How to Apply Self-tanner

Self-tanners are a safe and quick alternative to sunbathing.
Self-tanners are a safe and quick alternative to sunbathing.
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The only thing scarier than bathing suit season is the idea of hitting the beach with a complexion that resembles Elmer's glue. Suntans are prized for a very simple reason: Tanned skin absorbs light, making us appear thinner and masking unsightly blemishes [source: Chalmers].

But what's a pale person to do? Brazen sunbathing -- armed with baby oil, a stack of magazines and a lawn chair -- is as dangerous to one's health as smoking three packs a day. In fact, one in five Americans will develop skin cancer during the course of his or her life [source: Skin Cancer Foundation]. A tan isn't worth becoming a statistic.



Tanning salons used to market themselves as safer and faster alternatives to frying like bacon on a beach towel. Medical research has blown this strategy out of the water as well: The risk of contracting melanoma -- the deadliest form of skin cancer -- increases by 75 percent in people who use tanning beds before the age of 30. As a result, the International Agency for Research on Cancer has declared tanning beds carcinogenic [source: Quenqua].

If you're looking for a way to bronze your skin tone without exposing yourself to dangerous ultraviolet (UV) rays, then sunless self-tanners are an excellent option. When used correctly, these topical skin products can give skin a natural-looking, yet temporary tint.

That said, self-bronzers have a bad reputation for turning skin an Oompa Loompa orange instead of bronze and beautiful. How do you make sure that every inch of skin is covered evenly? And what's up with that smell? Keep reading for expert advice on how to apply self-tanner.

The drug store is packed with all kinds of self-tanning products, including creams, sprays, foams, mousses, brushes, sponges and even disposable moist towelettes. It can all be a little overwhelming, so let's start with the basics.

The active ingredient in most self-tanning products is dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a plant-derived chemical that reacts with amino acids in the top layers of skin. The more DHA in a product, the darker it will make your skin. Likewise, the more product you apply to your skin, the darker your skin will get. Most self-tanners go on clear and reach their full color eight to 24 hours later [source: Mayo Clinic].



Your first decision is to choose a product that compliments your natural complexion. Many self-tanners indicate whether they produce a light or dark tan. If you have naturally pale skin, you don't want to make the leap to super dark right away. Likewise, if you have a darker complexion, a light self-tanner might not make a noticeable difference [source: Brody].

Recently, we've seen the arrival of a new style of self-tanning products called bronzers. These products typically contain less DHA than traditional self-tanners and are often marketed as moisturizers or skin care lotions with a hint of bronzing power. These products usually require repeated use -- sometimes daily -- to build up a noticeable, yet subtle tint. Bronzers are sometimes advertised on product labels as providing "glow," "tint" or "radiance," rather than a tan [source: Chalmers].

If you want to avoid DHA altogether, there are bronzers and self-tanners derived from natural ingredients like walnut shells, coffee bean extracts, cocoa and sugarcane.

It's important to remember that self-tanners aren't sunscreens. If you want UV protection, look for self-tanning products that contain a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15. You can also apply normal sunblock after the self-tanning product has had time to do its job.

Now that you've chosen a self-tanner, there are some important steps that you must take before you even open the bottle.

If you prepare well for a self-tanning session, the process will go more smoothly and you'll be happier with the results.

The first step is to take a shower or bath. The point here is not only to clean your skin, but to exfoliate it as well. Exfoliation is the process of removing dead skin cells. By exfoliating with a loofah or a gentle exfoliating cleanser, you'll create a smooth, even surface on which to apply the self-tanner. If your skin has patches of dry, dead skin, it's more likely that the self-tanner will leave dark patches [source: Baumann].



Dry off completely and let the bathroom air out. Excess moisture on your skin can interfere with the reaction between the self-tanner and your skin cells. You also want the room to be cool enough that you're not sweating during the process.

Don't apply a moisturizer after your shower. Most moisturizers contain occlusives, or ingredients that form a protective layer on the skin's surface to hinder the effectiveness of self-tanners. The only places you may want to apply moisturizer are your elbows, knees and knuckles. Your skin is thicker in these spots, and they can absorb more self-tanner and leave those areas darker than the rest of your body. A little moisturizer can lessen that effect.

If you have light hair, you'll want to avoid staining your eyebrows or hairline with self-tanner. A good trick is to coat those areas with a thin layer of petroleum jelly, an excellent occlusive [source: Chalmers]. If you're going to use a mist or spray product, wear a disposable shower cap.

