TikTok: Baby Oil & Iodine Tanning
By Carlos Franco — August 04, 2022.
Twitter: @itstechnical_cf | Glasp: @CarlosCFranco | BuyMeACoffee: @CarlosCFranco
Disclaimer: The information in this article is not intended as medical advice. It is for educational purposes only.
- Baby Oil (mineral oil)
- Iodine (topical iodine)
- Ultra-Violet UV (UVA, UVB)
- TikTok Trend
- Skin Cancer (non-melanoma, melanoma)
While scrolling through TikTok, a video came across my feed that was a ‘Stitch’ video (a video about another video) from user @addiewilsonbby. In her video, @addiewilsonbby is responding to @mmaurakimm’s video, where she can be seen concocting a mixture of Johnson’s Baby Oil with some topical iodine and then applying the homemade tanning oil to her body as she sunbathes. @addiewilsonbby’s video ends with her asking her mother, “Mom, what did you use to tan with that gave you skin cancer?” Her mother replies, “Baby oil and iodine.”
- @addiewilsonbby’s video captioned, “Ran down the stairs open mouth breathing,” was posted on July 29, 2022, and as of August 1, has received 110K ❤️ and 477 comments.
- @mmaurakimm’s video captioned “Highly Recommended!!” was posted on July 27 and has received 20.6K ❤️ and 656 comments.
These videos caught my attention because I am a former contractor for the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Information Service (NCI-CIS) through Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center.
While I am no longer affiliated with either organization or represent them, I wanted to write this article to help disseminate some of the credible and evidence-based information they have on the subject.
Recreational sun tanning, also known as “sunbathing,” began gaining popularity in the late 1800s. Medical professionals viewed the concept of getting a suntan as healthy due to their limited understanding of the dangers of ultraviolet light (UV) exposure. Tanning was promoted as a medical cure, which helped propel the activity to become mainstream by the 1920s (1).
However, it was “demonstrated that ultraviolet wavelengths caused erythema [redness] of the skin” as early as 1858, and by 1900, several “uncommon dermatologic [skin] conditions related to sun exposure” had been discovered (2). By the 1930s, the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) warned consumers not to use sunlamps without medical supervision, and UV radiation was widely regarded as a carcinogen (2).
But it was too late. By 1929, fashion magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar had gone from zero advertisements promoting a tanned appearance in 1920 to nearly 80 advertisements promoting a tanned appearance using makeup, stockings, and swimwear (3). Around this time, the tanning products and lotions industry also began to emerge.
Vacationing and traveling had become widely accessible to the middle class by the 1950s, and the “vacation tan” symbolized affluence and status (4). By the 1960’s magazines like Mademoiselle regularly printed articles about tanning with instructions on how to tan, the best time of day to tan, and rotating positions aptly dubbed “the rotisserie method.”
“Indeed, fanatical sunbathers engaged in all sorts of strategies to optimize tanning, including coating themselves in a mixture of baby oil and iodine, rubbing their skin with salt, and wearing aluminum reflectors around their necks” (4).
What do we know about baby oil and iodine?
Both baby oil and iodine are classified as over-the-counter (OTC) consumer products, meaning the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has deemed them safe to sell without a prescription from a doctor (5). This designation, however, is not a blanket endorsement of the product’s safety in every conceivable use-case scenario. Instead, it refers to something specific.
“The new drug approval and OTC Drug Review processes play an essential role in ensuring that OTC drugs are both safe and effective for their intended uses (6)… For example, OTC sunscreen drug products can be legally marketed if they contain ingredients which comply with the standards established in the OTC sunscreen monograph for formulation, labeling, and testing (7).”
Iodine is a substance found in nature that acts as a micronutrient when consumed in the recommended daily allowance (RDA) amount. If consumed over the RDA, iodine can be toxic, causing various health effects ranging from mild symptoms to long-term health problems such as thyroid issues and cancer (10). It is also a topical antiseptic for minor injuries such as cuts, scrapes, and burns (8,9).
When applied topically, it can temporarily discolor or stain the skin it comes in contact with. Some people have had a sensitivity or “allergy” to topical iodine. Still, a 2021 review of the literature on the subject found that the reaction was probably caused by another compound (11).
