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This is a question that we hear all the time from our patients! We think it’s great that more and more people are forgoing the tanning bed and the sun and opting for the much safer choice of a self-tan instead. Although it may be the safer choice regarding your risk of developing skin cancer, it still isn’t safe to have a fake tan and do any type of laser treatment.
Even though self-tanning and suntans are totally different, a laser cannot differentiate the two. Here’s why: self-tanners basically work by depositing a “stain” into the very top layers of your skin. A real tan (from the sun or artificial UV light) develops when your pigment cells, or melanocytes, are stimulated by UV light to make more melanin or pigment, gradually darkening the color of your skin over time.
Totally different, right? Yes, but lasers work by targeting excess melanin – which is why they work for removing hair, sun spots or scars which all contain it. Obviously, you don’t want a natural tan during this process as the excess melanin in the skin competes with the melanin in what you want to remove with the laser. The “color” or “stain” of the self-tanner however, can do exactly the same thing. Even though it’s not melanin, laser technology is just not smart enough yet to be able to distinguish the two and tell the difference. When too much laser energy is concentrated into the upper layers of skin, a burn can develop. This can lead to unwanted scars and darker discoloration.
We always complement our patients who’ve given up the sun for good. It can be really hard, but in the end, your skin will thank you for it. But if you’re considering having a laser procedure, you will need to avoid all self-tanners for at least two weeks prior to your treatment. This gives you enough time to completely fade (or exfoliate) anything that’s there and ensures that you have the safest, most effective laser treatment possible.
Lori Ishii Haney, RN, MEP-C
Certified Medical Laser Safety Officer