How to Achieve the Perfect Sunless Tan

We find that having a sun-kissed glow can boost both our confidence and our mood (and couldn’t we all use a bit of that right now?). Since the dangers of excessive sun exposure are well-documented, we generally opt for a professionally applied faux glow, which allows us to get a perfectly calibrated complexion while avoiding UV rays, or a carefully executed application of self-tanner at home. For tips on how to prepare for—and maintain—a natural-looking sunless tan, we reached out to Chelsea Pearson, owner of the Nashville, Tennessee-based mobile spray tanning salon Beautifully Bronzed, for advice. Here are her recommendations, which apply to both receiving a spray tan and applying tanner at home (if you’re doing the latter, be sure to follow the manufacturer’s directions for best results).

Consider your timing. In our opinion, there’s no need to wait for a vacation or event to boost your complexion. However, if you are timing your tan around an occasion, Pearson recommends tanning two days before your event to look your best (you can expect your color to last for five to seven days). Also, it’s best to take care of other beauty prep—such as manicures, pedicures, waxing, and massages— before your spray tan appointment, as these treatments can strip away your tan. Pearson also advises skipping an intense workout the day of your tan, since sweat could cause streaking.

Remember that exfoliation is key. Pearson stresses that prior to your tanning session or self-application, it’s important to exfoliate well over your whole body to remove excess oils, lotions, and dry skin. Sugar and salt scrubs typically contain oil, so you’ll want to stay away from those. “There are special exfoliants that are pH-balanced for spray tanning,” she says, “but I am a firm believer in simple Dove soap and a loofah, body brush, or washcloth.” In addition to exfoliating, be sure to shave during your pre-session shower. According to Pearson, this helps open the pores so the tan can develop to its fullest potential.

Skip your deodorant and wear loose clothing. Pearson warns that deodorant that contains aluminum creates a chemical reaction when it encounters DHA, an ingredient in tanning products, and often causes the armpit to turn an unsightly greenish color—so wait until after your appointment to apply. Also, since your tan will be slightly damp for the first 30 minutes or so after application, be prepared to put on loose clothing afterward and allow for proper drying time.

Consult with the pros for the optimal shade. According to Pearson, most qualified technicians should own a machine that is controlled by pressure that allows you to go as light or as dark as you would like, and possess specific solutions they use depending on your skin tone. “You will see color results immediately, so you will know if you want more or less,” she says. Start low, as you can always add more color—but you can’t go back.

Ensure you’re using barrier cream. The hands and feet are naturally a lighter color than the rest of your skin, so your spray tan technician should supply you with a barrier cream to apply to those areas to prevent them from absorbing too much color. When applying self-tanner, be mindful of these areas, which are easy to accidentally over-saturate. In addition, those using self-tanner at home should use a pH balancing spray or lotion before application—Pearson recommends Norvell Pre Sunless xLaTan pH Balancing Spray or Norvell Amplify pH Equalizer.

Know the difference between booth and airbrush methods. If you tan in a booth, you will be left alone in the space, and Pearson says it’s best to go in sans clothing. You will likely be sprayed in a clear solution that continues to develop over time. While the booth method is generally less expensive than airbrush, Pearson advises that the booth tends to leave you with more of a spray tan odor, and offers less precision. If you tan with an airbrush technician, they will often hand you a paper biking bottom for modesty, but it’s best to go topless for a chic, St. Tropez tan. You can expect to see results immediately, and the odor is minimized and can be eliminated with drying.

Give it time. Since your tan will continue to deepen for 8-12 hours, Pearson says to avoid showering or sweating in that time frame until you are able to rinse off and moisturize (though she does note that there are some “rapid” solutions that allow you to shower in one to three hours after your tan). She recommends taking a rinse-only shower with no soap after a minimum of 8 hours, and adding moisturizer immediately afterward to help lock in your color. “The more you moisturize with a spray tan, the longer it will last and the more evenly it will fade,” she stresses. In addition, Pearson always recommends “Prolong” lotions because they have a hint of DHA in them and will allow your tan to last a few days—or sometimes even a week—longer. They also help the tan fade more evenly for a more natural look.

Wear dark clothes for the first day or two. Cosmetic bronzers can transfer onto light clothing, and depending on the solution, can even stain it, says Pearson (she notes that Norvell products are all water-soluble and will wash out). Therefore, it’s advisable to wear dark attire for approximately the first 48 hours after you tan. “This is why brides should tan two to three days before the wedding, to ensure they get a couple of good rinses in before the big day in an all-white dress,” she says.

Opt out of soaks for the duration of your tan. If you want your tan to last as long as possible, Pearson advises that you avoid taking baths, soaking in pools or hot tubs, saunas, steam rooms, and anything that will cause excessive sweating. All of these activities will increase the speed that your tan will fade and can result in uneven skin color.

 TSG Tip 356 from Chelsea Pearson of Beautifully Bronzed in Nashville, Tennessee. Beautifully Bronzed appears in The Scout Guide Nashville. Lead photo: Photography by iStock.