By Lori J. Wolfe, MS. CGC, OTIS President
Recently while having lunch at my favorite restaurant, I overheard a conversation at the table behind me. A very pregnant lady was discussing with her friend how she was going to get tan. "Now that it is the month of May, I want to get a head start on my tan," she was saying. They began discussing her options; tanning booths, professional spray tans, tan at home lotions, tanning pills, or laying out in the sun. What would be best and safe during a pregnancy? Well, usually I don't jump into other people's conversations, but I just couldn't help myself. Being that counseling about exposures and associated risks during pregnancy is my job, I felt I just had to give her a little educated advice!
I turned around, introduced myself, learned that her name was Sally, and began discussing the options. The use of tanning booths during pregnancy can be done, but you need to take a few safety precautions. We are always worried about over-heating during pregnancy. This is called hyperthermia. When you are in a tanning booth, it is easy for your body to become over heated if the booth is not well ventilated and/or you stay in the booth for too long of a time period. The ultraviolet rays that are used in the tanning booths do not get to the baby, so that is not the problem. But if you are in the tanning booth for more than 10 to 15 minutes, your body temperature might get too high. So be sure the booth has good ventilation and limit your tanning session to no more than 15 minutes. Also when using tanning salons and their tanning beds, please be sure to check and see how clean everything is. We do not want you laying down in dirty beds and perhaps picking up some nasty germs!
At this point Sally asked me about the use of self-tanning products, either done professionally or at home. Self-tanning products come as sprays, lotions or gels, and can be applied at home or in a salon. The main active ingredient in self-tanners is something called DHA or dihydroxyacetone. The amount of DHA can vary from 3 to 5% in products you use at home, or up to 15% in products used by professionals. We do know that only a very small amount of the DHA that is applied to your skin will be absorbed into your bloodstream. Therefore, there would be very little in your system to get to the baby. Since we do not have much information about DHA and pregnancy, we do want you to be careful to not get the self-tanning products into your eyes, nose or mouth.
"Hmm, I have heard about tanning pills," Sally asked me. "What are those and can I use them while I am pregnant?" Tanning pills can be bought over-the-counter and contain something called canthaxathin as the ingredient that changes the color of your skin. Unfortunately we do not have any studies that have looked at taking large amounts of canthaxathin during pregnancy, and we know that you need to use a lot to change the color of your skin. Therefore, it is best to avoid the use of tanning pills when you are pregnant.
"OK," Sally said, what if I just want to lay out in the sun and get tan the old fashioned way." I let her know that our main worry with laying out in the sun would be the same as using tanning booths, hyperthermia or overheating. If you do chose to tan outside, be sure to use a good sunscreen product, drink lots of water, and limit your sessions to 30 minutes or less. Be sure that you are cooling off frequently if you are outside for a long period of time. If you follow these good-sense guidelines, you can gradually build up a nice tan, even when you are pregnant.
At this point, Sally thanked me, paid her bill and left the restaurant. I let her know that if she or her friends had any questions about exposures during pregnancy, they can call OTIS, the Organization of Teratology Information Specialists at 866-626-6847 or visit our website at otispregnancy.org.
**Lori Wolfe, MS, is a board-certified genetic counselor and the president of OTIS. She is also the director of OTIS' Texas affiliate, the Texas Teratogen Information Service (TTIS), which she founded in 1991. Visit its website at http://www.ttis.unt.edu/. OTIS is a North American non-profit dedicated to providing accurate evidence-based information about exposures during pregnancy and breastfeeding.**