Spray Tanning: All Your Questions Answered

I’ve been getting a lot of questions about spray tanning so I thought I’d write a post and compile all the information in one place.

For years, I’ve gotten a spray tan before warm weather vacations, but I never did them regularly until this spring. When my skin returned to its pale winter state after my Florida trip in March, I decided to start getting weekly spray tans until I was able to tan naturally.

Regular spray tanning definitely takes a bit of extra maintenance, but I love the result.

EDITED TO ADD: I am not asking for anyone’s approval or permission here. I’m just sharing what I do, for those who have asked. Feel free to take it or leave it.

Also, if you are not interested in spray tanning, you may like this post all about my favorite at-home self tanning products!

What Type Of Spray Tan Is Best?

There are a few different options if you want to get a spray tan. You can go to one of the spray tanning booths where the machine sprays you, or you can go to a salon where a real live human administers the spray tan.

The human version is far superior because they can customize the tan to accommodate your unique skin and desired result. A good spray tan artist knows how to apply the tan to look natural – heavier to areas that tend to get darker, and lighter to the areas that don’t always see as much sun. And they will usually brush you off at the end with a light dusting of powder that helps it dry naturally and not crease in unfortunate spots.

How Does Spray Tanning Work?

All spray tan products contain the same active ingredient, dihydroxyacetone (DHA for short.) The DHA interacts with your skin’s amino acids, and gives you a tanned appearance over a period of a few hours. I’ve heard it likened to how apple slices oxidize and turn brown when they’re left out on the counter.

DHA is colorless, but tanning companies often add a cosmetic bronzer to the tanning solution so the spray tan artist can see how the tan will look when it develops.

The bronzer washes off and does not stain clothing or bedsheets, but I usually wear dark colored clothes while I’m waiting for the tan to set, just in case.

My spa also has a tanning formula without the bronzer, if I don’t want to look like an Oompa-Loompa all afternoon, but they prefer to use the one with bronzer because it’s easier to get an idea of the end result.

How Long Does a Spray Tan Last?

A spray tan lasts up to two weeks, but it starts looking grungy after 5-7 days, so going weekly has been working well for me.

You can use a tan extender or self tanning lotion to prolong it a bit.

How Do You Prep for a Spray Tan?

You want to lotion regularly on the days leading up to your spray tan, but not the morning of the spray tan. It’s very important to exfoliate and shave the day before your spray tan to prep the skin so it will absorb the spray tan solution evenly and deeply.

You don’t want to exfoliate and shave the day of the tan because it leaves your follicles open for the bronzer to settle into and create dark brown dots on your legs.

Do not apply any lotion or deodorant the morning of your tan. If you want, you can take a quick cold water rinse the morning of the tan to wash off sweat or residual lotions. (Lotions and oils act as a repellent to the tan.)

I’ve also been using this sunless tan remover. I apply it right before I go in to have my next spray tan, so I don’t have as much residual tan on my skin. I get better results with a blank slate.

The Spray Tan Process and What To Wear

If you’re going to a spray tan artist for the first time, she will ask you about the type of results you want, and you can discuss any of your questions or concerns.

The benefit of going regularly to the same person is she learns your preferences and how your skin reacts to her tanning solutions. She has a lot of control over the depth of color and the placement.

Everyone always wants to know what to wear to get a spray tan. You can certainly wear a bathing suit, or you can wear underwear, or nothing. Just make sure whatever you wear gives you tan lines you don’t mind having.

She will take you into a private room, discuss the process and give you basic instructions, and then she will step out while you get undressed. You stand in a little booth and she manually sprays you down. She will direct you on how to stand and position your body for the best results. When she’s done, she should offer to apply some powder that helps it dry more naturally.

You can get dressed right away, but you do feel sticky for a few hours, and you want to wear loose clothing afterwards because anywhere there is friction can prevent the tan from developing nicely.

Spray Tan After Care

After a spray tan, I like to remain in loose-fitting clothing until time to shower, if I can. You usually have to wait 8 hours to shower, but they often have a rapid tanning formula they can use if you have somewhere to go. That one develops in more like 4 hours.

When it’s time to shower, you can use soap (anything but Dove; there is something in it that counteracts the tan) but I don’t use a wash cloth or any type of exfoliating mitt or loofah because it will cause the tan to fade any faster. Be sure to rinse your whole body thoroughly, and gently pat dry (do not rub) with a bath towel.

The more you shower and use soap, the faster the tan will fade, so I always keep that in mind and try not to shower daily. When I do, I keep them short and sweet.

Because I wash my face morning and night, the spray tan usually fades faster than it does on the rest of my body, so I use these tanning drops for my face so they match my skin even when I’m not wearing makeup.

Is Spray Tanning Safe?

This article from the Cleveland Clinic explains the potential concerns with spray tanning, so you can make up your own mind on that.

In general, spray tanning is not considered nearly as hazardous to your health as using tanning beds, and some would say it’s better than tanning in the “real” sun, but the jury is out on that. I refuse to believe the sun is the evil that it has been made out to be, but of course, too much of it can cause premature aging.

If You Prefer Tanning at Home

You can certain get a good result at home, if you don’t want to deal with the spray tanning process. I’ve always been a fan of the Clarins Gel for a buildable tan, but lately I’ve been using Dolce Glow products, and I’m very happy with them. (See more in THIS POST.)

