Can a Pill Really Make You Tan? We Investigate

Blue and white pills over a red background


Tom Eversley/EyeEm/Getty

Like most good beauty editors, a lot of people at Byrdie have shunned the sun. It's not that we don't love the warmth, but no matter how much sunscreen we put on we'll never be safe from those harmful UV rays. Still, for many of us, that leaves a longing for the golden glows of our sun-filled, misguided youths. Because of that, we’ll try it all—spray tans, sunless tanners, and even pills. Yeah, people are actually taking pills to make their skin tanner; they have been for a while. We know what you’re thinking: Can it be true? Does it actually work? Is it safe? We had all of these questions too, so we started digging.

What Is It?

Tanning pills contain canthaxanthin, a naturally occurring chemical found in several plants and animals. More commonly, it's a color additive used to give foods a red or orange tint. It’s food coloring, pretty much. If you see Food Orange 8 or Red 10 on the ingredients list for your salad dressing or anything else, you’re eating canthaxanthin.

How Does It Work?

Canthaxanthin colors food, but can it do the same for skin? Well yeah, and it works the same way. Because canthaxanthin dissolves in lipids, which make up the tissue directly below the epidermis, the color attaches the cells under your skin and gives it a darker orange-brown tint.

Does It Work?

Do tanning pills really make you tan? Not instantly, the dye needs to build up, but after consistent use, you’ll see results. And the same waiting period applies if you decide you’ve over-done it. After you stop taking the pill, it will take time for your skin to shed the orange. To be clear, though, it's more orange than brown—melanin, which dictates your skin color, has nothing to do with this process. As we said before, it's food coloring. You're (temporarily) dying your skin with food coloring.

Is It Safe?

Just because it works for the most part and is fine to ingest when inside the foods we eat, doesn’t mean you should start popping canthaxanthin-packed tanning pills just yet. Yes, the FDA has approved the use of canthaxanthin in foods, but the amount used in these pills is significantly more than what’s added to food. And that's where it gets more than a little bit hairy.

If you think the idea of ingesting massive amounts of food coloring sounds a little questionable, you’d be absolutely correct. These pills have been around for a while, and it doesn't look like the FDA is approving them for use any time soon. The prevalence of adverse side effects (like the depositing of crystals in eyes and the development of welts) is well-documented. So well-documented, in fact, that it's been causing companies to withdraw from even trying for FDA approval. So while we love an easy tan, we're probably going to have to pass on this one—it's just a little too risky for our tastes.

Article Sources
Byrdie takes every opportunity to use high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. Garone M, Howard J, Fabrikant J. A review of common tanning methodsJ Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2015;8(2):43-47.

  2. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Tanning pills. Updated August 24, 2020.

Related Stories