As we’ve started to learn more about how damaging the sun’s rays truly are, the use of artificial tanner has become a popular way to get a sun-kissed glow without risking UV damage. While I fully support artificial tanner as a safer alternative to UV tanning, it’s not something I’ve personally experimented with much.
I wanted to learn more about the best way to use self-tanner while keeping the skin healthy and happy, so for answers, I turned to two self-tanning experts who are also personal friends of mine.
Meet the Experts
Tamra Dae is a sought-after spray tan artist who began spraying A-list clients at a salon in Beverly Hills when she was just nineteen. In 2012, she started her own successful freelance spray tan business. Clients consistently seek Tamra out for the natural look she achieves as well as her attention to detail. Tamra, who has a history of psoriasis, noticed that many of her clients had sensitive or reactive skin. This inspired her to create her own sunless tanning product, PRIVÉ SUNLESS, a revolutionary clear self-tan mousse.
Kirbie Johnson is co-host of the Gloss Angeles Podcast (listen to my episode here!) as well as a fellow Texas girl and beauty junkie. Kirbie was one of the first people in the salon space to become certified as an airbrush tanner. When she moved to L.A. in 2009, she worked at Sunless Studio where she sprayed everyone from celebrities and news personalities to coworkers.
What is Self Tanner? Is it Safe?
The ingredient used in sunless tanner that gives skin a bronzed look is called dihydroxyacetone (DHA). When applied topically, DHA reacts with amino acids in the top layer of your skin to change the color and mimic a tan. DHA is commonly sourced from plants such as sugar cane or sugar beets through a fermentation process. It can also be derived chemically to create a synthetic version.
Dermatologists generally consider DHA a safe alternative to UV tanning, as long the product is used as directed. There’s some debate as to whether or not DHA can penetrate the skin, but no studies have been able to confirm this to date.
Tamra says that while DHA is considered safe to apply topically it should not be ingested, so be sure to keep your mouth and eyes closed while getting a spray tan.
Can I Use Self-Tanner if I’m Pregnant?
For clients who are pregnant or breastfeeding, Tamra suggests avoiding the nipples and areolas. The American Pregnancy Association notes that some physicians encourage women to wait until after the first trimester to start using tanning products, just to be safe. If you are pregnant, try patch testing self-tanning product, even if you’ve used it before. Your skin may be more sensitive during this time.
What’s the Best Self-Tanner to Use? What Should You Look For in a Formula?
Self-tanners have come a long way since they first became popular, and the formulas have become a lot more sophisticated. Sunless tanning products are starting to include ingredients that are also nourishing and beneficial for the skin.
This is a big deal to Tamra, who believes self-tanner should double as skincare.
“When I created PRIVÉ SUNLESS,” Tamra says, “my motto was ‘good for your skin.’ A lot of my clients have highly sensitive or reactive skin, just like me, and I wanted to create a product they could comfortably use. To achieve this, I focused on using natural ingredients and I removed all the bronzers. There’s definitely a learning curve with clear tanner, but it’s more gradual and buildable than formulas with bronzers. There’s also no added staining of the skin that hangs on in weird areas like with many self-tanners. I added soothing elements like aloe, sage leaf extract, and chamomile to my formula. I believe self-tanner should be just as much skincare as it is a beauty product.”
When Kirbie listed her favorites, I noticed a similar theme of self-tanner as skincare.
“My favorite self-tanner right now is from Amanda Harrington London,” Kirbie says. “She bases her brand on creating a nice foundation for the tan, so instead of avoiding any lotions (which is typical in self-tanner prep), she takes the opposite approach and has you start with a moisturizing primer. This has a subtle amount of tan in it before you apply the mousse. Her products have CoQ10, collagen, and hyaluronic acid in them as well, and the shade ranges look very natural on the skin. I’ve found using latex-free gloves instead of a mitt to apply the tanning mousse leads to a more natural application and longer-lasting tan. You also use less of it this way. Big fan of her method!”
The Takeaway: Here’s what to look for in a self-tanner formula
- Has minimal ingredients
- Is lightweight and dries quickly
- Includes ingredients that will nourish the skin
- Doesn’t include harmful ingredients (think drying alcohols and SLS)
How to Prep Your Skin for Self-Tanner
Ask any sunless tan aficionado and they’ll tell you that skin prep is everything when it comes to achieving seamless, natural-looking color. These are some tips to keep in mind before applying self-tanner (or going for a professional spray tan).
Plan Your Exfoliation
Exfoliation is a key part of self-tanning prep. The goal is to remove any surface dryness that could cause your tan to look patchy or uneven once it’s developed. That said, it’s all in the timing.
To start off, Kirbie recommends shaving twenty-four hours prior to your self-tanner application. She mentions that while you can apply self-tanner on areas with body hair, it will make the application process a little more difficult. “The hair is going to be harder to penetrate through, so you’re really going to have to rub it in,” she says.
On the day of your application, Kirbie recommends manually sloughing off dry, dead skin cells using a mitt (she likes this one from Bondi Sands). This will give you a smooth canvas as well as removing any residue that might be left on your skin from body products.
