Spray Tanning Basics

Golden tans are so popular that many people wind up choosing their look over their health. See more beach pictures.
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Bronzed and beautiful. Tanned and fit. Golden and glowing. You've heard it all. If you're going to look good, you need a healthy tan.

Or do you? Is "healthy tan" a contradiction in terms?


Despite warnings from dermatologists and cancer-prevention groups, many people still consider pale skin a fashion flaw. Sometimes it seems to come down to deciding which is worse: the health risks associated with tanning, or the social risks associated with fish-belly-white exposed skin.

For more information about tanning, read Tanning: Fast Facts.

Some people pursue the quest for a great tan year-round. Others live with their pallor until faced with a special occasion. Who wants to be clad in a revealing dress at a wedding or a dance when all people will see is pale skin? If you're buying a new bathing suit for that tropical cruise or beach vacation, do you really want it to show off wintry white skin, or, worse yet, the traces of last season's oddly shaped tan lines?

For whatever reasons, many people seek a quick tan at least a few times a year. With the growing awareness of health risks associated with exposure to both actual sunlight and ultraviolet tanning beds, new strategies have grown in popularity.

One of the most popular ways to get a quick tan today is to spray on that golden glow.

Does that really work, and is it a good idea? This article will tell you what you need to know about spray tanning -- professional and do-it-yourself.

But first, let's take more than a skin-deep look at our obsession with being bronzed.



The History of Tanning: Going for the Gold

The legendary designer Chanel looks fair-skinned here, but her 1923 bronzed trip on the French Riviera launched a trend for tans.
George Hoyningen-Huene/RDA/Getty Images

It wasn't always this way. For centuries, tanned skin was considered unattractive, especially among women. A tan was not golden or glowing, but brown and weathered -- proof that someone labored outdoors. Well-bred ladies protected themselves with hats, parasols and long sleeves.

Coco Chanel is widely credited -- or blamed -- with changing all that. In 1923, the story goes that Chanel, the French fashion designer, accidentally got a lot of sun while sailing aboard a yacht to Cannes. When she returned from the Riviera golden brown, a fad was born. Before long, so was an industry.


Movie stars, politicians, models, teenagers, housewives -- everyone wanted to look bronzed. The rich and famous traveled to sunny places in winter or used a sunlamp. Ordinary people "worked" on their tans, "lying out" in the sun for hours. Sunburns were common.

As the century wore on, dermatologists and oncologists in Western nations were alarmed by a surge in skin cancers. They warned that damage to the skin builds up over time, leading to wrinkles and dry skin, as well as cancer. By the 1970s, suntan lotions were giving way to sunscreen concoctions boasting varying degrees of protection. Tanning beds and booths began catering to those who wanted a tan but worried about the sun.

It wasn't long, however, before doctors began to warn that the ultraviolet tanning lamps used in beds and booths were as bad as, if not worse than, the sun. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says that tanning lamps may be more dangerous than the natural sun because people can use them at the same intensity year-round and can expose their whole bodies at once [source: U.S. FDA].

In a reverse of Chanel's trend-setting tan, some of today's celebrities, such as the porcelain-skinned Nicole Kidman, speak out against tanning [source: Quenqua].

Those who still desire a tan are beginning to turn to "sunless" tanning. Increasingly, the preferred option is spray tanning. In fact, news reports in September 2009 quoted a leading financial analyst as saying that spray tanning is the one area of growth in an otherwise declining tanning industry. Spray tanning, which brought in about 11 percent of the industry's revenue last year, is expected to grow to 17 percent by the end of the year, according to George Van Horn, the analyst [source: Conroy].

So, just what is this magic spray? Read on to find out.


Spray Tans: When Your Tan Comes Out of a Can

If you've ever seen a sliced apple turn from white to brown, you've seen how spray-tanning products work on your skin.

Natural chemicals cause the inside of the apple to turn brown when it's exposed to air. The naturally occurring chemical dihydroxyacetone, commonly known as DHA, does the same thing to your skin. DHA is the main ingredient in sunless tanning sprays. In fact, the Skin Cancer Foundation warns against using any sunless tanning product that does not list DHA as the active ingredient [source: Bank].


DHA is a colorless sugar derived from plants such as sugar beets. It has been used to treat medical problems such as skin-pigmentation disorders for more than 50 years. It's also been approved by the U.S. FDA for cosmetic use for decades. It was first used in a tanning product by Coppertone in the 1960s, although that early attempt tended to turn people orange. DHA products have improved since then, partly because the refining process is better.

DHA has an enzymatic reaction with the amino acids in the outer layer, or epidermis (stratum corneum), of the skin, causing the dead skin cells to turn temporarily dark. By contrast, the sun's rays and the UV lights used in tanning beds penetrate into the deepest layers of skin. That's why they cause lasting damage.

