Everything You Need to Know About Getting a Spray Tan

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Spray tans have a bad rap, and I know this firsthand. Whenever it comes up in conversation and I share that I'm an occasional spray tan customer, I'm met with looks of surprise, bemusement, and even outright distaste. "I would never get a spray tan," is a sentence I've heard multiple times from friends and family. I don't blame them for being off-put. 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. It's 2019, and 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." Keep scrolling to learn everything you'll ever need to know about spray tanning, straight from LA's airbrush tanning expert.

1. All Faux Tan Products Are Formulated With the Same Active Ingredient

Heather Shaw is the owner and creator of Heather Tans, one of LA's top airbrush tanning studios (she's tanned celebs like Mel B., Ronan Farrow, and Ellie Goulding). She's been working as a professional spray tan artist for over 15 years, and as such, knows all the ins and outs of the process, including the science behind it. Here it goes: 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.

So 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). The process, which is called a maillard reaction, involves the DHA interacting with amino acids found in the top layer of the skin, called the stratum corneum. "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. It's these melanoidins that are responsible for the tanning of the skin. "Sometimes I explain it like when you cut an apple and you leave it out and it oxidizes."

2. The Active Ingredient Comes 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. "Some people need 10 milligrams; some people need 15 milligrams; some people need 20 milligrams, right? When you go to a doctor and they prescribe you something, sometimes they have to change your dose based on how you respond. Every body—every human being—has a completely different makeup and chemistry." In regards to DHA, this means that the percentage 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. 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 find out what percentage of DHA works for you is to talk with your spray tan artist ahead of the actual application. Just like you do with a hairstylist ahead of a new cut or color, you should converse with your spray tan artist to ensure you're both on the same page when it comes to your desired level of tan. "My tanning products are 7 percent, 9 percent, 11 percent, and 13 percent," Shaw explains. "Usually it takes about 2 percent of an active strength to raise the level to the point where you’ll see a difference. It’s not like it’s a total crapshoot. I 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. You can totally switch it up."

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!). Think about it: If you're attending a major event, and you want to look and feel your best, you don't want to risk getting a spray tan for the first time just days before—you want to make sure you'll get the result you desire. "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 just enough time for a spray tan to develop and subsequently disappear due the skin's natural exfoliation process.)

3. All Tanning Products Are Clear in Their Pure Form

This one blew my mind a little bit. I'm so used to seeing caramel-colored tanning products that I never really questioned it. The bronze color of the product makes your skin similarly bronze, right? Not so fast. "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."

While the reasoning for adding what is essentially makeup into a tanning solution might differ depending on who you ask, the consensus is that it's added for marketing purposes. 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. That's not necessarily so. 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 since it can temporarily stain the skin. What's more, is that some cosmetic bronzers can stain the skin. "Some people like that because they want to look and feel tan right away, but it’s not necessary. You can get tan with a clear product, and I think that helps prevent over-developed [read: "orangey"] color," she says. "My preference is clear product because it's in its pure form, and it’s just going to be the scientific reaction between the amino acids and the proteins in your skin. In my opinion, you’d help alleviate a lot of the common issues and backlash associated with a spray tan if you take the bronzer component out."

4. Spray Tans Are Completely Inclusive and Customizable

Let's bust a few myths here, shall we? 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." (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.)

All it takes to get the glowy, sun-kissed result you want is a little research and an honest conversation with your spray tan artist of choice. There are way more options when it comes to a spray tan than just the super-dark and bronze look people associate it with. "It’s because of the makeup world, and the advertising, and all these edited photos. It's making people think that this unrealistic color is what they’re supposed to look like. If you’re pale and you get an airbrush tan that looks beautiful on you in person, you’ll have the [natural-looking tan you want] instead of overly spray-tanned skin."

