Spray Tan Guide - What is a Spray Tan?


How Does a Spray Tan Work?

A Spray Tan, an Airbrush Tan, and Sunless Self Tanners all use a similar formula to give you a quick, just off the beach, sunless fake tan. The active ingredient in a spray tan is DHA (Dihydroxyacetone), a colorless compound that reacts with amino acids in the outermost layer of the skin to produce a durable tan that can last up to 10 days. The product used in a spray tan is called tanning solution. If only DHA were present in tanning solution, it would be clear like water. But most sunless spray tanning solutions have bronzers added as well.

Bronzers in tanning solution are typically food dyes or natural products such as caramel or black walnut extract. The bronzers have two purposes. First, they provide visible feedback during application. Second, they give the instant appearance of a visible tan! The DHA portion of the tan develops over the course of about 8 hours. The bronzers give an immediate tan.

So, your sunless spray tan will be darkest after the DHA portion of the tan fully develops. When you shower most of the bronzers will wash off revealing the sunless DHA tan. If you just rinse off, without scrubbing or soaps, some of the bronzer will be retained.

Some spray tan formulations are described as “Express” or “Rapid”, meaning that they can fully develop quicker than 8 hours. This allows you to shower off sooner should you have an event to attend. So, for example, a two-hour express tan should be fully developed in two hours.

DHA is a simple sugar with a 3-carbon atom formula. For comparison, the glucose your body needs has a 6-carbon atom formula. Table sugar, sucrose, has a 12-carbon atom formula. As a simple sugar, DHA has an excellent safety profile. As previously noted, the bronzers are food dyes or natural colorants, so the ingredients in a spray tan responsible for the tanning effect are among the safer of cosmetic ingredients.

How to Get A Spray Tan

Spray Tan Booth

Some spray tan salons have a fully automated sunless spray tan booth. You follow prescribed steps and automated nozzles apply the tanning solution. Other spray tan salons may have a spray booth that still require technician application. In this case the booth has fans which capture and filter out overspray.

Spray Tan Gun vs Airbrush

For handheld application, airbrush tanning was the first method to gain widespread acceptance. While airbrushes provide a great deal of application control, they tend to cover less area with a spray stroke and take longer. While airbrushes are still used by some tan technicians, most have moved to spray gun tanning since a spray gun emits a wider pattern and provides for a tan in 5 minutes or less rather than 10-20 minutes.

A handheld tan application can be superior to a spray tan booth when applied by an experienced technician. Mobile tanning is an increasingly popular service where a spray tan technician comes to you. Typically, they bring a pop-up booth, such as a tanning tent, where you receive the tan application while protecting the surroundings from overspray.

Many sunless spray tan enthusiasts buy their own personal systems and spray tan themselves or enlist a friend to assist.

Self-Tan vs Spray Tan

Spray tan solutions tend to have a higher DHA percentage than sunless self-tanning products. So, you get more bang for your buck. Spray tan solution formulations may be 6-8 % for lighter complexions, 9-10% for medium complexions, or 12 or more % for darker complexions.

Sunless self-tanners typically aren’t formulated past 5% DHA. Gradual tanning products, which can be applied frequently are typically less than 3% DHA.

Gradual tanning products may sometimes be called tan extenders in the spray tan arena. A tan extender may be recommended by your technician for spray tan maintenance.

A significant problem with self-tanners is getting an even, streak free tan. Spray tans excel in their ability to provide an even tan. A skilled tan technician can produce a near flawless result.

Tanning Bed vs Spray Tan

Tanning Beds use UV light to produce a tan. The bulbs emit primarily UV-A rays which produce photoaging of the skin. There is no vitamin D benefit from UV-A rays. Since UV rays penetrate deeper into the skin, a deeper, longer lasting tan results. But repeated exposure to UV rays via tanning bed use significantly increases the risk of developing skin cancer.

In contrast, spray tanning solution reacts with only the outer layer of the skin’s epidermis, the strateum corneum, comprised of 15-20 layers of cells. Since this layer is constantly sloughing off and being renewed, a sunless tan will not last for as long as a UV tan. But steps like exfoliating before getting a sunless tan or moisturization after getting one can prolong the sunless tan duration.

How to prepare for a spray tan?

Ideally, you would be exfoliated, freshly showered and shaved with no add on products. Just fresh, clean skin.

Exfoliation removes skin that is close to the end of its life cycle when it would be shed. The remaining skin will be newer and support a longer lasting tan.

Don’t wear makeup, moisturizers, deodorants or other cosmetics. These may form a barrier to spray tan application and produce an uneven, lighter tan.

Soaps have a higher alkaline pH while a spray tan prefers slightly acidic conditions. After a shower, the skin tends to self-balance back to its natural pH. But many technicians will also use a tanning “prep spray” that adjusts pH.

