Fake tans and spray tans when breastfeeding – are they safe?

After a mum posted a pic of her baby coated in her self-tan, we reveal what to do if you want a fake tan while you're breastfeeding

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When a mortified mum shared an ‘epic parenting fail’ pic of her baby sporting an almost ‘comedy 5 o’clock shadow’, she faced a barrage of social media – not to mention national media interest. The reason: her spray tan had rubbed off on her baby’s face as she breastfed him. 

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The mum in question was horrified at unwittingly ‘tanning’ her baby. But despite her self-confessed guilt and a warning to other mums to take care not to do it themselves, there were some inevitable negative comments about the safety and ethics of fake tanning for feeding mums.

Given the popularity of fake tanning, the post did raise a lot of questions about how safe it is to get a non-sun tan if you are breastfeeding, and if you should avoid it completely.

What the NHS says

You do need to take precautions when applying any fake tan (or indeed any cosmetics or lotions and potions) when you’re near your baby. You need to ensure it’s dry or has been rinsed off before having skin-to-skin contact, but the NHS Choices website explicitly says, “It’s fine to use fake tan while you are breastfeeding.” So what is – or what could be – the problem? 

What are the risks?

The main perceived risk from fake tanning when breastfeeding is your baby ingesting (eating!) the product when you breastfeed after you’ve tanned. Although your baby can be ‘tanned’ by coming into contact with your fake tan, there is no known evidence at present to suggest that it can cause any harm, even if if it goes into your baby’s mouth. But, an it’s a big but, would you want your baby to be ingesting anything that’s not technically edible?

“DHA has been approved as safe for external use,” says cosmetic dermatologist, Dr Samantha Bunting. “It hasn’t been approved for inhalation (which can happen when spray tanning) or application directly on the eyes and mouth.” This doesn’t mean it’s not safe, but it does mean it hasn’t been rigorously tested for use in this way. 

What’s in fake tan?

The active ingredient (so the one which makes us brown) in most fake tans is something called Dihydroxyacetone (DHA), which is a carbohydrate, derived from plant sources such as sugar cane. Some self tanners use erythrulose, which is another carbohydrate and can be found naturally in red raspberries.  

Both are non toxic and both work in a similar way to make the cells in the top layer of your skin produce melanoidin, which is what turns the skin brown. And it’s worth noting that the effect is a chemical reaction, not a stain or dye. So because neither DHA or erythrulose can absorb beyond the outermost layer of your skin, it cannot contaminate your breast milk or harm your baby.

While the effects of long term use of DHA are still unclear, and some fake tan products may also contain controversial preservatives known as parabens and formaldehyde.  

DHA has an unusual history…

Interestingly, as a chemical, Dihydroxyacetone (DHA) was once given as medicine to children, which is how it was first discovered as a tanning agent. A nurse administering DHA to youngsters at a hospital in Cincinnati in the 1950s noticed how brown patches developed on the kids’ skin if the medicine splashed on it. Intrigued, she started applying it directly to her own skin and discovered through experimentation that although it changed the colour of the outside of her skin, it did not go any deeper into the epidermis. 

So, science lesson aside, what’s the best way to fake tan when breastfeeding?

First off, if you decide to have a spray tan, speak to your beauty therapist at your salon. Make sure they know you are breastfeeding, and ask them what advice/precautions they usually advise their clients to take. 

Then follow these safety rules:

  • Use ‘tit tape’ over your nipples or place a breast-pad over the nipple area so the tan doesn’t go on it  
  • Apply a barrier cream (such as nipple cream, Vaseline or even nappy cream) over your breasts so the tan cannot adhere to them
  • Or, better still, avoid your breast area completely when you apply the product at home or when you get sprayed. To be ultra safe, keep a bikini top on.
  • Apply your tan and rinse it off when you have a big breastfeeding window – if your baby no longer wakes for a night time feed, time your tan accordingly, and rinse off before their morning feed
  • If you express milk to bottle feed your baby, then consider doing so for the development time of your tan plus add an extra couple of feeds to be entirely sure you have ‘set’!
  • If your tan needs a longer development time – 8 to 10 hours – before rinsing, this mummy blogger has a top tip – wear a nursing top so you only have to get your boob out, and ensure you and your baby have long sleeves on to minimise the opportunity for transferring the tan
  • Even if you have avoided the area, and followed all our tips, be sure to wash your breasts and surrounding area with a gentle body wash and dry well to ensure no residue is present before your first post-tan feed

Do you have any top tanning tips to share with other breastfeeding mums? 

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