Experienced self-tanners recommend investing in some disposable latex gloves. If you allow a self-tanning product to remain on your fingers or palm for long enough, it will dye those areas, too. And nothing says "fake bake" like tinted fingertips. If you don't want to use gloves, be prepared to wash your hands frequently during the product application.

Now you're ready to get down to business. Get our tips for applying self-tanner on the next page.

The key to successful self-tanning is even product application. If you miss a spot, or apply too much product in one spot, you'll be left with a blotchy or streaky tan.

Every self-tanning product has a different method for even application. Sprays and mists have the advantage of covering a wide swath of skin in a single spritz, while foams and mousses go on smooth and light. Creams and gels work well for use on your face and other detail zones. Whichever product you choose, follow the directions closely for the best results.



For a more believable tan, apply a little extra self-tanner where the sun would normally brown you the most, like the outside of your arms, tops of your legs and your face. Use less lotion on places that are generally hidden from direct rays, like the inside of your arms.

Remember those trouble spots of thicker skin around the elbows, knees and knuckles. Apply the product lightly and thinly to those areas to decrease the darkening effect.

Then there are the hard-to-reach places like the middle of your back. If you can't enlist a friend to help, you might want to use one of the mist or spray products and simply hold the bottle over your shoulder. There are also specialty self-tanning products that look like a small sponge on a stick and are a handy way to extend your reach.

How about this riddle? How do you apply self-tanner to the back of your hands, but not wash it all off when you clean your fingertips? Answer: use a cotton swab!

If you're really serious about self-tanning, you could invest in a tanning gun that shoots out a fine mist of pressurized self-tanning solution, just like the ones used at a professional tanning salon or spa. But remember that the negative health effects of inhaling or ingesting DHA aren't known [source: Mayo Clinic]. So if you use a mist or spray product around your face, close your eyes and mouth and avoid breathing while applying the product.

Don't plan to go out on a date 30 minutes after you applied self-tanner on every inch of exposed skin. Self-tanning products go on wet and need ample time to dry (and let's not forget the smell). If you have the time and the privacy, stay undressed for as long as you can. If you need to cover up, choose loose-fitting clothing that breathes well.

You should avoid sweating or getting wet while the DHA is actively reacting with your skin. Give yourself at least six hours before engaging in vigorous activity or taking a shower [source: Chalmers]. Don't lie down on those 400-thread white cotton sheets, either, or you might stain them.



Self-tanning is an art, not a science, and it's likely that you missed a spot or overapplied the product in some areas. For light patches, simply add a dab of self-tanner. For blotches or streaks, you can lighten or erase them with an exfoliant. Cosmopolitan magazine says that a simple solution of baking soda and water on a loofah works well [source: Langston].

If your tan looks even and natural, congratulations! The good news is that you won't blind anybody at the beach. The bad news is that your new tan is very temporary. Your body is constantly shedding layers of dead skin cells. In fact, the entire epidermis is replaced every 35 to 45 days [source: Brody]. Since self-tanners only tint the very topmost layers of skin, you'll need to reapply the product every three to five days.

And remember, tanned skin is not protected from damaging UV rays. In fact, a recent study showed that skin treated with self-tanner is 180 percent more susceptible to the destructive effects of UV-generated free radicals [source: Baumann]. So apply a strong sunscreen -- with at least a 30 SPF -- if you're going to be in direct sunlight.

For more information on skin care and beauty products, take a look at the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • Baumann, Leslie. "Take the Drama Out of Sunless Tanning." Yahoo! Health. June 8, 2007 (September 17, 2009);_ylt=Arcfd7fxwtqwCGhIWddAKIdLvs8F
  • Brody, Jane E. "A Healthy Glow That's Truly Healthy." The New York Times. June 1, 2009 (September 17, 2009)
  • Chalmers, Kara. "Self-tanner doesn't have to be scary -- or stinky." May 25, 2007 (September 17, 2009)
  • Langston, Eleanor. "Wacky Beauty Tips That Work." Cosmopolitan. (September 17, 2009)
  • The Mayo Clinic. "Sunless Tanning."
  • Quenqua, Douglas. "Rub On, Spray On, or No Tan at All?" The New York Times. August 12, 2009 (September 17, 2009)