Behind the Label: Garnier's Ambre Solaire Gloss Bronzer

| 1st April 2006
If you’re one of the millions of people using fake tan to look attractive and healthy, be wary: they are full of chemicals that can cause damage to your skin. By Pat Thomas

Dihydroxyacetone, cyclopentasiloxane, dimethicone, dimethiconol, mica, phenoxyethanol, ethylparaben, propylparaben, isobutylparaben, methylparaben, butylparaben, alpha-isomethyl ionone, benzyl salicylate, BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene), coumarin, butylphenyl methylpropional, geraniol, citronellol, citral, benzyl salicylate,

Fear is a great motivator – especially in cosmetics. The more you can make people afraid of something, the more stuff you can sell them. On this basis, the market for fake-tan preparations is booming.

Fearful that the sun causes skin cancer, and that pale skin looks unhealthy, we now spend millions annually on skin-darkening preparations to add a little sun-kissed magic to our lives.

The market for fake-tan products has grown by some 80 per cent since 1997 and shows no sign of stopping. In the UK, we spend around £20 million a year on fake tanning. In the US, which accounts for half of all global self-tanner sales, consumers spend around $86 million in pursuit of a great-looking, effortless and sunless tan. Sales are at their highest in spring and early summer, as we shake off our winter lethargy and start thinking about our holidays.

In Europe, Garnier’s Ambre Solaire is the market leader, accounting for 21 per cent all by itself. Globally, it is second most popular brand after Neutrogena. But while products like these are widely promoted as safer than sun exposure, inevitably, there are problems.

The most effective products contain a chemical called dihydroxyacetone (DHA). This sugar derivative has been the staple active ingredient in self-tanners for many years. It can smell bad and it can sometimes turn you a funny shade of orange but, more important, it has never been fully evaluated for safety.

Some products also use another chemical – erythrulose. This agent works just like DHA, but develops more slowly. So, using the two chemicals together can produce a longer-lasting effect.

But both DHA and erythrulose can cause skin irritation.

DHA is not a dye. It imparts temporary colour to the skin through a free radical-generating chemical reaction with amino acids in the superficial layers of the skin. The way it works is not unlike the way exposure to the air can turn the flesh of a cut-up apple brown. The irony of this won’t be lost on anyone who has ever skimmed through a women’s magazine.

Most anti-ageing creams, for instance, include ingredients that help fight the damaging effects of free radicals, known to promote premature skin-cell death. But using a fake tan means volunteering for this kind of damage to your skin. A 2004 laboratory study in the journal Mutation Research underscored this fact with the finding that DHA interferes with the normal cell cycle in human skin, induces DNA damage and accelerates cell death within 24 hours of application.

Fake-tan products also suffer from the same plethora of toxic ingredients as body lotions. Ambre Solaire contains numerous film-formers – not just silicones, but tri-C14-15 alkyl citrate (often used for food packaging). It is also a highly fragranced product containing known central nervous system (CNS) - disrupting chemicals such as coumarin and butylphenyl methylpropional, as well as potentially cancer-causing and ever-present parabens preservatives.



Dihydroxyacetone: Skin-colouring agent. Causes a free-radical reaction in the skin with the potential to cause skin-cell death and breaks in DNA chains.

Cyclopentasiloxane, dimethicone, dimethiconol: Film-formers. Film-formers trap other substances (including other ingredients in the product) beneath them. Because they don’t allow the skin to breathe, they can exacerbate skin irritation caused by sweat or other substances.

Mica: Colour additive, light reflector: As the formula dries, mica becomes a respiratory hazard; if swallowed, it’s toxic to the liver and gastrointestinal tract. The mineral is dangerous to mine – a process that often involves young children working under perilous conditions.

Phenoxyethanol: Preservative. Causes skin irritation, contact dermatitis and contact allergies.

Ethylparaben, propylparaben, isobutylparaben, methylparaben, butylparaben: Preservatives. Cause skin irritation, contact dermatitis and contact allergies. Parabens are oestrogen mimics, and excess oestrogen is a trigger for oestrogen-dependent cancers of the breast, ovary, uterus and testicles, and may even affect fetal development. Scientists analysing breast-cancer tissues have found accumulated parabens in every sample.

Alpha-isomethyl ionone: Synthetic fragrance. Causes skin sensitisation and CNS disruption.

Benzyl salicylate: Synthetic fragrance, fixative. Causes skin sensitisation.

BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene): Antioxidant. Causes contact allergies and contact dermatitis; a suspected carcinogen; may cause reproductive defects. Once absorbed, BHT can accelerate the breakdown of vital nutrients such as vitamin D (which maintains immunity, and healthy bones and teeth).

Coumarin: Naturally derived fragrance. A skin sensitiser, several types have already been banned in the EU because of their potential to cause serious skin reactions and photosensitisation (sensitivity to light). In animals, it causes lung and liver cancers, and kidney damage. According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), coumarin is ‘rapidly and extensively absorbed after topical or oral administration to human subjects’. Human data show it to be liver-toxic. It may also cause CNS disruption.

Butylphenyl methylpropional: Synthetic fragrance. A skin irritant, its use is restricted in both leave-on and wash-off products because of its powerful sensitisation potential. In animals, skin applications at high concentrations caused sperm damage and CNS effects such as drowsiness and breathing difficulties.

Geraniol, citronellol, citral, benzyl salicylate: Synthetic fragrances. These must now be listed separately on cosmetics labels as a warning to consumers because they are known to be powerful allergens and sensitisers.

NOTE: Space restrictions prohibit full referencing; however, Behind the Label draws on data from published studies and reports in medical, scientific and trade journals, government-sponsored databases (e.g. the US National Library of Medicine) and relevant Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS).


There are no safe fake tans. All products of this type use the same few chemicals to produce results. If you want a glow that is truly healthy, then regular, moderate sun exposure is the only way to go. This doesn’t mean foolishly baking in the sun for hours, but just enjoying the sun as a natural part of your daily routine. Studies show that we all need around 15 to 20 minutes of sun on our face, arms and legs every day to produce and maintain vital supplies of vitamin D. Staying out of the sun means that many of us don’t get enough vitamin D, as witnessed by the reemergence of diseases like rickets, and has contributed to spiralling rates of depression as well as cancers of the breast, prostate and colon.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist April 2007

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