The Good, the Bad, and the Crazy: Spray Tanning
What you actually need to know.
Updated Jun 20, 2019 2:02 PM
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When I think of spray tans, I immediately think of that iconic Friends episode where Ross messes up the simple tanning machine instructions and ends up tan in the front and pale in the back. Which brings me to my confession: I’m a 32-year-old beauty editor and I just got my first spray tan. I avoided them, worried about a plethora of outcomes: their potential unrealistic look, their Ross-esque user errors, their faux tan smell, their here-today-gone-tomorrow results.
But I took the (tanning) leap with Jules Von Hep, who created his career as a celebrity spray tanner and is now the co-founder of at-home tanning brand Isle of Paradise. 15 (naked) minutes later, I was golden bronzed, barely faux-scented, and kind of head over heels for spray tanning (and Von Hep).
I could muse on about how after four to six hours, my tan developed and I was bronzed to my wildest dream Tahiti beach vacation dreams and it lasted for a week+, but instead, let’s talk about spray tanning 101: How to prep before, what to expect during, and how to maintain your tan afterwards. May the tan tips be with you.
Part of the success of a natural-looking, long-lasting spray tan is all in the prep, and you really do have to follow a few tried-and-true rules.
Exfoliate and Shave (if you want to)
“The golden rules are to exfoliate using an oil-free body polish, in order to remove dead skin cells, and create a uniform surface for the tan to be applied onto,” says Von Hep. I really love the Girl Undiscovered Stint in the Wilderness ($46) body polish, which has enough texture to really, really, really exfoliate, but still isn’t too rough on sensitive skin.
Also, if you’re into hair removal, do it at least 24 hours before your treatment.
This 24-hours-before rule also applies to other self-care treatments that you may have coincidently (or purposely, before a big event) scheduled, like a facial, nails, using hair bleach, or a massage—all can mess up a natural-looking spray tan.
No, really, gotta plan your look around a spray tan because you will NOT want to be wearing certain clothes and colors right afterwards. Von Hep suggests wearing or packing a change of clothes that are dark and loose. As for shoes, he says no flip flops, as they can create lines on your feet. Instead, choose loose sandals (like Birkenstocks) or sneakers tied loosely.
You’ll want to have zero makeup when heading to the treatment as your face will get lightly sprayed. The same goes for after the procedure: You cannot wear liquid makeup (the silicons or oils in it could alter the tan), but you can use translucent powder if you still want some coverage.
Also, a quick note about deodorant and fragrance: no deodorant before your treatment that day, and no fragrance afterwards, as it will leave spritz marks on the tan. Better to avoid. If you’re really missing your go-to perfume, try spraying a little in your hair.
You’ll hydrate the night before—or a few hours ahead of time—but it’s especially important to focus on drier areas of the body like hands, elbows, knees, and feet, because self tanner can pick up color very quickly in those areas, leaving blotches. “These areas can be very problematic due to the skin being drier and more transparent,” says Sophie Evans, St.Tropez Skin Finishing Expert. “The moisturizer will act as a barrier to ensure the tan comes out perfectly even.”
Okay, let’s get to the metaphorical meat of this sandwich—the tanning part. I naively thought I’d be given a disposable swimsuit. But nope, to truly get the best tan you can, you will have to stand naked, with sticky foot stickers (so you don’t stick to the ground, I think), while an expert stands, squats, and kneels around you as you pose in different positions so after about 5-10-15 minutes, you are a bronzed goddess. Is it awkward? Yeah, it can be. I’m not sure I’ve been naked and examined that much in my life. But go to an expert like Von Hep or Evans, whose entire focus is body positivity and making you feel and look your best.
“It’s normal to feel weird,” says Von Hep. “You’re about to get completely butt-naked in front of a stranger who hasn’t bought you dinner—WTF! But don’t panic, it’s just a spray tan.”
