DHA In All Its Forms (Technical)

Answering some common health questions about DHA

DHA In Recent News

The abbreviation DHA is shared by a number of chemical compounds. The two most common are dihydroxyacetone, the sunless tanning agent known as DHA, and Docosahexanoic Acid, an important Omega 3 fatty acid also known as DHA.

Omega 3 fatty acids are touted for their heart healthy benefits, with claimed favorable impacts on cholesterol and arterial plaque, and as an anti-inflammatory. Some claim that many age related conditions, such as arthritis, arise from inflammatory processes. Omega 3 fatty acids include the aforementioned docosahexanoic acid (DHA), eicosapentanoic acid (EPA), and alpha-lenolenic acid (ALA). DHA and EPA are found in cold-water fish. ALA is found in plant sources such as walnuts and flax seed. There is a large volume of Omega-3 supplements sold in the health food industry.

While the term "food grade" should not be applied to DHA (tanning), did the recent ABC report on spray tanning miss the mark on the internal use of DHA? The following sections elaborate:

DHA and the FDA

First, the FDA has regulatory authority over colorants in cosmetics. In fact, there is a very short list of colorants approved for this purpose. DHA is an approved cosmetic colorant only for EXTERNAL application. Application to mucous membranes, such as may be encountered on the lips, the eye area, or nostrils is not approved. Spray tanning application in these areas should be avoided and obviously inhalation should be avoided.

The FDA now recommends that protective devices and products be used to protect the eyes, nose, and lips and to guard against inhalation or ingestion risk. If handheld spray equipment is used, the author would add that an effective ventilation system and proper equipment and application procedures should also be viewed as required measures. The right spray gun adjustments, proper technique, and especially a good ventilation system can eliminate the vast majority of overspray exposure for both client and technician, minimizing inhalation risks. Overspray reduction should be regarded as the first line of defense. The FDA required measures should be regarded as the last line of defense. Implementing both will provide a much safer environment for both operator and client.

Second, let's pose the following question. Does the external restriction on DHA (dihydroxyacetone) as a cosmetic colorant preclude its use in a food supplement? Supplements, like cosmetics, are relatively unregulated -- they can't make drug claims or they would be subject to pre-approval by the FDA.

In the 1990's some research was done promoting pyruvate for things such as weight loss and athletic performance. Combining pyruvate with creatine or DHA (dihydroxyacetone) was thought to improve its efficacy. So, it was quite common in that era for supplements to be sold with DHA (the type used in tanning not the omega3 kind) that would be ingested. Pyruvate supplements are still quite common, although the evidence in favor of using pyruvate is not very strong. The author found some pyruvate supplements still listed on the web that added DHA (dihydroxyacetone), but they were out of stock. So, it may be that this particular formulation has faded from use. But from what can be gathered, it appears that DHA was sold for ingestion at the same time that it was under regulatory restriction as a colorant in cosmetics for external use only.

More Confusion

As an amusing side note, one Chinese supplier promotes its DHA both for sunless tanning and as a pig feed additive. Combined with pyruvate, the feed would have the objective of producing a leaner carcass. The Chinese are the world's largest consumers of pork.

To add to the confusion, the DHA and pyruvate combination sold in supplements is known as DHAP, the same acronym as another combination of DHA to be discussed below.


Finally, the most important DHAP, dihydroxyacetone phosphate, will be covered. For a cell to use glucose, it must be broken down by glycolysis. DHAP is a critical intermediate compound in the glycolysis metabolic pathway. So, DHAP is found throughout the body. Pyruvate, discussed above is also produced by the glycolysis metabolic pathway.


So, it would seem that DHA is a relatively non-toxic compound, especially in the DHAP form found throughout the body. But it is quite reactive with certain amino acids, as witnessed by its ability to "tan" skin, and this particular cosmetic attribute may give rise to some concerns. Clearly, inhalation should be avoided. The outer layer of the skin, the strateum corneum in particular, is normally a good barrier. Future articles will examine, in depth, issues such as DHA skin penetration and reaction products on the skin and their safety implications. Measures to improve product safety will also be examined. As a spoiler alert, it will be shown that some simple formulation steps along with inhalation protection makes DHA a safe way to get a tan.