Some people may wish to look more tan but have concerns about the harmful effects of sun exposure. Tanning pills may help people darken or color their skin without the sun damage. However, results vary, and people may not be able to achieve their desired skin tone. The FDA has not currently approved any tanning pills.

Most tanning pills contain canthaxanthin, which is more commonly used as a reddish-orange food coloring. While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved its use in small doses as a color additive in foods, it has not approved canthaxanthin as a tanning agent.

Despite this, many versions of these tanning pills are available to buy online.

In this article, we look at how well tanning pills work, how safe they are, and whether they have any side effects. We also explain what tanning pills are made of and explore some alternative sunless tanning options.

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Tanning pills work by coloring the epidermis and subcutaneous fat — the layer of fat just under the skin.

When people ingest large quantities of canthaxanthin over time, it builds up in the epidermis and the subcutaneous fat layer.

However, the color of the skin may not match that achieved through sun exposure.

The FDA explains that when people expose skin to UV light, it produces a pigment called melanin.

Melanin is the body’s defense against harmful rays, and it darkens the skin in an attempt to protect it.

Tanning pills do not stimulate melanin production but rely on the colorant effect of canthaxanthin to change the skin’s appearance. The FDA points out that this colorant effect varies from person to person, and while some may achieve a brownish color, the effect also produces a more orange hue.

It is also worth noting that subcutaneous fat exists all over the body, including on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. Canthaxanthin can stain any area covered with skin, so these areas may also appear orange to brownish.

The FDA does not approve any tanning pills containing canthaxanthin and states that imports of these products may face detainment.

Tanning pills do not protect against UV radiation. The American Cancer Society notes that most skin cancers are due to UV rays, and it advises people to always apply sunscreen to exposed skin when outside.

Canthaxanthin takes time to build up in the body and also takes time to disappear. People who are unhappy with the color of their skin after taking tanning pills will have to wait for the color to fade. Pills containing canthaxanthin are also associated with serious side effects.

Large doses of canthaxanthin may have unpleasant side effects and can cause serious health issues, according to the FDA. These include:

  • hives and welts
  • liver damage
  • canthaxanthin retinopathy, a condition where crystals form in the retina of the eye
  • stomach cramps and diarrhea
  • nausea
  • aplastic anemia, where the body stops producing enough new blood cells

Some of these side effects may disappear as soon as a person stops taking the pills. Others can take months or years to clear. The FDA explains that people with canthaxanthin retinopathy may still have crystalline deposits in their eyes up to 7 years later, although they usually clear within 2–5 years.

Tanning pills containing canthaxanthin have caused at least one fatality. In 1990, a previously healthy young woman died from aplastic anemia after taking tanning pills. A report published at the time condemned its use, arguing that even if the risk is small, it is still too high to justify using canthaxanthin for cosmetic reasons.

The sunless tanning market in the United States is huge. Analysts estimate its value at over $386 million for 2021, and they say this is likely to grow.

People wanting to tan their skin without sun exposure have many options, including:


People can achieve a temporary effect by using makeup, including tinted moisturizers and brush-on “bronzing” powders.

The American Cancer Society points out that the coloring agents manufacturers use in these products are more likely to have FDA approval.

Self-tan products

The FDA also approves dihydroxyacetone (DHA) for external use in self-tan products.

DHA reacts with amino acids on the skin’s surface and darkens its color.

The FDA explains that “external use” means avoiding the lips and any parts of the body covered by a mucous membrane, such as the eyes and inside of the nose.

Spray tans

Spray tans reduce the risk of uneven color and streaking lines that plague inexperienced self-tanners.

However, the FDA has reservations about using DHA in tanning booths and has not approved it for this use. DHA is not approved for use around the eyes, lips, and mucous membranes, and it can be difficult to avoid exposure to these areas in a tanning booth.

The FDA recommends that anyone considering using a spray tan or tanning booth protect their lips and eyes. It also warns that chemicals may come into contact with mucus membranes inside the body when a person inhales or unintentionally swallows the mist.

Alternative tanning pills

Manufacturers are developing other tanning pills, according to a 2015 article. These pills contain tyrosine, a protein that may stimulate melanin production.

Producers claim that people taking these pills will tan more quickly, which could reduce UV exposure times. However, the FDA considers them to be potentially dangerous, and, as a result, they are not approved in the United States.

Tanning beds and lamps

Tanning lamps, booths, and beds all use UV radiation to stimulate a tan.

However, the American Academy of Dermatology highlights the link between these methods and skin cancer. It claims that even one session increases the risk. For this reason, health professionals strongly discourage their use.

Tanning pills usually contain large amounts of canthaxanthin, according to the FDA. Canthaxanthin is a food colorant that dyes things a reddish orange.

Manufacturers add canthaxanthin to ketchup and pasta sauces to enrich the color.

Some farmers add canthaxanthin to animal feed, as it colors the skin of broiler chickens, deepens the color of egg yolks, and enhances the appearance of salmon flesh.

Tanning pills promise people tan skin without the risks of UV damage.

However, people need to ingest high doses of the coloring agent to achieve the desired effect. And people taking high doses of canthaxanthin risk potential side effects, including eye and liver damage as well as digestive problems and aplastic anemia. Additionally, their “tan” may look more orange than golden.

The FDA does not approve any tanning pills and advises people to be cautious about taking them.