Meg Farris / Eyewitness News
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NEWORLEANS- Back in the 1970's, rub-on tan lotions were not as popular as the spray-on versions today.

But when doctors sounded the alarm about the active ingredient in those tan lotions and sprays, saying it could potentially cause cancer when inhaled, it made some think tanning beds could be safer.

But what is really better for your health?

When medical experts said they had concerns about spray tans having the potential to cause genetic damage in cells, local dermatologists got questions from patients.

'There were concerns whether it would penetrate the mucus membranes and whether it might be inhaled into the lungs,' said Dr. Patricia Farris, a board certified dermatologist in Metairie who represents the American Academy of Dermatology.

The active ingredient DHA was FDA-approved and considered safe back in the early 1970's to rub on the skin. However, later lab studies raised concerns about DHA's ability to enter the blood stream if inhaled or swallowed.

'They (the tests) were done in bacteria, so these are not human studies,' said Dr. Farris. 'These are studies that were done in a very limited laboratory setting and there was some concern as to whether dihydroxyacetone might be a cancer promoting agent in these limited numbers of laboratory studies. There are no studies in humans to suggest that it's dangerous.'

Dermatologists are more concerned people will forgo the spray tan for the tanning beds, known to cause melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.

'I always tell my patients, if I have to choose between dihydroxyacetone, DHA, as a spray tan, and something that's a known carcinogen, and that is a tanning bed, I'm going to pick the DHA, the spray tan every time,' Dr. Farris said.

But doctors urge you to protect yourself when getting a spray tan. Wear goggles or close your eyes. Put cotton in your nose, Vaseline or petroleum jelly around your closed lips, and take a deep breath and hold it before spraying near your face. Use rub on tanning lotions for touch ups to cut down on the times you are exposed to spray tans. And the person doing the spraying should wear a protective mask.

Doctors who first looked at the lab studies, say more research should be done.

And even though there is not a lot of science on DHA getting inside the body, they believe there are enough warning signs of serious health problems.

Editor's note: Dr. Patricia Farris is no relation to Medical Reporter Meg Farris.

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