Okay, I think that about covers it! I’m happy to answer any other questions you may have in the comments.

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14 Responses

  1. What does it look like as it fades or as you said looks ‘grungy’? Can you please go into more specific details on that look? Sometimes I’m away for more than 1 week and I don’t want to look like a peeling lizard halfway through my trip! Thank you.

  2. Great tips…..I did it after I saw that you were doing it 🙂 and thought I’d do it all summer but once I started getting just a tad of color on the legs from being outside more I stopped.

    Jen….to me it wasn’t that bad as it starts to fade it may not fade evenly and that’s why I think Jolynne describes it as grungy. For me it would last about 10 days and I would want to have it redone. I would do it again if I was going on a winter vacation to warm weather place (even if the vacation was a long vacation). I did my first tan late afternoon and glad I did then as Jolynne mentioned the time frame for development.

  3. I hesitated before commenting but here goes😉
    For me personally, this is just a bridge too far for the sake of looks/beauty. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no purist. I do SNS nails and, until recently, had a regular hair color treatment ( stopped as a test, might go back if I hate it).
    But I just can’t see spending extra for organic products, cutting out my beloved Diet Coke, watching my sugar consumption etc to having a “cleaner” diet and then also having chemicals sprayed all over my skin.
    I just can’t help thinking a little natural color with a combination of sunscreen and shade is the wiser option. No disrespect intended toward those who make a different choice

  4. Oh my, in my younger days the going thing and the only thing available was a product called Q-t or Quick Tan which made you a lovely shade of orange and we would also bake ourselves in the sun with baby oil laced with a little iodine, no sunscreen was even thought of. I’m fortunate that I haven’t had any skin cancer but do have sun damage. So I just go with may yardwork tan now. Those were the days!

  5. I love a good airbrush spray tan and I get them throughout the summer. Like Jo-Lynne, I have someone spray me with an organic compound that “tans” my skin. I wear thong underwear and nothing on top. I usually dry-brush and exfoliate the day before my spray and I keep up with lotions after and sometimes I’ll use a sunless tanner to prolong the effect. Where I go, the airbrush spray happens in a special booth fitted with an exhaust system. I keep my eyes closed and my lips sealed. When the spray is over (it takes about 5 minutes) I use the warm air from the airbrush spray hose to dry my body off. I don’t mind the thong “tan” lines, only my husband sees it – well my husband my the Dr. who performed my routine colonoscopy last week. I asked that my spray tan be a little darker on my tush last time so to give the Colonoscopy procedure crew something to marvel at, along with my clean colon 🙂

    1. This made me laugh! My Northern European ancestry and 80’s childhood left me with multiple skin biopsies, a few skin cancer surgeries and a close relationship with a dermatologist since my early 20’s. Gone are the days of enjoying time outside, no matter how much sunscreen I use (which I apply daily). I wish I could embrace my fair skin but it’s also scarred. Getting regular (light) spray tans has allowed me to feel more confident. My dermatologists have never commented or given me reason to worry. They’re thrilled that I take precautions and care of my skin. As with any topic around aging and beauty, I believe women have the ability to do their research and the right to do what makes them feel their best.

  6. Good informative post Jo- Lynne. I’m too afraid of the chemicals and inhaling them too. I use only “Clean” make up and skin care and eat clean so I know I’d schedule an apt for a tan and cancel. Lol. This is the 3 rd year I’ve ordered sunless lotion to put on and then chicken out. I end up throwing it away. Once I get outside doing yard work etc I get alittle sun and it’s enough for me. It only takes alittle color on my legs to help. I wish I could start over on my teenage skin. The sunscreen in my day were spf 4,6 and 8. I was a lifeguard each summer and we’ve owned a boat, so too much sun. I’ve only had one basil cell spot I’ve had to have taken off so fortunate. My adult kids have more infor on how to care for their skin. I took care of theirs while young.

  7. Thank you so much for this post! I have never been to any kind of tanning salon, had a spray tan, etc. I long ago understood the dangers of a tanning bed & never wanted to do that, but have recently been wondering about spray tans. I did not know anything about the process, chemicals, or upkeep before your post. After reading it, I don’t think it’s for me primarily because of the care involved in maintaining it. You’ve really helped me make a decision I needed to make, so thank you!

  8. This is so informative! Thank you! I am naturally very very pale, but love to have a tan. My “sister” (I’m an only child, but some people I grew up with are like family) used to own a tanning salon, and I’ll admit I miss the tanning bed. The warmth helped my aches and pains so much. I’ve been looking to purchase a spray tan set up, but haven’t actually done so yet. I shower twice a day, so it would be too expensive to keep up with it professionally. But yes, I feel so much better with a tan!

  9. Jo-Lynne – I actually have a question about the tanning drops you mentioned for your face. I seem to remember you mentioning melasma on your face (which I also suffer from)…don’t the tanning drops cause your melasma to get even darker? I had tried that ST. Tropez face spray and found that to be the case…

  10. I saw this post late. I was sprayed tan once. I was going to the beach and wanted to look tanned already. At the hotel, I went in the pool. This was the next day after the spray tan. I had streaks everywhere. I looked like a snake and I had to scrub it off. Did I just get a bad quality spray?

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