5. A Good Spray Tan Depends on Proper Preparation and After-Care

The first thing you need to do before heading to your spray tan appointment is to exfoliate. "Exfoliating is going to be the main component in preparing for a tan. Make sure you have a fresh layer of skin for the tan to develop. If you have really dry skin, that means you have a lot of dead skin holding on, so when we tan you, the tan is developing on dead and uneven skin, and that can cause an uneven development or a splotchy development. It’s because there’s an uneven surface for the tan to develop; it’s not a blank canvas."

While there are thousands of different products you could use to exfoliate your body, Shaw recommends turning to an age-old method. "My favorite thing to do is go to a steam room because I feel like it opens up the pores and allows for the exfoliation process to be more effortless," she says. If you don't have access to a steam room, take a shower—it'll work just as well. "Take a long hot shower. Come out and grab a dry, rough washcloth, and then use your hands to exfoliate around your body in a circular motion." Not only does this prep the skin for a spray tan, but it also removes remnants of old spray tans. Another good tip is to avoid moisturizer before 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. "You want to prep, shower, exfoliate, shave, and wear comfortable loose-fitting clothing."

Dr. Bronner's Pure Castile Soap $16

After a spray tan, remain in loose-fitting clothing (this gives the solution access to oxygen, which is needed for the tan to develop). Depending on what percentage of DHA is used, you should shower somewhere between six to eight hours. Keep in mind that a higher percentage of DHA means that the resulting tan will develop faster, so the higher the DHA percentage, the sooner you can shower. "If you use a stronger percentage, you can shower sooner. For example, if you use a 13 percent solution, it will respond to your skin quicker, so you can shower within three to four hours. That can be risky because if you’re sensitive to tanning products and it continues to develop, it can look unnatural. That’s why I think the sweet spot is light-to-medium because again, the goal is to look great and glowy and not like you got a spray tan."

When you do shower, make sure you're using 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.

"Some people, when they shower, shower so quickly. They’ll hop in and do a little 360 and quickly dry off, and then they’ll get streaks down their legs and back. The airbrush tanning gun doesn’t spray streaky unless the person uses the equipment incorrectly. If you don’t rinse the bronzer off of you, it might still be on you when water is dripping down, creating a running, streaky look."

Kopari Coconut Melt $28

As for post-spray tan moisturizer, Shaw recommends coconut oil. The most important thing is to remember that whatever you're putting on your skin is affecting the tan, since "the tan lives on the top layer of the skin." As such, Shaw cautions against using any products with glycolic or salicylic acid in them. These are chemical exfoliators, which means they're indirectly expediting the tan's removal.

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

Here's the thing: Getting a spray tan while nude is completely normal. Shaw has spray tanned "tens of thousands" of bodies. To her, like any other professional artist, nudity simply isn't a big deal. In fact, Shaw recommends going fully nude to ensure a perfectly even result. "When you have a tan line, it breaks your body up," she explains.

As someone who has had multiple spray tans, I know for a fact that it's a judgment-free zone. Never once did I feel uncomfortable or uneasy during a spray tan application. If I did, I would have changed studios/artists to find one I was comfortable with. Even so, 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. I think if people wear something on the bottom, it does make them feel more comfortable. Taking your underwear off and going nude can be a little bit much at first. It's something you can move into and get more comfortable with. If it’s your first time and you’re uncomfortable and unsure, have the conversation. It’s a conversation."

Final Thoughts

Reference this information before and after your spray tans. Once you've had enough of them and/or found a specific artist and studio you trust, it becomes much easier to understand what works for you. To discover what works sooner rather than later, 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. This might help alert you to details that help and hinder your spray tan experience.

"That’s how I run my business," Shaw says. "There are notes in everyone’s accounts. We know what you’re tanning for, what you’re tanning with, and we know who’s tanning you. That’s another thing about the airbrush tanning artist—they should be tracking their clients. What did this person tan for? When did they come in? What did they use… and you can even follow up with them the next day. 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."

Next: Read all about how one editor had her skincare routine analyzed by opposing Eastern vs. Western experts.

Ed. note: Quotes have been edited and condensed for clarity.

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