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What is Canthaxanthin?

By Toni Henthorn
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Scientists first discovered canthaxanthin, a common yellow carotenoid pigment, in edible chanterelle mushrooms. The chemical also occurs naturally in crustaceans, carp, green algae, Pacific salmon, and golden mullet. Considered a coloring agent and an antioxidant, canthaxanthin is approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a food additive, in which case only minute amounts are employed.

Some tanning pills incorporate this pigment, which, when ingested, accumulates in the fat layer of the skin and produces a golden hue, simulating a tan. Although canthaxanthin theoretically increases skin resistance to ultraviolet light due to its antioxidant effects, the FDA does not approve the use of this product as a tanning agent or a medicine. The copious amount required to induce a skin-coloring effect has been linked to several side effects, including liver damage, aplastic anemia, and canthaxanthin retinopathy, an ocular condition in which yellow deposits collect in the retina.

Researchers have studied canthaxanthin for use in treating conditions that produce abnormally high levels of irritation and sensitivity to sunlight, including medication-induced photosensitivity, eczema, and erythropoietic protoporphyria, which is a genetic disorder. During the warmer months when patients most often receive more sun exposure, physicians prescribe between 60 to 90 milligrams of canthaxanthin each day. Patients typically use the pills three to five months each year.

Due to its chemical similarity and possible conversion to Vitamin A, patients with allergies to Vitamin A or carotenoids should not take this product. Canthaxanthin is soluble in fat and can be stored in the body for long periods of time. For this reason, as well as its unknown effect on a developing fetus, pregnant women and breast-feeding mothers should refrain from using these pills.

Canthaxanthin can produce unpleasant adverse reactions, including diarrhea, nausea, stomach cramps, and reddish-orange body secretions. It may also lead to the development of an itchy, dry skin rash, known as urticaria, or hives in allergic individuals. Aplastic anemia, a dangerous and potentially fatal condition in which the bone marrow fails to make new blood cells, can occur with the use of these carotenoid pills. Reported in 1989, tanning pill intake induces the reversible deposition of yellow crystals in the retina of the eye, associated with reduced ability of the light-sensitive cells to detect light at lower levels. Considering the potential for liver toxicity along with the other drawbacks of this additive, the FDA issued a health warning in 2003 to all companies that marketed products containing this chemical.

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Discussion Comments
By orangey03 — On Aug 14, 2011

We all know that people who live near the ocean have a higher tolerance for sunlight. Though this is likely due in part to the development of their pigmentation through frequent sun exposure, possibly it has something to do with what they eat as well.

Restaurants and markets near the sea have the best selection of seafood. Since the seafood is so good at these locations, and canthaxanthin occurs naturally in several types of fish and in shrimp, it is safe to say that many people who live near the ocean consume a higher amount of canthaxanthin than those who live inland.

By kylee07drg — On Aug 13, 2011

@seag47 - I had been tempted to try tanning pills, but I have always heard horror stories like your sister’s of people turning the color of carrots after taking them. I eventually made peace with my light skin color.

I find it hard to believe that people will actually risk liver damage to develop a skin color that is perceived as beautiful. I understand that some people have trouble tanning in the sun, but really, any skin color can be beautiful if it is smooth and consistent.

I live in California, the land of the tan. I was actually able to find a support group for fair-skinned people in my town, and several of them shared their tanning pill fiascos. Our general outlook is that creamy white skin is rare, so we should feel special to have it. Also, it is a sign of good health.

By StarJo — On Aug 13, 2011

I have a friend with very white skin who has erythropoietic protoporphyria. It is a mild version of protoporphyria, but still, she is extremely sensitive to sunlight.

Even when indoors, she has to avoid the light coming through the windows. Her skin will turn red, itch, and burn when exposed for just a few minutes to the sun.

Her doctor asked her if she would like to take canthaxanthin pills to control her condition, but she was too afraid of the potential for liver damage. He told her about an ongoing study that suggested dietary fish oils helped control the symptoms, so she decided to simply eat more fish.

By seag47 — On Aug 12, 2011

My sister turned eighteen in 1989, and she decided she wanted to take a tanning pill. She spent years trying to get a tan in the sun, but her fair skin only burned. She had hopes that his pill would change her complexion.

Not long after she started taking it, she turned a strange orange color. The whites of her eyes appeared yellowish, and she refused to leave the house. She drank large amounts of water, trying to flush the stuff out of her system. It took several days, but her color returned to normal. She gave up on tanning after that.

By w00dchuck41 — On Aug 12, 2011

@minthybear19 -- That IS a weird thought. I'm not sure there's anyway to prove or disprove that. There might be a evolutionary connection or something but I'm not a scientist. I can't really say so you'll have to look it up.

Food dyes come from a wide variety of sources -- depending on if they are natural or artificial. Don't worry, canthaxanthin is rarely used in food coloring. It's just used in tanning pills and chicken feed. The FDA has reconfirmed that it's safe as of 2010.

But it's still known to cause liver damage -- so if you are worried about using it, don't. It's as simple as that. As you said -- you can just go outside to get a tan.

By minthybear19 — On Aug 11, 2011

Canthaxanthin is in tanning pills? Wow, I'm definitely reading the ingredients next time. I'm not sure that I like the idea of fish chemicals gathering under my skin -- it's just weird. Let's not mention the liver damage part.

I always wondered how they got yellow food coloring. I assumed it was from a plant -- silly me. Now I'm wondering where they get blue food dye. Blue doesn't exactly appear in nature. Luckily, I can just get a tan naturally outside.

Here's an odd thought – does anyone think that there's a connection between canthaxanthin being in fish and Asians having yellow skin? Most Asian nations (Japan in particular) eat a lot of sea food, so it would make sense to me that they would eventually get yellower skin.

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