“On the day of,” she says, “I don’t recommend using any exfoliating body scrubs because they could potentially change the pH of your skin or leave a residue. In order for your tan to develop properly, your skin has to have a certain pH, and exfoliating acids will mess with this.”
The Takeaway: Exfoliation is a crucial part of self-tanning prep, but you’ll want to get any shaving or chemical exfoliation out of the way twenty-four hours prior to application. The only thing you should do day-of is exfoliate using a dry mitt.
Make Sure Your Skin is Dry and Clean
Kirbie also cautions against using any kind of body washes day of. Once you’re ready to apply your self-tanner, the skin should be free of any perfume, lotions, oils, etc. Many body washes can leave a residue behind, she says, which means the tanning product might not bind properly in certain areas and could end up patchy.
Moisturizers should also be avoided within twenty-four hours of application, but Tamra adds that if you have any severely dry patches, you can apply a small amount of oil-free lotion to the area prior to application.
The Takeaway: Self-tanner should be applied on clean, dry skin free of any oils, lotions, perfumes, or other residues. If you have severe dry patches, apply an oil-free lotion to the area before applying the tanner.
Applying Your Tan
Once you’re ready to apply your tanning product, be sure you have loose-fitting clothes or a robe on hand for after. Dispense the product onto gloves or a mitt and work quickly with light, circular motions to blend everything thoroughly. Leave the product on as long as indicated.
How to Maintain Your Tan and Make it Last
According to Tamra, taking care of your tan is as much about making sure the color fades away evenly as it is about extending the life of the tan.
“Hydration is key,” Tamra says. “Keeping your skin moisturized is essential for the longevity of the tan because when the skin is dry, those top layers slough off quicker thus causing the color to fade. Stick to light, oil-free lotions or if you tend to be really dry, a cocoa butter or shea butter lotion will be your best friend.”
Which Ingredients Should I Avoid?
Avoid alcohols that could dry out your skin as well as heavy oils. Both can make your tan fade more quickly.
What if I Use Retinol or Exfoliating Acids on My Face?
“Know that if you do use retinoids or exfoliants on your face, neck, or décolletage, your tan will fade more quickly than your body,” Kirbie says. “And that’s fine — it’s not supposed to be permanent. If you really want to maintain the tan on your face, there are options. Use tanning drops in your moisturizer, buy face moisturizer with DHA in it, or use a spritz product to lightly dust your face after you finish your skincare routine. I would avoid using these every day, though, or your tan could get patchy in those areas.” For drops, Kirbie recommends Tan Luxe, James Read, or Tanologist. For a spray, she likes Glow on the Go from Infinity Sun.
What Sunscreen Should I Use With My Self-Tanner?
First and foremost, know that continuing to protect your skin from the sun is a MUST even when you’re wearing self-tanner. These products don’t protect your skin from UV rays in any way but sometimes give people a false sense of security. In fact, one study suggested that your skin is actually more susceptible than usual to free radical damage in the twenty-four hours after applying DHA products. All this to say you still need to be diligent about using clothing to cover yourself, seeking shade, and applying sunscreen generously and often.
Tamra suggests looking for sunscreen without too many oils. “Sunscreen without heavy oils is what I recommend because oil can strip the color,” she says. “I love sunscreens that are moisturizing so I don’t have to apply both lotion and sunscreen.”
Still not sure what kind of sunscreen to use? Learn about the difference between physical and chemical sunscreens and how they affect your skin.
What’s the Best Way to Remove Self-Tanner Without Damaging Your Skin?
Realistically, you can expect your tan to last seven to ten days before it starts to fade. Kirbie notes that you’ll probably start to notice patchiness around areas like your neck and chest after a week. “Once you see this,” Kirbie says, “it’s smart to exfoliate daily. Nothing hardcore, just a mitt or moisturizing body scrub that can help gradually reduce the tan without it looking super patchy.”
Tamra is a fan of this method as well. “I like the old fashioned way,” she says. “A hot soak or shower and an exfoliating towel or glove. Don’t go too hard to irritate or break the skin.”
There are products made specifically to remove self-tanner, but Tamra recommends doing your research if you have reactive skin to make sure none of the ingredients will be too harsh. On the same note, Kirbie cautions against using any unsanctioned DIY methods of self-tanner removal.
“I’ve heard of people using Magic Eraser to remove tans,” Kirbie says, “which contains bleach and is really bad for your skin. It sounds like common sense, but I’ve had to say it in the past!”
The Takeaway: The gentlest way to remove self-tanner from your skin is to consistently exfoliate using a mitt, soft cloth, or gentle body scrub once your tan starts to become patchy in some areas.
I hope you found these tips helpful! I certainly learned a lot from these lovely ladies and with summer in full swing, I may be trying out some of these tips myself in the near future. Curious to learn how to prevent summer sun spots? Read this post.
Celebrity Esthetician & Skincare Expert
As an esthetician trained in cosmetic chemistry, Renée Rouleau has spent 30 years researching skin, educating her audience, and building an award-winning line of products. Trusted by celebrities, editors, bloggers, and skincare obsessives around the globe, her vast real-world knowledge and constant research are why Marie Claire calls her “the most passionate skin practitioner we know.”