A National Institutes of Health (NIH) Factsheet on Iodine can be found here: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iodine-Consumer/
Baby Oil (mineral oil)
Johnson & Johnson lists the ingredients of their Johnson’s baby oil product as “Mineral oil, Fragrance” (12). Looking up the Sesame Street baby oil product on NIH’s DailyMed website, the same two ingredients are listed, “Active Ingredient: Mineral Oil (99.5); Inactive Ingredient: Fragrance” (13). But what exactly is mineral oil?
The US Food and Drug Administration lists the Unique Ingredient Identifier or UNII: T5L8T28FGP for the Preferred Substance Name: MINERAL OIL (along with 36 ‘Synonyms and Mappings’) (14).
“[The] UNII is [an]…alphanumeric identifier linked to a substance’s molecular structure or descriptive information by the Substance Registration System (15).”
Essentially, mineral oil is a term for mineral hydrocarbon substances produced from naturally occurring crude petroleum oil (16). What distinguishes these substances apart is the quality of the original crude oil used and the degree and process of their refinement (16).
“White” or “light” mineral oils have been used in pharmaceuticals, food, and cosmetics since the 1800s (17).
“Formulas for baby oils, creams and lotions, bath oils, lipsticks and lip gloss, sunscreens, hair products and make-up bases and removers are composed of Mineral Oil, USP or Light Mineral Oil, NF in concentrations ranging from less than 1 to approximately 99%” (17).
Health concerns about the exposure and consumption of mineral oils have been studied. A toxicology review completed in 1996 found that “…there is no evidence of any hazard identified for topical exposure to white mineral oils at any dose in multiple species” (17). The risk appears to be limited to industrial exposures and “untreated” and “mildly treated” mineral oils (18).
So what exactly is the risk?
First and foremost, no method or amount of sun tanning is safe.
“The sun, sunlamps, and tanning booths all give off ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Exposure to UV radiation causes early aging of the skin and damage that can lead to skin cancer” (19).
When skin is exposed to UV light, it makes more melanin to protect itself from further harm from UV radiation. This increase in skin pigment (color), which makes your skin look tanned, is a sign that it has been damaged (20).
Using baby oil and iodine as homemade sun tan oil is dangerous for various reasons. Using these products in this manner falls outside their intended uses; iodine is a topical antiseptic, and baby oil is a skin moisturizer. When combined, the iodine functions as a dye, while the mineral oil aids in distributing the pigment over a large area. The baby oil also acts as a magnifying glass, and the dye as a light absorber, amplifying the amount of UV exposure (21,22).
What can I do instead?
Alternatives to sun tanning or indoor tanning (lamps, booths, and beds) exist. However, they, too, carry risks.
Sunless tanning works by applying a chemical, dihydroxyacetone or DHA, to the skin, which reacts with amino acids in the cells and darkens them simulating a tan (23,24). Some people have reported rashes as a side effect of sunless tanning products. Coughing, dizziness, and passing out have also been related to spray tanning booths (23).
“DHA should not be inhaled, ingested, or exposed to areas covered by mucous membranes including the lips, nose, and areas in and around the eye (from the top of the cheek to above the eyebrow) because the risks, if any, are unknown” (25).
Bronzers achieve the appearance of a tan by covering the skin with a layer of pigment, sometimes in addition to chemically altering the skin’s surface (25).
“[A]mong the products marketed as bronzers are tinted moisturizers and brush-on powders. These produce a temporary effect, similar to other types of makeup, and wash off over time. Some products are marketed with other ingredients in addition to DHA in order to provide a tanned appearance” (25).
Aside from the already mentioned risks, sunless tanners and bronzers offer no protection from UV exposure. Also worth noting is that neither of these products is “defined in either the laws or regulations enforced by the FDA” (23). However, the regulations for the uses and restrictions of these products can be found in the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) Title 21, Code of Federal Regulations (21 CFR), beginning at Part 70.
When you take tanning pills, you consume a high concentration of food-grade color additives, which then tints your skin tone (26). The most common of these additives is canthaxanthin, a carotenoid (pigment) found naturally in yellow, orange, and red plants.
