Spray Tanning 101

The FAQs of Sunless Spray Tanning

This page is a compilation of the most common questions we are asked over the phone and email, with simple, straightforward answers. This page is especially intended for those who are new to airbrush spray tanning or are opening a tanning salon or other airbrush spray tanning business. If you are interested in purchasing a kit or system but have no idea where to begin, may we suggest the HVLP Spray Tanning Systems Buying Guide. Of course, if you still need some help, we will be happy to assist you - just see the "Customer Service Tab" in the main menu for our full company information.


What is a sunless spray tan?

A sunless tanner contains the ingredient DHA (dihydroxyacetone) that reacts with the outer layer of the skin turning it a brownish tan color. When dissolved in water, DHA produces a colorless solution. Many self tanners have bronzers added so that the product goes on with a tan shade. The addition of color also makes application easier, since applied and un-applied areas are distinct.

In contrast, a sun tan involves ultraviolet rays penetrating multiple layers of the skin which stimulates the production of melanin, a pigmented substance that both produces a tan appearance and provides additional UV protection.

Since the sunless tan is on the outer layers of skin, it lasts until these skin cells shed in the normal exfoliating cycle. A fully developed sunless tan will typically take 4 to 8 hours depending on formulation. Consult your product instructions for details.

What is an airbrush spray tan?

Tanning occurs when the skin produces pigment to protect itself from UV rays and permanent skin damage. In airbrush tanning, the tanning solution is applied by a technician using a compressor and airbrush. These tanning solutions contain the active ingredient DHA that reacts with the outer layer of skin to produce a bronzing effect, similar to what a traditional tan does. It must be emphasized that the pigments resulting from an airbrush tan do not provide UV protection. For most solutions, the color of the skin will continue to darken after the initial application, and the maximum color is reached within about a 12 hour period (exactly what to expect from a particular tanning solution will be specified on the website and/or the solution directions). Typical solutions also have a bronzer that provides an immediate tan effect and helps the technician to distinguish areas of the skin that have solution already applied. The majority of this bronzer will be washed off when showering after application.

How does airbrush tanning differ from spray tanning?

Strictly speaking, airbrush tanning is a type of spray tanning that is applied with an airbrush rather than a spray gun. However, some airbrushes, referred to as large format air brushes (for example, the Iwata G5 and G6) closely resemble a spray gun. The airbrush offers more precise control but is usually slower than a spray gun. Since spray tanning involves applying a uniform, background spray pattern, the extra control of an airbrush is not warranted. Some large format airbrushes, resembling a spray gun, can offer rapid application. But the market has increasingly moved to spray equipment adapted to spray tanning. Frequently, the term airbrush tanning is applied synonymously with spray tanning.

How long does a spray tan last?

A typical spray tan lasts from a 5-10 day period depending on the aftercare attention and the general nature of a specific person's skin. It is recommended to only get a tan on average about once per week.

The sunless tan develops on the outer layers of the skin and lasts until these slough off in the natural cell renewal process. Proper exfoliation and cleansing before the sunless tanner is applied ensures the removal of dead cells ready to shed and the best contact of product and skin. This can lengthen the sunless tan. The application of a moisturizer after the sunless tan can extend the tan also. For maximum results, a tan extender containing a small amount of DHA can renew the sunless tan. The strength of the sunless formula is also a factor -- if appropriate to your skin type, a stronger formula can produce a more long lasting faux tan.

How long does it take to apply an airbrush tan or a spray tan?

With practice, a single airbrush tan application can take as little as 12 minutes or so. Factor in the drying time of about 5 or 10 minutes. For a spray tan, allow about 5 minutes for the application

What is the difference between DHA and cosmetics bronzers?

DHA is an FDA approved 3 carbon sugar that is colorless when in dissolved in water. But, when applied to the skin, it will interact with the amino acids of the skin to produce a tanned appearance. This reaction begins upon contact with the skin, but will take a number of hours to develop. In contrast, bronzers are coloring agents, usually FD&C dyes (approved for application to the skin). Caramel coloring or walnut stain are sometimes used as well. The cosmetic bronzers will show substantial wash-off in the first shower, revealing the developed sunless tan. The bronzers give an immediate tan appearance and assist in application.

What is the difference between DHA and Erythrulose?

