Everything You Need to Know About Getting a Spray Tan

Black woman in bathing suit

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Spray tans have a bad rap, and for those of us who have had a bad experience, that's no surprise. Spray tan horror stories are common, and with the orangey type that was made popular in the early-2000s, it only makes sense that people are—shall we say—cautious when it comes to the tanning treatment, especially considering that when most people hear the words "spray tan," they conjure up an image of clunky spray equipment dousing skin with a dripping layer of orange liquid.

That couldn't be further from the truth. Today's spray tans are as subtle and sophisticated as ever. As long as you're choosing a reputable spray tan artist and undergoing the proper preparation and after-care, you'll end up with a natural and beautifully sun-kissed tan. Think: "I just returned from a blissed-out vacation in the Maldives."

Here’s everything you need to know before your first spray tan.

Meet the Expert

All Faux Tan Products Are Formulated With the Same Active Ingredient

Heather Shaw, creator of airbrush tanning studio Heather Tans, says the basis for all spray tans is a single active ingredient called dihydroxyacetone (DHA). No matter what other ingredients are present in a formula, it's DHA that's responsible for the temporary tanning of the skin. "It’s just like how alcohol is the active ingredient in beer, wine, and liquor. Alcohol gives you the effect of being buzzed; Ibprofeun is an active ingredient in Advil that’s going to give you the effect of a fever-reducer. Similarly, dihydroxyacetone gives you the effect of looking tan," Shaw says.

A Chemical Reaction Occurs During Every Spray Tan

While the term "chemical reaction" might sound harmful, it's just the name given to the process of DHA interacting with the skin (in other words, it's much less scary than it sounds). "Basically, DHA responds with the skin’s amino acids, particularly arginine, lysine, histidine, and it forms a variety of brown compounds called melanoidins," Shaw explains. "Sometimes I explain it like when you cut an apple and leave it out and it oxidizes."

Spray Tans Come in Different Strengths

All spray tan products contain the same active ingredient, but that doesn't mean they all contain the same percentage of it. Generally speaking, the higher the percentage of DHA, the quicker (and darker) the spray tan will develop, Shaw likens it to medication. "When you go to a doctor and they prescribe you something, sometimes they have to change your dose based on how you respond."

Spray Tans Are Customizable

Thanks to the chemicals therein, spray tans can be customized by the spray tan artist to accommodate your unique skin and desired result. "The way I explain it is that some people are DHA-sensitive and some people are DHA-resistant," says Shaw. "It’s just like a tolerance level to any other active ingredient, which is why I compare it to things like alcohol or ibuprofen."

The Best Way to Ensure Your Spray Tan Is A Shade You Like is By Speaking to the Expert

The best way to find out what percentage of DHA works for you is to talk with your spray tan artist ahead of the actual application, says Shaw. "I'll ask people questions: 'Would you be more bummed if this developed a little lighter than you wanted or would you be more bummed if it developed darker than you wanted? What is the event you’re tanning for?' Some people switch up the product to give themselves a variable in the development of a tan."

Achieving the Perfect Spray Tan Often Requires Some Trial and Error

Aside from having a conversation with the spray tan artist, another way to decipher which DHA percentage is best for you is through good old trial-and-error. This is especially true if you're planning on getting a spray tan before a big event (brides beware!). "I would recommend a trial tan for a big event, like a wedding," Shaw says. "Come in at least two weeks before."

Two weeks is likely enough time for a spray tan to develop and subsequently disappear due the skin's natural exfoliation process.

All Tanning Products Are Clear in Their Pure Form

"The DHA is colorless," Shaw explains. "It’s clear in its pure form, which means all tanning products are actually clear in their pure form. Tanning companies add a cosmetic bronzer into the tanning solution."

