What Happens If You Leave Fake Tan On Too Long?

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You’ve found the perfect self-tanner. You’ve exfoliated and prepped your canvas. You’ve got your mitt and you’ve put on the fake tan solution.

You wait. Longer, longer, longer. You envision orange goblins and Trump. Oh no! What happens if you leave fake tan on too long? Can you leave self tanner on too long?

The answer is… it really depends on the product.

In today’s article, we’re going to take a brief look at how self-tanning lotion works to answer your question and some of the other common safety and usage concerns people have when using a self-tanner. 


Understanding How Self-Tanner Works

On the surface, most self-tanners look just like any other topical skin lotion. They’re typically a cream or bronze-colored lotion that comes in a squeeze bottle like any other beauty product, or perhaps they are tanning wipes.

They’re basically a make-up, and they’re great for covering minor blemishes and bruises, as well as stretch marks.

They usually advertise any special moisturizing ingredients contained within, such as:

  • Vitamin E Oil
  • Castor Oil
  • Aloe Vera
  • Coconut Oil
  • Shea Butter
  • … and others

However, these moisturizing add-ins are not what you’re paying for. The reason why self-tanning lotion costs so much more than your typical everyday topical lotion is that it contains a special ingredient that’s designed to give you an “instant tan.” 

That ingredient is DHA.


The special tanning agent used by self-tanners is dihydroxyacetone, commonly shortened to DHA. Whether you’re giving yourself a spray tan or a lotion tan, the DHA in the product is what causes your skin to suddenly change color, giving your that “fresh from the beach” look. 

Unfortunately, DHA has a peculiar scent. Click here to see how to deal with the spray tan smell.

Your skin is constantly shedding. In fact, every 27 days, you’re wearing a completely new set of skin. This means that at any given moment, you have a considerably thick layer of dead skin cells on the upper layer of your dermis that are dead or dying and have yet to be shed. 

Although these upper skin cells are dying, they still contain amino acids and protein chains. When the DHA comes into contact with these amino acids, it causes a chemical reaction which, in turn, darkens the color of your skin.

Sometimes, the self-tanning lotion may also contain small amounts of artificial dyes and bronzers designed to provide faster results and reduce the wait time.

These are what complicate the picture. If the product contains these additives, you’ll wait to wash it off in the recommended time. However, it’s unlikely you’ll turn orange even if you leave the self-tanner on overnight.

Is DHA Safe?

One of the top reasons to use DHA as a self-tanner is that it’s very safe! It’s only designed to target the upper layers of your skin that contain dead cells. It doesn’t penetrate deep enough to have an effect on your living skin cells beneath. 

In fact, most would argue that using DHA to tan your skin is far safer than getting a real tan out in the sun or from a tanning bed. Getting a real tan involves exposing your skin to harmful levels of solar radiation that penetrate deep into your living tissue. This is what causes those painful burns and can even result in skin cancer if it happens with enough frequency

How Long Should I Leave Self-Tanner On For?

Most manufacturers recommend that you leave your self-tanner on for around 5 to 6 hours so that it has time to do its job properly, but this depends on the product. This is especially true for DHA-only self-tanners that don’t include any additives. 

This means that you’ll usually want to plan out when and where you use your tanner. For example, if you plan on hitting the club with your girls on Saturday night, you’ll probably want to apply your self-tanning lotion that morning or the night before. That way, the DHA has time to bind to the skin cells and caused the desired reaction and shade of color.

What If I Only Leave It On For A Couple Of Hours?

If you want to get the maximum tan, then you’ll want to give the lotion the full 5 to 6 hours. However, the DHA will start having an effect as soon as you apply it.

This means that even if you only leave it on for 2 or 3 hours, it will still work; it just won’t be as dark as you might prefer. 

What Happens If You Leave Fake Tan On Too Long?

It’s possible your skin will get a good deal darker than you figured, or the skin will go orange. Most likely it’s not going to be a catastrophic issue, and you probably won’t need to start working to remove your fake tan.

But it’s hard to say exactly, because it really depends on which product you’re using.

The DHA in self-tanners only binds to skin cells that are already dead or dying, it won’t have any other effect on your skin other than what you’d expect from a normal lotion. 

However, if you use self-tanning lotions with bronzers or other chemicals in them, these can turn your skin an orange cast if left on too long.

You’ll usually want to shower sometime between 3-10 hours after applying the tanner. This depends on whether the tanner is pure DHA or contains additives.

Let’s look at two excellent self tanning solutions and compare.

Shorter Time Frame Self-Tanners

St Tropez Self Tanner

Be sure to use high-quality self-tanner like the St. Tropez self-tanner shown above. This image shows what happens after 1, 2, and 3 hours with the St. Tropez tanner.

Depending on how dark you want to go, you should wait the target time before showering. Keep in mind that the color will darken even after you have showered.

Longer Time Frame Self-Tanners

Beauty By Earth Self Tanner

Other self-tanners, like the Beauty By Earth Self Tanner, are designed to be left on for 6-8 hours to achieve the desired color.

Beginner self tanners should absolutely follow the instructions for their tanner. Get used to it before experimenting.

When to Wash Self Tanner

If you’re not familiar with a particular product, follow the instructions and start slow.

If you are familiar with the specific self-tanner, you should have a good idea of how long you can leave it on, and how it will react if you “push it” in either direction.

You can always reapply if you go too light, but lightening a spray tan or fake tan is more difficult.

Pro Tip: Self-Tan Before Bed

Many self-tanners are supposed to be washed off around 7-8 hours after they’re applied and dry. What’s something else you do for about 7-8 hours each day? Sleep!

Apply your self-tanner at night before bed. Make sure it’s dry, and make sure your bed linens are not the 1000-count Egyptian cotton ones.

Go to sleep, and set and alarm for the recommended time.

No snoozing, though! Get up and get in the shower!

Don’t Stain Clothes or Surfaces

Keep in mind, using a self-tanning lotion may stain lighter surfaces. Since they change your surface layer skin cells’ color, the cells that shed naturally will be a lot darker than usual.

This means that if you go sit down on a white car seat or try to wear a white mini-dress, you stand a high chance of “shedding” orange skin flakes on it, giving it a stained appearance. 

If you’re going to apply a self-tanning lotion, just make sure to avoid bright white materials and surfaces until you’ve showered.

How Long Does It Take Until A Self-Tanner Wears Off?

Self-tanning lotion naturally wears off after a few four or five days as your body continues to shed skin. If you want to retain your tanned appearance for a week or more, then you’ll want to re-apply the lotion once every couple of days. 

Written by Kayla Young

Kayla is the founder of LuxeLuminous. She has worked professionally in the tanning industry for years. She has been interested in esthetics since childhood, and has tried every hair, skin, and makeup product ever produced (more or less).