Should You Moisturize Before Self-Tanning?

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People nowadays are now a lot more informed and much more contentious about overexposure to the sun’s damaging rays. Our new cautious attitudes now have most of us seeking out the safest way to achieve that sun-kissed bronze glow without UV exposure.

Enter: sunless self-tanners.

The active ingredient in self-tanners that produces that tanned effect can be drying to the skin. But not to worry – a little moisturizing will take care of that.

Should you moisturize? Absolutely. But then here’s where it gets kind of confusing. Should you moisturize before self-tanning? Should you moisturize after? Or both? During?

In this article, we are going to take a look at self-tanners, how they work, how to properly prep for application, and how to keep your skin moisturized without ruining your tan.


Should You Moisturize Before Self-Tanning?

Yes, you should moisturize before self-tanning… and after. But how soon before and after will make a huge difference in the way your fake tan result will come out and how long it lasts.

That’s why we’ve put together a Prep Guide to self-tanning with details about when to apply moisturizer. And we’ll give you a few post-tanner application tips on how to ensure your tan lasts as long as possible.

Pro Tip:

Yes, you should moisturize before self-tanning… and after.

Skin Cell Life Cycle

Skin Diagram Source: Wikipedia

The structure of your skin is generally divided into 2 main layers: the epidermis and the dermis.

The epidermis is comprised of up to 30 layers of dead skin cells. The top layer of these dead skin cells is called the stratum corneum, which is the exposed, outermost layer of your skin.

The Dermis lies directly beneath the epidermis. It contains hair follicles, oil glands, sweat glands, blood vessels, and nerve endings, which provide you with the sense of touch, and feel heat and cold.

Since it is exposed, the epidermis requires frequent cell regeneration. You lose 30,000 to 40,000 dead skin cells each minute, which is about 50 million cells every day.

The skin cells are constantly being generated in the lower layers of the epidermis before moving to the surface to replace the old cells that harden, dry up and fall off.

This process of growing, moving, and shedding takes about four weeks.

You’ll understand why this is important when we get into how fake tan works.

What Is A Self-Tanner?

Self-tanner is basically a tan in a bottle that you apply yourself. It’s a no-fuss way to get that tanned look in the comfort of your own home, without the harmful effects of UV rays of the sun or tanning beds.

There are lots of different varieties of sunless self tanners on the market, from lotions  and mists  to  foams , mousses  and serums .

How Do Self-Tanners Work?

The active ingredient in self-tanners is Dihydroxyacetone (DHA). DHA works by creating a chemical reaction with dead cells on the skin’s surface layer to temporarily darken the skin and simulate a tan.

The issue with DHA is the fact that it is very drying to the skin.

Because your simulated tan is only occurring at the surface level of your skin, if your skin gets too dry, your body will just shed those dry skin cells, taking your tan along with it.

So if you want to make your tan last and prevent dry skin, moisturizing is a definite must.

Prep Guide To Self-Tanning

How Do I Prepare My Skin Before Self-Tanning?

Here’s a quick overview of how to prep your canvas for sunless tanner. See also What To Do Before A Spray Tan for more information. That article is for spray tanning, but the process is the same for sunless tanning.

Step 1.  Skin Assessment

Take a look at your skin. How dry is it? If you have any areas you want to tan that are so dry that they are chapped or cracked, you need to let that heal BEFORE you proceed.

Getting fake tan into broken skin can result in an infection. If it’s just dry and flaky, then you can go on to the next step.

Step 2. Moisturize

Keep your skin moisturized in the days leading up to your self-tanner application. Pay close attention to extra dry areas like your elbows and knees.

Avoid moisturizing your skin immediately before applying a fake tan. Otherwise, it will go on unevenly and can end up streaky.

Step 3. Shave the day before

Your tan will last longer if you don’t shave right before applying self-tanner. Shaving the day before will also prevent tiny droplets of self-tanner from accumulating in the follicles where you have shaved the hairs, which can cause a freckled or spotty appearance.

