Can A Pill Give You A Tan?

Joanna Douglas
Senior Editor
August 28, 2014

Photo: Trunk Archive/Peden & Munk

Altering your skin color is certainly not a new phenomenon. Global Industry Analysts predict the skin whitening and lightening industry, which is hugely popular in Asia, will reach about $20 billion by 2018. Meanwhile the American Academy of Dermatology says the indoor tanning industry is estimated at $2.6 billion with more than 1 million people visiting U.S. tanning salons each day and Statista says the self-tanning product industry should reach $775 million in the U.S. this year. But now things are reaching fever pitch, as ingestible pills and even candy that claims to change your skin tone from the inside out hits the market.

Before the industrial revolution, tanned skin was considered a lower class characteristic, a sign you worked outdoors doing manual labor while the upper class stayed indoors or shaded themselves with parasols. By the 1930s, a tan was a stylish sign of wealth meaning you could travel and probably led a life of leisure. Nowadays, when it comes to skin tone, apparently everyone wants what she can’t have.

In our the-faster-the-better society, popping a pill seems as if it's a quick fix, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe. "Supplements are not regulated by the FDA so it’s hard to tell the risks," says Dr. Ava Shamban, a dermatologist in Beverly Hills and author of Heal Your Skin. After a little research she found some eye-opening information about canthaxanthin, the ingredient in tanning supplements found online and in infomercials. As a keto-carotenoid pigment found in nature, it’s used to dye foods and skin. Some studies found that it was deposited into tissues and that high levels in the blood were crystalizing in the retina, affecting eyesight; It also shows up in the liver. Taking canthaxanthin also produced hives, too.

"It’s not a great trade off," Shamban says. "Why risk taking a supplement that may affect your vision and give you a rash? The safest tan is the one in a bottle since those chemicals aren’t toxic and don’t penetrate your skin." Because canthaxanthin can be found in mushrooms, crustaceans, algae, and some salmon and trout, you could also ingest it the healthful way. "There’s no better treatment than natural ones," Shamban says. "You have better absorption and results."

A new Time article mentions a supplement by a Spanish company called Melagenol that’s designed to lighten the skin, and although it’s less concerning, Shamban is also skeptical. “The two main active compounds are arbutin and hydroquinone analog — the skin-lightening agent used in topical products,” she says. “But if you take them orally how would the levels be high enough to work?” She says even the results of a long-term study would be hard to prove because there are many external factors at play.

Shamban says Melagenol doesn’t sound harmful, and it might even work because the formula includes antioxidants and anti-inflammatory ingredients to ward off redness and brown spots. That said, she says you’d get better results by staying away from the sun and applying topical brightening creams with a higher concentration of the active ingredients. To brighten your skin the natural way, Shamban suggests eating tomatoes, cinnamon, and pears—specifically the skin. "In general, I'm all about locally sourced fresh fruits and vegetable, which have been proved to have the highest antioxidants," she says. "No supplement is smarter than Mother Nature."