The effects of the DHA are temporary. You are constantly shedding dead skin cells, so within a few days, your "tan" will be gone. The best you can expect from spray tanning is color that lasts about a week. Many products advise a new application in three days to keep a "tan" current.

Just as it takes the apple a while to turn brown, so can it take several hours for the DHA to darken your skin. That's one reason some products also include a temporary dye or bronzing agent: Customers want to see immediate results. Unlike the darkening caused by DHA, the dye will wash off the first time you shower -- or "run" when you sweat. Another common ingredient in spray-tanning products today is erythrulose, also a natural sugar, which gets some credit for the more natural (not orange) color of newer spray-tanning products. Manufacturers also add botanicals, moisturizers and aloe vera to help the skin absorb the tanning solution quickly and avoid excessive dryness.

Want professionals to spray on your tan? Read on to learn about the options.


Professional Spray Tans: Step Right In

Professional spray tans usually offer the most even look, although oddly shaped bathing suit cutouts may later prove problematic.
Steve Finn/Getty Images

If you want a professional spray tan, you probably won't have to look far; there are tanning businesses -- both chains and independents -- in most communities. They buy their spray-tanning equipment from a few major manufacturers.

The best-known brands are VersaSpa and Mystic Tan. People in the business and customers alike will argue over which is better. Both brands tout the roominess and ventilation of various styles of their machines. MagicTan, the maker of VersaSpa, and Mystic Tan merged in the spring of 2009 but continued to offer both brand names [source: PR Newswire]. The machines "tan" customers all over in a matter of minutes by spraying them with a mist containing the DHA solution.


Some businesses also offer air-brush spray tanning. An attendant, using a high-pressure gun not unlike those used to paint cars, applies the tanning solution. The spray can be directed to cover customers evenly, or it's possible to spray on custom "muscles" like "perfect six-pack abs."

Spray tanning is growing in popularity with business owners because it can offer higher profits. A single session in a UV bed may cost as little as $5 or $7, and if the customer buys a package, each session costs less. Depending on the region, spray-tanning single sessions run anywhere from $20 to $45, and they use only a couple of dollars worth of solution. Air-brushing costs even more. Packages are also available that include other services such as moisturizing, for a higher price.

The obvious advantages to being sprayed professionally are that you're more likely to get an even covering and you don't have to clean up a mess at home.

Sound too good to be true? There is a major potential disadvantage: The FDA has not approved the use of DHA as an all-over spray in tanning booths [source: U.S. FDA]. DHA is approved for external application only. It is not supposed to be inhaled or swallowed, and it's not approved for use on the eyes, lips or any mucous membranes. This doesn't mean that the mist is poison; it means that testing has not established what effects it has other than on the skin. A major question is how well a commercial spray-tanning operation protects you against breathing the mist or getting it in your eyes or mouth.

The FDA has approved the use of do-it-yourself spray tanning products, if, of course, people follow the directions [source: U.S. FDA]

Want to try spray tanning at home? Read on.


At-home Tanning: Shake Well, Ready, Aim, Spray

Walk down the tanning aisle in any drugstore, discount store or supermarket and you'll probably see a confusing array of self-tanning products. There are creams and roll-ons as well as sprays, but sprays generally make it easier to reach everywhere you want to tan without streaks and uneven splotches.

When choosing a spray, be sure to read the ingredients and instructions. Make sure that DHA is the main ingredient. You may also want the spray to contain moisturizers or botanicals, and you may want a temporary dye to start the tanning process faster. The instructions will probably tell you that you should not inhale the spray or get it into your eyes, nose or mouth. So when spraying your face, you'll need to close your eyes, hold your breath and keep your mouth shut. The instructions will likely also tell you to shake the can well before spraying and apply the spray with smooth, even strokes.


One main advantage to do-it-yourself spray tanning is that, unlike professional machines that spray an overall mist, hand-held spray tanning products have been approved for use by the FDA [source: U.S. FDA]. If you follow the directions, there's much less chance that you'll inhale the spray. The other main advantage is that buying a can of spray for a few dollars costs less than paying for a professional session.

The disadvantages start with how messy the process can be. You'll need to spray yourself in the shower or tub, or even outside. You may want to cover floors and nearby areas with towels. The spray can permanently stain flooring, walls or furniture.

Another problem is that it can be hard to spray your back and other hard-to-see or hard-to-reach places. Tanning with a friend can be a good solution. It's important to apply the spray evenly. Carelessness can result in dark splotches, streaks and even that dreaded orange color.