Spray Tan Session

Many prefer to spray tan nude or topless. Disposable spray tan garments, usually black, are available. You can also wear a dark swimsuit or underwear. Loose fitting, dark color garments are the best choice to wear for a session. There can be some bronzer “rub-off” on clothing or sheets. These dyes wash out for most fabrics.

Lip balm, nasal filters and tanning goggles may be provided for your session. If not close your eyes, suck in your lips and hold your breath between spray stokes on your face.

Hair nets to hold up your hair and sticky feet to prevent you from stepping into errant solution may also be provided.

You will be asked to perform a sequence of poses as part of the tanning application. Follow those faithfully.

How long after a spray tan can you shower?

Before the first shower you should avoid excessive sweating or water activities.

While a tan is considered fully developed after 8 hours, it will be maximally developed in 12 hours. So, many will wait until the following morning after receiving a spray tan for their first shower.

A warm water rinse with no soaps or other products preserves the most bronzer and is the way to go if you shower sooner than 8 hours as with an Express/Rapid tan product.

In theory, Express/Rapid tan products only deliver the tan quicker. A 10% express product and a 10% normal formulation produce the same result if you wait long enough. The Express tan product just gets there sooner.

In practice, most tanning solution suppliers say little about what makes their products work in an Express fashion. Some of the ingredients such as Troxyreutin or Allomelanin appear in special DHA formulations that are expensive for use in a tanning solution.

But some makers may simply be adding more DHA to create express products, the thought being that more DHA is absorbed and eventually develops. Left on for 12 hours, these could produce too dark a result.

Post Tan Aftercare

Since the sunless tan occupies the outermost layers of the skin, it should be treated with care. Avoid scrubs until you are ready to exfoliate again. Heavy pool use, through exposure to chlorine, may diminish the length of your tan.

Moisturizers applied daily can extend the tan’s life.

Gradual Tanners that have smaller amounts of DHA are intended for gradual tan development but can be used to maintain a spray tan. Products sold as tan extenders may have 1.5% to 3% DHA. A strong tan extender (3% DHA) should probably only be used once per week.


How long does a spray tan last?

The typical response is that spray tans last 5-10 days. Good preparation and application can get the longer lasting result. The skin should be clean and free of add on products before a sunless tan application. Exfoliating prior to a spray tan is a great step since a sunless tan affects only the outer layers of the skin. Exfoliation removes the skin cells that are close to the end of their life cycle and exposes newer skin.

Picking a formulation appropriate for your skin type can produce the best tan. This also improves the longevity of your tan. For fair skin types, a 6-9% formulation is best, with 8% being a good choice. For medium skin types a 9-10% formulation is appropriate. For dark skin types a 10-12% formulation is best. Dark olive skin may require 12% or higher.

The sunless spray tan can also be extended by maintenance with a moisturizer or a gradual tanner. Gradual tanners may be referred to as tan extenders in the spray tan industry. These are products with a low amount of DHA that can be applied more frequently to slowly develop a tan or to extend and existing tan.

How to get a tan faster?

The spray tan is the fastest way to get a tan. Through a combination of bronzers and DHA a dark tan appearance is achievable in one session. The tan will be at its darkest after the DHA has fully developed, usually within 8 hours. Note that bronzers are water soluble and can all wash off in the shower. To minimize wash-off, rinse off in lukewarm water without scrubbing.

The DHA portion of the tan can build up with a second session.

How much is a spray tan cost?

Typical prices for a spray tan are 25-50 dollars for a full body tan. But premium locations, services and reputation do command higher prices.

Of course, promotions are a good way to lower your costs. Your spray tan salon may offer special promotions or tanning packages that lower the cost for repeat visits. Sites such as Groupon are a good source of discounted services. The spray tan salon locator found here is an excellent source for spray tan booth services.

How to tan safely?

Spray tanning is the safest form of tanning. The color of a spray tan comes from two sources. Bronzers are dyes essentially and must be from a narrow FDA prescribed list of colorants – either specific food dyes or natural colorants such as caramel or walnut extract.

DHA is the other approved “colorant”. But it is not a dye. DHA is the simplest 3 carbon sugar. It reacts with the outermost layer of the skin in a browning reaction that produces a fake tan.

The FDA approves these ingredients for external application only. So, care must still be exercised to avoid mucous membranes and breathing it. Nose filters are a common precaution.

A suntan exposes you to damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays. UV rays are responsible for skin cancer.

UV rays from the sun may be broken down into UVA, UVB and UVC rays. UVC rays are the most damaging rays, but they are absorbed by the ozone layer of the atmosphere. UVB rays are partially absorbed by the atmosphere and are most responsible for sunburns. UVB rays are lowest in the morning and late afternoon but peak at midday. UVA rays are mostly uniform throughout the day but still carry the risk of skin damage, particularly photoaging.

Tanning beds use bulbs that primarily emit photoaging UVA rays. But they substantially increase the odds of skin cancer.