You don’t need me to remind you that you should be wearing sunscreen every single day, right? That’s because any darkening of your skin is a sign of sun damage. Thankfully, there’s a way to get a summer glow sans damage: spray tanning. No, it won’t make you look like an Oompa Loompa—so long as you follow a few key steps before and after you get your spray tan.
Sinead Norenius, founder of the self-tanning brand Beautisol, spills the secrets you need to know to get a believable bronze—and make it last.
1. Pick a well-ventilated salon.
Since inhaling spray tan product can pose safety concerns, you’ll want to pick your salon with that in mind. Norenius suggests choosing an airy salon with equipment that has a ventilation fan designed to suck away any overspray immediately. Pay attention to the room you’ll be in, too: If there’s spray tan formula on the walls and things just look generally dirty, that’s a sign that the salon is poorly maintained—and poorly ventilated.
Make sure to ask your technician for an LVLP machine (that stands for low volume, low pressure, and it means you’re less likely to get overspray that you could inhale). Finally, always request protective nose pieces and eyewear.
2. …And find one that goes alcohol-free (on the ingredient list).
Alcohol is a common ingredient in many spray tans. It acts as a thinning agent, allowing the tan to flow into the fine mist necessary for application. But Norenius warns that alcohol is actually really damaging to your spray tan, because it can result in a crackling effect, making your skin look crazy-dry.
While it’s hard to find a spray tan that’s totally alcohol-free, Norenius recommends checking the ingredient list (or asking your spray tan salon for it) to verify that alcohol’s not the first or second ingredient mentioned, as that’s a dead giveaway that the tan has a lot of alcohol in it.
3. Book your spray tan two days before your big event.
Everybody’s tan lasts a slightly different length of time, and it usually has nothing to do with the product. The speed at which your cells turn over has a huge effect on how long your tan will last. The younger you are, the faster your cells turn over, which causes your tan to fade more quickly, says Norenius.
The bad news: There’s nothing you can do about the speed at which your cells regenerate. The good news: Keeping the amount of water your skin is exposed to to a minimum can help prolong the life of your tan.
So when should you get your spray tan? Pros recommend getting the tan about two days before a big event or vacation. That way the tan has time to settle in and fully develop. It also gives you time to fix any mishaps (more on that below).
4. Prep with the right scrub.
You’ll definitely want to exfoliate pre-spray tan to get an even glow; sloughing off old skin cells creates an even base for the tan to adhere to. But if you don’t choose the right scrub, it may cause your tan to streak. Norenius says that the oils in popular sugar scrubs coat the skin and cause the tan to run right off. Instead, use an exfoliating mitt and skip applying lotion afterward; spray tan formulas stick best to dry skin.
5. Shave at least 12 hours beforehand.
It may seem like common sense to shave before a spray tan, but shaving immediately prior to your appointment can cause the product to irritate your skin. Shaving is a mild exfoliant that exposes new skin cells, which are extra sensitive.
DHA (the darkening agent in spray tans) reacts with those sensitive cells and can cause some serious redness and discomfort. Norenius says there should be a 12- to 24-hour window between shaving and your appointment.
6. Wear dark clothes to your appointment.
No matter how careful you are, the clothes you wear to your spray tan will end up with some slight discoloration. Although it should wash out easily, to avoid unintentionally staining your outfit orange, stick with dark clothing.It’s also important to wear loose-fitting pieces after your tan. When you’re freshly sprayed, the tan can be easily altered, so tight leggings, sleeves, and even your bra can mess with the finished results. A black sundress or loose sweatpants and a T-shirt will do the trick. And if you can, go braless for at least the first few hours afterward.
7. Keep using sunscreen afterward.
The concept of getting a “base tan” to prevent sunburn is bogus to begin with—but you should definitely know that a spray tan has no effect on your body’s melanin, which is what causes your skin to tan naturally.
“Just because you look tan doesn’t mean you’re not going to burn,” says Norenius. She recommends using a lightweight sunscreen to protect your skin and your faux-glow.
8. Limit your exposure to chlorine post-spray tan.
While taking a quick dip in the pool won’t ruin your tan, spending hours on-end in chlorinated water will. Chlorine, which is a kind of bleach, will take the tan right off your skin, says Norenius. As such, she recommends limiting your swim time after you’ve gotten a spray tan and patting dry right when you get out of the water.
9. Resist the urge to pile on body butter.
Some salons may recommend keeping the skin highly moisturized to prolong the length of your spray tan, but Norenius says that’s not the best advice since the moisture in heavy lotions and body butters will work away at your glow, causing it to fade faster. Norenius recommends using a lightweight lotion instead and only moisturizing when absolutely necessary.
10. Def don’t layer spray tans.
It would be great if you could keep up your spray tan maintained the way you do your eyebrows or roots, but unfortunately, faux tans don’t work that way. If you spray a new tan on top of an old tan, it will look patchy—darker in areas where the old tan remains, and lighter in areas where it’s already worn off.
Norenius recommends enjoying your tan for about one and a half weeks, then removing it with a tan-removing mitt and starting fresh.
11. Have a backup plan if you need to fix a bad spray tan.
If the worst happens and you look more like an orange than a bronzed goddess, don’t worry: At-home removal is super-easy, says Norenius.
Water breaks down the ingredients in your spray tan and loosens it from the skin, so run a warm bath with a little shower gel mixed in. Soak in it for at least a half an hour, then exfoliate with a loofah or mitt. The tan will rinse away with the water, leaving you with a clean slate. Some brands also make tan removers, which contain exfoliating acids, like glycolic acid, to slough off the top layer of your skin and the tan with it.