me… what?

Yes – as it turns out, this friend – who is lactose intolerant, may be experiencing an allergic reaction to the chemicals found in some tanning products, and she’s not alone.


Others have described a “gurgly stomach” feeling when they use certain tanning products, as well as nausea and flu-like symptoms.

They’ve often thought it could be the smell of some products that makes them feel ill. You know – that biscuit-y smell that no amount of deodorant and perfume seems to be able to mask?

Understanding the risks of fake tanning.

To find out if there is actually a link between stomach symptoms and fake tan, I consulted nutritionist Jennifer May, owner of Sydney City Nutritionist and founder of Food Intolerance Australia, who has conducted extensive research on the chemicals in beauty products and how they can affect our bodies.

She said she has treated patients who have presented with similar symptoms to my friend, and that it’s often people who suffer from food intolerance, suggesting that there could actually be a connection.

But how?

According to Jennifer, it could be down to a few reasons:

“This could be due to them having weaker digestive function,” she said.

“It could be due to the increased toxic load from the food reactions, leading to poor ability to detox, or of course, this could be a reaction to the DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid) itself – which is a three-carbon sugar food extract,” she added.

DHA is also what gives fake tan its “yeasty” smell, she added.

“Many people with food intolerances have issues absorbing and processing sugars such as lactose and fructose. It is possible that the reaction is from the DHA being poorly processed by the liver and then reacting in the digestive system.”


Does fake tan affect our digestive system?

“Our skin is a very effective organ for both absorption and excretion, and we have known for some time now that what goes on the skin does produce a systemic effect,” Jennifer explained.

“Consider products such as Voltaren Gel or magnesium oil – either of those can produce an immediate relief from muscular aches and pains, Vicks ointment can open up airways when rubbed on the feet,” she added.

She went on to explain that while many dermatology sites swear the primary tanning ingredient DHA has “minimal absorption”, other chemicals in some products can also lead to symptoms – including parabens, alcohol, preservatives, formaldehyde releasing chemicals and “fragrances”.

Negative reactions to self-tanning.

From Jennifer’s own experience, she’s seen the following reactions to self tanners:

“Patients have experienced elevated liver enzymes which reduce when removing self tanners and other cosmetics,” she said, a result which could lead to symptoms such as nausea and abdominal pain.

She also said some patients described “aches and pains and extreme fatigue”, which she eventually attributed to fake tanning.

“To determine if it was indeed the fake tan, we experimented by using only on isolated parts of the body, sure enough, they then experienced aches and pains on only those areas,” she said.

“Could this be a placebo effect? Sure. However, those coming to see me and paying consultation fees do so because they are in need of help. When I tell them, they might need to give up their beloved fake tan, they are not too happy,” she added.


Some of Jennifer’s patients have also experienced nausea, increased urinary urgency and frequency, asthma attacks and – like my unlucky friend, diarrhoea.

“This seems to be most pronounced in those who have spray tans or those who do all over body and multiple layer applications,” explained Jennifer.

“What many people don’t know is that any toxin that is processed by the liver is typically then dumped into the digestive system (via the bile) or kidneys (followed by the bladder) to be excreted.”

She added that this was especially noticeable by people who already have “poor bowel function”, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or other gut health issues.

"Of course, when our bowel function is not good, if our liver detox capability is poor, if we have previously had our gall bladder removed, or if our bile contains man-made chemicals that our body does not recognise, there is always the chance that these chemicals will be reabsorbed via the lining of the digestive tract - right back into the bloodstream.

"This now recirculates and we may attempt elimination via the skin or lungs - leading to uncomfortable symptoms.

"The urinary urgency is generally from unknown/unrecognised man-made chemicals irritating the bladder causing a need for urgent elimination," she added.

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Sydney naturopath Victoria O'Sullivan concurred with some of Jennifer's findings, particularly how the skin absorbs chemicals that can then make their way to our digestive system.


"Your skin is the largest organ of your body and since it is porous, it absorbs whatever you put on it," she said.

"A study published in the American Journal of Public Health looked into the skin's absorption rates of chemicals found in drinking water. It showed that the skin absorbed an average of 64 per cent of total contaminant dosage."

While, like Jennifer, she said there has been little research surrounding the use of fake tan and the potential damage chemicals within some products can have on certain people, Victoria noted it could be down to the "fat soluble" chemicals, including DHA, building up in the body.

She added that if people using fake tan already have "liver filtering issues", this could be the reason for the negative reaction.

"Where your body processes these chemicals is in your liver, and your liver's role is to transport these fat-soluble compounds into water soluble so that you can then safely eliminate them from your body. Your organs of elimination are your bowels (digestion), your kidneys, your lungs (breath), and your skin," she explained.

"There are two phases to this detox pathway: phase 1 and phase 2, and where people run into issues is that they may have too much phase 1 (which actually makes the compounds more toxic as part of its process), and not enough phase 2 (which is where it gets transferred into the safe water soluble form)."

Some symptoms of liver filtering issues along these pathways include constipation or diarrhoea, nausea, headaches, and aches and pains, among others, Victoria added.


So why do people have issues with liver detoxification?

Victoria said it could be from a number of causes attributed to diet, smoking, pollution, certain skincare products, drug use, emotional stress or gene variations such as COMT/MTHFR, which some medical professionals have linked to anxiety, and which can lead to issues within the liver, according to Victoria.

What are the best fake tan products to use?

Before you throw all your fake tanning products away, Jennifer said there is hope, adding that those who experience these reactions are usually just in need of "a really good detox".

"In my experience, removing food intolerances (also known as food allergy type three - which are detected by blood testing) and following a gut healing protocol, along with the use of a high quality probiotic, can significantly improve ability to tolerate these sugars (in the chemical DHA).

"[When food tolerances are removed] some patients then also experience improved tolerance of the chemical personal care items," she said.

There are also DHA-free fake tan products, or those which include natural DHA derived from sugar beets or cane sugar, which could be a better option for those experiencing negative reactions:

The Chemistry Brand Glow Oil, $40.

The Chemistry Brand Glow Oil. Image: Adore Beauty.


The Organic Pharmacy Self Tan, $59.83.

The Organic Pharmacy Self Tan. Image: Amazon.


Eco Tan Face Tan Water, $40.

Eco Tan Face Tan Water. Image: Sephora.

Have you ever experienced strange side effects after using fake tan? Let us know in the comments below!

Feature Image: Canva/Mamamia.