“Although canthaxanthin is approved by FDA for use as a color additive in foods, where it is used in small amounts, its use in so-called tanning pills is not approved. Imported tanning pills containing canthaxanthin are subject to automatic detention as products containing unsafe color additives” (26).
A common side effect of taking tanning pills is canthaxanthin-induced retinopathy, a condition where excess canthaxanthin gets deposited in the eye and begins forming crystals (26). Other side effects include nausea, cramping, diarrhea, severe itching, and welts.
Is there more tanning information I should know?
Yes! Please visit the following recommended sites to learn more about the topics covered in this article and what you can do to protect yourself from UV skin damage and skin cancer:
- The Risks of Tanning (FDA.gov)
- Tanning Products (FDA.gov)
- Sun Safety | Skin Cancer (CDC.gov)
- Skin Cancer Prevention (PDQ®)–Patient Version (Cancer.gov)
- Risk Factors: Sunlight (Cancer.gov)
- Anyone Can Get Skin Cancer (Cancer.gov)
- 10 Surprising Facts About Indoor Tanning (AAD.org)
See a list of the key highlights from the sources consulted and cited in this article on Glasp using the following link; or by searching the tag: #H1 Baby oil & iodine from the search bar on Glasp’s landing page.
- Accessed on August 1, 2022. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12789184/
- Accessed on August 1, 2022. https://digitalcommons.pepperdine.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1090&context=plr
- Accessed on August 1, 2022. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2775759/
- Accessed on August 1, 2022. https://books.google.ie/books?id=aRsjKWpT93IC&pg=PA20&dq=1970s+malibu+barbie+tan&hl=en&sa=X&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=1970s malibu barbie tan&f=false
- Accessed on August 2, 2022. https://medlineplus.gov/overthecountermedicines.html
- Accessed on August 2, 2022. https://www.fda.gov/drugs/enforcement-activities-fda/over-counter-otc-drugs-branch-otc-drug-review
- Accessed on August 2, 2022. https://www.fda.gov/about-fda/center-drug-evaluation-and-research-cder/regulatory-mechanisms-marketing-otc-drug-products
- Accessed on August 2, 2022. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002421.htm
- Accessed on August 2, 2022. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK80212/
- Accessed on August 2, 2022. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK560770/
- Accessed on August 2, 2022. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33547463/
- Accessed on August 2, 2022. https://www.johnsonsbaby.com/baby-products/johnsons-baby-oil#ingredients
- Accessed on August 2, 2022. https://dailymed.nlm.nih.gov/dailymed/drugInfo.cfm?setid=a236ddd3-f73c-4584-afed-6d056f2ea66d
- Accessed on August 2, 2022. https://precision.fda.gov/uniisearch/srs/unii/T5L8T28FGP
- Accessed on August 2, 2022. https://www.hipaaspace.com/medical_billing/coding/unique.ingredient.identifier/t5l8t28fgp
- Accessed on August 2, 2022. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK304428/
- Accessed on August 2, 2022. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/0278691595001069
- Accessed on August 3, 2022. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/substances/mineral-oils
- Accessed on August 3, 2022. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/sunlight
- Accessed on August 3, 2022. https://www.fda.gov/radiation-emitting-products/tanning/risks-tanning
- Accessed on August 3, 2022. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-magnifying-effect-of-a-water-drop/#:~:text=The result is a larger magnification. Changing the shows a surface that is slightly bent inward
- Accessed on August 3, 2022. https://www.chem.purdue.edu/jmol/cchem/color.html#:~:text=When atoms or compounds absorb light of the,in the proportions in sunlight%2C as white light
- Accessed on August 3, 2022. https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/cosmetic-products/sunless-tanners-bronzers
- Accessed on August 3, 2022. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28823805/
- Accessed on August 3, 2022. https://www.fda.gov/radiation-emitting-products/tanning/tanning-products
- Accessed on August 3, 2022. https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/cosmetic-products/tanning-pills
Carlos is a technical and medical freelance writer specializing in online education content. Copyright© 2022, 2023. All rights reserved.