DHA is the principal sunless tanning ingredient. It is a 3 carbon keto-sugar. Erythrulose is a 4 carbon keto-sugar also used in sunless tanning. Erythrulose produces a sunless tan in the same manner, but slower - taking 24 to 48 hours to fully develop. Fading tends to be faster. Advocates of Erythrulose claim a longer lasting tan with superior tone and uniform fading. However, these claims tend to be a bit subjective. Erythrulose is rarely used as the sole tanning ingredient due to expense. If present it will not likely exceed 1 - 3%. There are premium solutions both with and without Erythrulose. We do not judge its presence alone to indicate a superior solution.

What is the drying time of a spray tan?

The drying time after a sunless spray tan session depends on the solution. Some contain additional ingredients to support other cosmetic objectives that may add to drying time. Five to 10 minutes should do it.

Spray tanning guns based on HVLP (high volume of air at low pressure) often produce a heated air stream. With the gun attached, the heat may not be that perceptible. But if you detach the gun and spray directly with the hose, the heated nature of the air should be obvious as it is moving slower.

Why do hands and feet sometimes over-absorb sunless tanner and how do I avoid it?

Rough patches of skin can behave like "mini-sponges", soaking up too much tanning solution and becoming overdeveloped and unsightly. An effective method to prevent this is to apply less -- by increasing the distance of the spray gun from the skin or to spend less time on these areas.

A moisturizer applied to rough patches of skin will also limit absorption. A barrier cream can be applied to the palms of the hand to limit absorption.

Since the spray will tend to settle towards the feet, some tanning solution may be on them before you apply any directly. Save these for last -- a light application may be all that is needed. Standing in tanning solution will result in unsightly soles -- provide a towel to stand on or supply "sticky feet", popular disposable sandals that adhere to the soles.

Does a sunless spray tan offer sun protection?

No. While the skin in a sunless tan is brown, this is not due to melanin pigmentation. Melanin does protect the skin from UV damage. The production of melanin is stimulated by UV exposure received in a sun tan or tanning bed. The sunless tan is developed without UV exposure.

Furthermore it is rare (and not advisable in our view) for an SPF additive to be included in a sunless formula.

Will a DHA tan make freckles or skin imperfection more noticeable?

Often, you will notice that a sunless tan imparts a more even tone to skin. It hides more than it calls attention to.

The main area of concern is skin that is rougher because it will absorb more solution than surrounding smoother skin and become darker by contrast. This is usually more of an issue with older clients. If this is a problem, you may consider dabbing moisturizer on the rough spots to inhibit absorption of the solution.

Will tanning solution stain hair?

If sprayed into the hairline, tanning solution can build up on the hair shaft. This is usually not a problem nor noticeable since the amount of spray accidentally getting to the hair is quite small. For light blonde or graying hair it may be noticeable but will wash out in the first shower. If you take care not to spray into the hair line, this will not be an issue.

A hair net may be used to block any overspray into the hair. But usually you will find a hair net more useful to keep a client's hair off their face.


What should I charge for my spray tanning service?

Like all services, local market conditions may influence your fee and schedule. We suggest asking around, considering the competition, and to consider offering your customers a 'starter package' of 2 back-to-back applications to establish a good base tan. A favorable price for this package would be in the $55-75 price range, with single applications in the $25-50 range. A reasonable charge for a facial tan is about $8-12.

What results should my client expect?

With a tinted spray tan solution, the bronzer will produce an immediate coloration on the skin which will for the most part wash off in the shower. The 'actual' DHA tan should develop within 12 hours and should result in skin coloration that is 1 to 2 shades darker than the shade of the bronzer. Of course, multiple applications will result in a darker tan.

How long does it take to apply a spray tan?

With practice, a single application can take as little as 5 minutes or so. Factor in the drying time of about 5-10 minutes.

What additional equipment should I have for a spray tan service?

A blow dryer and hand towels are handy. The blow dryer can be used once the solution is applied to help speed up the drying process. Hand towels are just convenient to have available at any need.

Is a special room required for a spray tan?

A spray area of about 4'x8' is recommended. If the area is enclosed, ensure that the room is ventilated 3 times per minute, this can be done with many ventilation fans (we have the perfect extraction fans for just this purpose). A hard floor is preferred for easiest clean up, but outdoor carpet may be used. We also suggest taking a look at our Pop Up Tanning Tent selection for an easy to take care of, contained, space saving tanning environment.

