Tanning Pills

girl tanning
Getting Beautiful Skin Image Gallery Tanning pills contain canthaxanthin, which is used as a color additive in certain foods. See more pictures of getting beautiful skin.
©iStockphoto.com/Diego Alvarez de Toledo

You may not want a tan as deep as Paris Hilton's, and you certainly don't need a tan reminiscent of George Hamilton's, but a little bit of color would be nice. Baking in the sun is out because you'll pay for it years later with wrinkles and leathery skin. And tanning beds aren't a healthy alternative because they've been linked to the melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer. [source: American Academy of Dermatology]. Another option is the spray-on tan -- but only if you have a steady hand to prevent streaks. And then there are tanning pills. You might have seen them advertised and thought you'd discovered the perfect way to get that sun-kissed look without risking your health. But are tanning pills safe? And what makes them work?

Tanning pills contain canthaxanthin, a naturally occurring chemical found in many plants and animals. Just as the carotene in carrots can color your skin orange if you eat enough of it, large amounts of canthaxanthin can change the pigment of your skin to a brownish-orange color [source: RxList].


Now that you know how tanning pills work by coloring your skin from the inside out, read on to learn more about canthaxanthin and how it gets from a pill to your skin.

Tanning Pills Explained

Canthaxanthin is a cartenoid, which is a class of yellow to red pigments. Canthaxanthin colors brine shrimp and other crustaceans, as well as many fish, plants and mushrooms. Food manufacturers use canthaxanthin, also known as Food Orange 8, carophyll red or roxanthin red 10, as a color additive in certain foods, including barbecue and tomato sauces, soups, salad dressings, fruit drinks, candies and cheeses. In fact, most red, orange or yellow processed foods list canthaxanthin as an ingredient [FDA].

Tanning pills work because canthaxanthin easily dissolves in lipids, which make up the fatty layer directly under the epidermis. The canthaxanthin molecules attach to this layer of fat cells directly under the skin, giving the epidermis a brownish orange color [source: Drugs].


While a chemical that colors your skin in the same manner as carrots may seem safe, read on before you begin popping tanning pills.

Tanning Pill Effectiveness and Safety

Do tanning pills really work? Simply put, yes. But although the FDA has approved the use of canthaxanthin in food, it hasn't approve its use as a tanning agent. When used as a color additive, only small amounts of canthaxanthin are required. As a tanning agent, however, larger quantities are used, which can have harmful side effects.

Research shows that consuming large amounts of canthaxanthin can cause damage to the eyes because it settles not only in the skin, but also in the retinas. This can cause canthaxanthin retinopathy, the formation of crystals in the retinas, which can affect eyesight. Other side effects include stomach cramps, nausea and diarrhea [source: Mayo Clinic].


As for the pills' effectiveness, you won't see results in one day. Two weeks of consistent use is necessary to allow enough dye to build up in your skin. On the other hand, if you decide your skin tone is a little too orange, it'll take two weeks after you quit taking the pills for your skin to return to its normal shade.

So, what's the safest way to tan? Your best bet is a cosmetic product such as a tanning lotion or powder bronzer. To learn more about tanning pills and other tanning methods, check out the links on the following page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Indoor Tanning is Out: Online Public Education Tool Kit." (Accessed 7/26/09) http://www.aad.org/public/sun/toolkit/
  • Drugs.com. "Tanning Tablets." (Accessed 7/27/09) http://www.drugs.com/npp/tanning-tablets.html
  • Mayo Clinic. "Sunless Tanning: A Safe Alternative to Sunbathing." (Accessed 7/26/09) http://mayoclinic.com/health/sunless-tanning/SN00037
  • RxList. "Canthaxanthin." (Accessed 7/26/09) http://www.rxlist.com/canthaxanthin/supplements.htm
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "Summary of Color Additives for Use in United States in Foods, Drugs, Cosmetics and Medical Devices." August, 3, 2009. (Accessed 8/18/09) http://www.fda.gov/ForIndustry/ColorAdditives/ColorAdditiveInventories/ucm115641.htm
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "Tanning Pills." (Accessed 7/27/09) http://www.fda.gov/Cosmetics/ProductandIngredientSafety/ProductInformation/ucm134217.htm