If you’re not wanting to get buck naked, no worries at all. Most places have a disposable thong available, and that’s totally fine, too; you should feel your most comfortable. Or, Von Hep says you could even wear a one-piece bathing suit should you prefer it, but just remember that whatever fabric you have on will leave lines on your skin.
What’s Normal v. Not Normal
“Your self-tanner should always be professional,” says Evans. “If he or she ever makes you feel uncomfortable then pack up your things and go!”
Also, just housekeeping rules here, but make sure the salon has a proper lockable door and the room is completely private. “If you don’t feel like it is, SAY something,” says Von Hep. “I’ve heard horror stories of women being spray tanned behind a curtain in a hairdressing salon—honey, no.”
And just because we’re curious, ever wonder what are your tanning expert is thinking while tanning you? “Most of my clients go naked and believe me—spray tanners aren’t judging your body, I promise,” continues Von Hep. Evans agrees: “Just another day on the job!”
Just as your prep was important, your post-treatment is equally as vital to achieving that glowing, bronzed look you’re after.
“You should feel slightly sticky after, your nails and palms should be wiped after application, and if you’re lucky, you should be dried immediately after your appointment (so still sticky but not in any way wet),” says Von Hep.
Next, get dressed with those loose, dark clothes you wore or brought along. “Loose” is a very specific instruction: Do not wear leggings or other activewear. “I shed small tears when I see a client wrestling into activewear after a spray tan,” says Von Hep.
And very importantly, steer clear of water in all its forms: avoid the gym and sweating, getting wet (which does include excessive hand washing), or swimming for the next six to eight hours while your tan is still developing. The rule of thumb is to avoid showering for up to eight hours after your treatment. “The longer you leave it on the skin the longer it will last—same with the shade choice, the darker your shade selection, the longer the tan will last,” says Von Hep.
MAKING IT LAST LONGER
So you’ve got the faux, safe tan you wanted, but do you fear it’s leaving soon? There are a few easy tips to assure that your tan will stick around.
Hydrate that skin with daily moisturizer after your shower to assure your tan lasts as long as possible. “I always tell my clients to moisturize before going to sleep as [their] pores will open up, allowing the hydration to enter the skin,” says Evans.
Von Hep says to also avoid swimming pools, saunas, and super-hot showers, as all encourage your tan to fade quicker.
It may seem counterintuitive, but you’ll want to exfoliate lightly every two to three days. “Exfoliating will prevent any tan or color build up and ensure that your tan is fading evenly,” says Evans.
Faux Tan More
Using a gradual self tanner every few days will boost your glow and natural color even more. Evans loves applying a bit of St. Tropez New Gradual Tan Plus Sculpt and Glow Every Multi-Active Toning Lotion ($35) every few days.
Von Hep suggests using the beloved Isle of Paradise Water ($28) lightly over your face and body every few days (it’s actually the exact same formula that Von Hep uses in his celebrity spray tans!).
Got any tan blotches? Fear not, there are a few quick fixes (take it from me).
“Take a Q-tip and dip into Isle of Paradise Over It ($27), which is made with glycolic acid, and work it lightly around the spot that feels too dark to tease the tan off,” says Von Hep. Why a Q-tip? It’s easier to control in a natural way in a targeted spot, as opposed to a body scrub.
Got a bigger spot you need to DIY remove at home? The quickest way to remove a tan (and you should act fast for at-home application) is baby oil. “Apply baby oil to the darker area and leave for 10 minutes,” says Evans. “This allows the exfoliation to be more effective. Next, scrub the skin with an exfoliator, then buff the skin using a hot damp washcloth.”
Really, really made a mistake and need to remove a tan entirely? (I have been there!) “You can also use lemon juice mixed with baking soda; this will remove the tan entirely,” says Evans. “Saturate the skin then leave for about five minutes. Remove with a cleansing wipe (an exfoliating cleansing wipe is best).”
Everything else you wanted to know about your tan: The Best Way to Get Your Summer Tan, No Beach Required The Tricks to Extending (or Faking!) That Summer Glow The One Hack You Need For Fixing Your Sunless Tanner Mistakes