Try not to shave shortly after fake-tanning.

Step 4. Exfoliate!

This is a crucial first step right before you apply your self-tanner because you are getting rid of the skin cells that are closest to shedding. So when you apply your tanner, it will be reacting with the most ‘recently dead’ skin cells as opposed to the ones just about to shed and take your tan with them.

Pay special attention to exfoliating areas that tend to build up excess dry skin, like knees, heels, and elbows.

Exfoliating dry skin away will prevent it from absorbing more self-tanner in some areas of your body than others, so you get an even tan.

You can opt for just using an exfoliating mitt or a gentle scrub. The best pre-tan exfoliators are all-natural. There are loads of DIY recipes out there, but make sure it’s oil-free and if it uses sugar or salt, make sure it’s a fine grind.

Raw sugar and sea salt are way too abrasive.

If you want to turn to a store-bought scrub, choose a gentle scrub and avoid those with microbeads, parabens and sulfates.

Clinique Sparkle Skin Body Exfoliating Cream for Women, 8.5 Ounce
Clinique Sparkle Skin Body Exfoliating Cream for Women, 8.5 Ounce
Give soft and silky skin; For all skin types; It is recommended for daily use
Eau Thermale Avène Gentle Body Scrub, Biodegradable, Non-Abrasive Exfoliation Scrub, 6.7 oz.
Eau Thermale Avène Gentle Body Scrub, Biodegradable, Non-Abrasive Exfoliation Scrub, 6.7 oz.
Use once or twice a week. Massage gently into wet skin & rinse thoroughly.
$30.00 Amazon Prime
Dove Exfoliating Body Polish Body Scrub, Kiwi & Aloe, 10.5 oz
Dove Exfoliating Body Polish Body Scrub, Kiwi & Aloe, 10.5 oz
Exfoliating body scrub that removes dull, dry skin; Deeply nourishes to restore skin's natural nutrients
$19.99 Amazon Prime

Step 5. Read the Instructions!

Different self-tanning products will have different instructions. Pay attention to your product, particularly in terms of how long to leave it on and when to wash it off.

Following your product instructions is the best way to not only achieve desired results and ensuring you are getting the longest-lasting tan.

Self-Tanner Post-Application Tips

Tip #1. Don’t get wet (or moisturize)

Once you’ve applied the self-tanner and while the process of tanning is taking place, do not get wet, shower, sweat, or apply any sort of moisturizer, cream, sunscreen, etc. for at least 8 hours (read your product instructions for exact waiting time).

Getting wet or applying any sort of lotion will interrupt the process and may result in streaks and blotches, and affect the longevity of your tan.

Tip #3. Don’t exfoliate!

Exfoliation is great BEFORE you apply the self-tanner. But exfoliating after will remove a lot of dead skin cells that are essentially part of your tan.

Tip #4. Moisturize!

After the initial tan processing time, you can start to moisturize again. Especially if you are prone to dry skin, this is really important because self-tanners tend to be drying.

The drier your skin, the faster you will shed those dead skin cells, and the more quickly you will lose your tan. Make sure you moisturize regularly to keep your skin hydrated.

Tip #5. Stay out of the sun for 72 hours after application

The processing time of self-tanners varies. And though you will start to see a tan anywhere between 4-10 hours after application, the chemical process that creates the tanned effect can last up to 72 hours after application.

During this time your skin will be much more sensitive to UV rays.

If you must go out after the initial wait time (the time your product says it’s okay to shower) but within the first 72 hours, make sure you cover up and wear a high broad-spectrum SPF sunblock on any exposed areas. 

Tip #6. Use SPF

After the 72-hour processing time, you can carry on with your normal routine, but just remember: a fake tan does not offer protection against the sun.

You still need to use SPF.

There’s nothing that will make your skin drier or your tan fade away faster than a sunburn, especially if it starts peeling.

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).