How to Match Tanning Lotion to Skin Tone

Tanning Lotion for Lighter Skin Tones

Sunless products are a good alternative to tanning under the sun for people with fair skin. If you choose to use a sunless or self-tanning lotion and are light-skinned, look for products that are specifically labeled for light to medium skin tones in order to avoid a tan that looks orange and unnatural. It's also important to follow the instructions to prevent streaks or blotches that might appear on the skin if the lotion is applied incorrectly.

Before applying sunless tanning lotion, thoroughly wash your skin to remove dead skin cells. You might also want to do a patch test on a small portion of skin to be sure you don't have a negative reaction. Also, it can help to use a moisturizer after bathing and before applying the tanning lotion. Use the lotion sparingly on dry or rough areas such as knees and elbows because sunless tanning lotions might appear darker in these areas [source: Brody]. To prevent dark streaks on your face, where the skin is lighter, consider using a bronzer there instead.

Even by following these tips, using a self-tanning lotion to get the tan that you want is a trial-and-error process. What might be the correct amount of sunless tanning lotion for one person could make another person's skin turn orange [source: Mann].

Light- or fair-skinned people often have difficulty tanning naturally and instead might burn and peel. This is partly because their skin creates a defective type of a certain protein needed to produce sufficient amounts of melanin [source: O'Neil]. Even so, people with fair skin who still would like to have a sun-kissed look must protect their skin.

While in the sun, light-skinned people who want to get a tan must be more careful than people with dark skin. Some dermatologists recommend using a sunscreen with a higher SPF than the suggested 15. Using a higher SPF means that it will take longer to get a tan from the sun, but sunburn and the associated dangers of UV exposure can be somewhat reduced. If you are fair-skinned, apply sunscreen lotion at least 30 minutes before going out into the sun.

For more information on alternative or self-tanning methods, check out the links below.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • Alspaugh, Lara, RN. "Taking Precautions When Tanning." August 2, 2009.
  • American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). "Skin of " 2008.
  • American Osteopathic Association (AOA) and American Cancer Society. "Tanning: the dangers of tanning." Health is Number One. 4/13/02.
  • Brody, Jane, E. "Is it possible to achieve a healthy glow that's truly healthy?" Taipei Times: NY Times News Service, New York. 6/9/2009.
  • Hecht, Barbara K., Ph.D. "DHA-Spray and Sunless Tanning Booths: What is DHA?" 8/7/2003
  • Mann, Denise. "Summer Buyers' Guide: Sunless Tanning Lotions." WebMD, Inc. 2005
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  • O'Neil, Dennis. "Skin Color Adaptation." Palomar College Behavioral Sciences Department. March 25, 2009.
  • Skin Site. "Tanning Lotions." (Accessed 8/2/09)
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "Sunscreens and Tanning." June 2008. (Accessed 8/17/2009)