Products That Appear Brown Might Actually Stain Your Clothes or Sheets (Or Skin)

If a consumer doesn't know that DHA is the real tanning ingredient, they'll reach for bronze formulas over clear, since that implies greater efficacy. But Shaw says that it's the cosmetic bronzer that rubs off on your clothes and sheets and leads to a greater potential for streakiness and splotchiness. "You can get tan with a clear product, and I think that helps prevent over-developed [read: "orangey"] color," she says.

Some cosmetic bronzers can stain the skin, so take note of how your skin reacts to a spray tan before booking your next appointment.

Spray Tans Are Inclusive

Spray tans are meant for everyone—no matter your skin tone or preconceived notions. "I’ve tanned everyone... it’s about that extra glow, it’s about that extra confidence. It’s not necessarily about being darker… it works on everyone’s skin. A tan fits everyone," says Shaw. (However, it's important to note that a tan certainly isn't necessary for confidence—it's just an option should you want to add a bit of warmth to your existing skin tone.)

Exfoliating Before a Spray Tan Will Make All the Difference

The first thing you need to do before heading to your spray tan appointment is to exfoliate. "Exfoliation is key to getting the best results off of your self tanner," Brittney Bennett, owner of Be Bronze Studios, says. "Exfoliation helps remove dead skin cells, which then reveals the fresh skin underneath. This fresh skin is primed and ready to absorb the spray tan solution evenly and deeply. This means that you’ll have a more even tan for longer."

You Should Avoid Using Lotions Or Showering Before Undergoing a Spray Tan

"Lotions and oils can act as a repellent to the tan. It’s acting like a film that prevents the tanning solution from reacting with the amino acids on the skin," Shaw cautions.

Ditch the razors with the moisturizing strips right before a spray-tan. Those strips have the potential to create a barrier on your skin, which will not allow the self tanner to settle properly and therefore create streaks.

As Bennett knows, showering can also be hazardous: "Nobody wants those pesky black dots on your legs. This happens due to your follicles opening and the bronzer settles in there to create the black dots for about a week. If you must shower before I suggest a cold water rinse only." Instead, exfoliate outside of the shower, using a mitt like the Ayate Bath Strip ($13).

You Don't Have to Go Nude If You're Uncomfortable

A spray-tan salon is a judgment-free zone, but if going fully nude sounds a tad scary, you can wear a bathing suit or underwear. "Some people think tan lines are sexy, and that’s great, just make sure you’re getting the exact tan line you want," Shaw says. "I think if people wear something on the bottom, it does make them feel more comfortable."

Use Soap When You Shower After A Spray Tan

After a spray tan, remain in loose-fitting clothing. Depending on what percentage of DHA is used, you should shower somewhere between six to eight hours after and use soap. (Believe it not, some people avoid it altogether after a spray tan, which is simply not necessary—Shaw likes Dr. Bronner's due to its natural and effective formula). After washing with it, rinse your whole body and sponge away any dripping water after you step out. This will prevent those icky runs from appearing on your legs and back.

Dr. Bronner's Pure Castile Soap $16.00

Moisturize With Coconut Oil After

Post-tan, Shaw recommends coconut oil which will preserve the tan. As she explains, "the tan lives on top of the skin," so keeping skin well-moisturized will ensure the tan stays even.

Kopari Coconut Melt $29.00

A Good Spray Tan Expert Will Do Their Due Diligence—And So Should You

Once you've had enough spray tans or found a specific artist and studio you trust, it becomes much easier to understand what works for you. Try taking notes on your phone before and after each spray tan, noting what products you used, how long you waited to shower, what DHA percentage the artist used, etc.

"That’s how I run my business," Shaw says. "There are notes in everyone’s accounts — What did this person tan for? When did they come in? What did they use… There isn’t an exact formula that’s going to give everyone the perfect spray tan every time. It’s a variable of all of these details. Each person has to find what works for them. Tan line or no tan line? Shower sooner or later? Coconut oil or lotion? Once you find your perfect spray tan equation, you'll be surprised at how easy it is to look and feel more radiant."

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