Whether you spray yourself or pay someone else to spray you, there are some things to keep in mind. Read on for some spray-tanning tips.


If You Choose Spray Tanning: Tips

There are things you can do to make your tanning more successful.

  • Clean that skin: Take a shower or bath, and do not apply lotions or perfumes when finished.
  • Exfoliate: Use a soft cotton washcloth to remove dead skin.
  • Shave: Women should shave their legs. If your skin is at all sensitive, however, shave a day ahead of time.
  • Moisturize (maybe): Some products advise against applying any lotion. But some tanning businesses offer moisturizing before spraying to help the process. Read directions, follow instructions and act accordingly.
  • Dress carefully, if at all: Some people wear nothing while spray tanning. If you don't want to go that far, think about where you want tan lines. Wear something that exposes what you want tanned.

There are also possible problems to keep in mind, at the spa or at home.


  • Skin problems: Dry skin and thickened skin, such as that on knees or elbows, absorbs more spray. It may be necessary to blot those areas.
  • Don't look like a freak: The palms and soles of the feet don't normally tan. Keep spray off of them, or remove it quickly. These areas might turn orange if they're left to tan.
  • Little flaws: Moles, freckles and other imperfections will likely get darker.
  • Be realistic: Choose a color that won't make you look scary. Light to medium tones work better.
  • Protect yourself: At home, have good ventilation. Follow directions. At a business, ask about ventilation and protection for eyes, lips and mucous membranes. Do not inhale or swallow the fumes.

Even after you're all sprayed, you're not quite finished. If things aren't quite right, try fixing the problem with a hydrogen peroxide or baking-soda solution, dabbed on with cotton balls. This might also help to remove color from palms and soles.

Make sure you're dry before you dress. Otherwise, you might stain your clothes.

And don't hop in the shower right away -- follow directions as to how long to wait before you bathe.

But the No. 1 most important thing to remember is that you don't really have a tan. You may look good and feel good, but your artificial tan does not protect you from the sun. If you're planning on sporting your faux tan in the outside, use a good sunscreen.

Want to know more about tanning? Look over the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Bahama Bronze Instant Tan Spray. "How does Bahama Bronze spray tan in a can work?" (Sept. 17, 2009) http://bahamabronze.com/directions.htm
  • Bank, David, M.D. "Ask the Expert: Can sunless tanners cause cancer?" The Skin Cancer Foundation. (Sept. 17, 2009) http://www.skincancer.org/ask-the-expert-can-sunless-tanners-cause-cancer.html
  • Bounds, Gwendolyn. "True Colors: Grading Spray-Tan Salons."The Wall Street Journal. June 25, 2009. (Sept. 17, 2009) http://online.wsj.com/article/
  • Brody, Jane. E. "A Healthy Glow That's Truly Healthy." The New York Times. June 1, 2009. (Sept. 17, 2009) http://www.skincancer.org/a-healthy-glow-that's-truly-healty.html
  • Conroy, Erin. "Tanning Industry, bartering, holiday shopping." Seattle Post Intelligencer. Sept. 15, 2009. (Sept. 20, 2009) http://www.seattlepi.com/business/
  • Mayo Clinic. "Sunless Tanning: A safe alternative to sunbathing." (Sept. 17, 2009) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/sunless-tanning/SN00037/
  • Mystic Tan. "In the Shade." (Sept. 17, 2009)http://www.intheshade.net/ITS-mystictan.htm
  • Personal Care Products Council. "Dihydroxyacetone: What Is It?" (Sept. 17, 2009) http://www.cosmeticsinfo.org/ingredient_details.php?ingredient_id=1481
  • PR Newswire: MagicTan, Mystic Tan Merger Announced. April 21, 2009. (Sept. 25, 2009) http://www.lookingfit.com/hotnews/magictan-mystic-tan-merger-announced.html Quenqua, Douglas. "Rub On, Spray on, or Not Tan at All?" The New York Times. Aug. 13, 2009. (Sept. 17, 2009) http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/13/fashion/13SKIN.html
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "Cosmetics: Sunless Tanners and Bronzers." (Sept. 17, 2009) http:www.fda.gov/Cosmetics/ProductandIngredientSafety/ProductInformation/ucm13406
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "For Consumers: Sunscreens and Tanning." (Sept. 17, 2009) http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ByAudience/ForWomen/FreePublications/ucm132684
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "Sunless Tanners and Bronzers." (Sept. 17, 2009)http://vm.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/cos-tan4.html
  • Verspa Systems. "What Is VersaSpa?" (Sept. 25, 2009)http://www.versaspasystem.com/consumerintro/
  • Winterman, Denise. "A tan to die for." BBC News. Nov. 1, 2006. (Sept. 24, 2009)http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/