How many spray tans does 1 gallon of solution yield?

The standard application range is 2-4 ounces of solution per client. Most vendors quote 2 ounces per client, but those with darker or oiler complexions will likely need more. At 2 onces per client, each gallon would have about 64 applications; at 3 ounces, about 42 applications.

What is the cost for a spray tan application?

The cost of spray tan solution per application depends both on the amount used (addressed in the prior question) and the original cost of solution. This average is likely in the $2.50 to $3.00 range per customer. The cost of a dissatisfied customer, however, can be rather high. Even an expensive solution is cost effective, not to mention more hassle-free, when the client is happy, so don't just pick the cheapest solution. We have a variety of solutions at cost-effective prices so you, as a technician, salon owner or even customer, can maximize your return.


What should I or my client do to prepare for an spray tanning session?

On the night prior to or the morning of your session, use an exfoliant. This will prepare your skin by cleaning and 'buffing' it, leaving it cleaner than a typical soap or body wash. It is best to use a non-oil based exfoliant. Your skin should also be free from applied products like lotion, and makeup. Do not wear deodorant as it will turn skin green! Following pre-tanning directions ensures the best possible tan can be achieved.

What should I or my client wear to an spray tanning session?

Wearing loose fitting clothing to the tanning appointment is recommended, and allow 10 minutes drying time after application before dressing.

How soon can I or my client shower after a spray tan?

For standard solutions allow 8-12 hours after the tanning session before showering. Ideally, DHA needs 12 hours for the skin to develop its full tanned color. For 'rapid tan' formulations, refer to the product label for instructions.

How do I or my client maintain the spray tan?

Hydrated skin is the essential key for maintaining a longer-lasting tan. Apply moisturizer the morning and evening after the first tan, and continue to moisturize daily thereafter.

How and why should clients exfoliate before a spray tan?

Since the sunless tan develops on the outer layers of skin, the natural skin renewal cycle results in shedding of skin and the diminishing of the faux tan. Exfoliating removes dead skin, resulting in a fresh layer of skin that will have a longer life and support a sunless tan of maximum durability.

Exfoliators for at home use should be free of oils and excessive moisturizers since these may block adhesion of the sunless tanner. Exfoliators sold by Sunless Limited meet these criteria.

For walk-ins, those that don't exfoliate at home, or as a bit of last minute insurance, a tan pre-spray or a tanning prep wipe may be used. The wipes are particularly popular since they conveniently bundle the cleanser and disposable towelette. These on site products remove makeup, perspiration, excessive oiliness and may provide some pH adjustment.

How do I avoid an off-color spray tan tan?

Any "orange" effect is usually the result of over-application for the given skin type or from sunless tan build-up. Over-application can result from too much solution or using a solution that is too strong.

Try to stay within application guidelines -- which is typically around two ounces of solution per application. If you spray 4 ounces you run the risk of an off-color result if the client's skin type can't handle it. If you stay within guidelines, most clients can tolerate up to a 10% solution. But for fairer clients 8% or less is recommended. People than tan easily can tolerate 12% DHA or higher. Of, the two, you are more likely to err by spraying too much rather than too strong.

If a client is sprayed frequently and uses a potent tan extender regularly, they may notice a sunless tan build-up that is uneven and increasingly orange tone. It is best to thoroughly exfoliate before each sunless tan application and to occasionally have some down time to allow any tan to fade completely.


How do I handle allergy concerns and DHA?

In general, very few people are allergic to DHA. In fact, it would be more likely that some other ingredient in the spray tanning solution were responsible if an allergy were to develop. For clients with allergy concerns, screen any issues by applying to a small patch of skin first to see if problems arise.

Is it safe to spray tan when pregnant?

In general it is best to seek your physicians advice before proceeding with a spray tan while pregnant. We know of no significant health risk from DHA. DHA, the tanning agent in spray tans, is a simple 3 carbon sugar with minimal side effects. Still, why not proceed with an abundance of caution during this special time? May we suggest that you pursue a minimal cosmetic regimen during your pregnancy. We'll be glad to welcome you back as a customer with a healthy baby in tow!