Spray Tan Vs Self Tan: Which is Better?

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So we all know the health hazards of sun tanning and that tanning beds are even more dangerous. But glowing bronze skin still looks beautiful!

Spray tan and self-tanners are a perfect alternative to get that tropical vacation glow without the health risks of tanning in the sun or using a tanning bed. One requires a quick stop at a salon, while the other can be done at home.

In this article, we are going to look at spray tan vs self tanner. We’ll consider how they are similar, how they differ, their pros and cons as well as the risks, so you can decide which is best for you.


How Do Spray Tans And Self-Tanners Work?

Surprisingly, the active ingredient in both spray tans and (most*) self tanners is the same: 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.

Regardless of the other ingredients in the formula of spray or self tanner, it’s the DHA that’s responsible for the temporary tanning of the skin.

What Is A Spray Tan

Maxi Mist Spray Tan

Professional spray tanning is simple, quick, and produces natural-looking results with none of the health risks associated with tanning beds or sun tanning.

There are two types of spray tan methods:

Spray Tan Booth

Most salons that offer spray tans will use a spray tan booth. These booths are outfitted with several nozzles that emit tanning solution.

You can have the solution applied to your entire body quickly and efficiently.

Airbrush Gun or Spray Gun

You may also find a salon that has a tanning artist that uses a spray tan machine or gun to apply the spray tan. Tanning artists often work freelance and you can schedule in-home appointments.

They will use a portable tanning airbrush in a spray tan tent, which provides a similar level of control and consistency as tanning booths, so you are guaranteed a flawless, smooth tan without streaking.

What Is A Self Tanner

Beauty By Earth Self Tanner

Self tanner is basically a spray 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, also without the harmful effects of UV rays of the sun or tanning beds. 

There are many high quality self tanners on the market. We’ve discussed many of them:

Are Spray Tans And Self Tanners Bad For Your Skin?

The active ingredient in spray tans and self-tanners is dihydroxyacetone (DHA) and it has been linked to side effects with long-term, frequent use.

Though it’s FDA approved for topical use, it’s been found that the free radicals released by DHA cause oxidative stress that can accelerate skin aging. That translates to fine lines, wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, and sagging.

DHA also lowers Vitamin D levels and has been linked to long-term DNA damage.

In addition, these side effects will increase with sun exposure during the first 72 hours of application (while the chemical reaction is taking place).

It should be noted that these findings (except for the going out in the sun within 72 hours after application thing… don’t do that) are in respect to frequent, long term use.

Getting a spray tan or using a self tanner occasionally is unlikely to cause any issues.

Coco&Eve Self Tanner

When it comes to spray tans and self tanners – the key is moderation.

Do you have a special event you are attending in November and you want to liven up your pasty, white complexion? Or maybe you’re planning to go on a sunny holiday and don’t want to arrive looking like a tourist?

Then getting a spray tan or using a self tanner for a special occasion or event is not going to do you any harm.

But If you are in perpetual fake tan mode all the time to get a year-round tan, like you have a secret tropical holiday house that you jet off to every couple of weeks, then maybe you need to rethink your tanning strategy.

DHA-Free Tanning Solutions

Remember we mentioned that “most” self tanners use DHA? With talk about the side effects of DHA, we’ve seen the recent introduction of a few DHA-free self tanners. Those are a safer bet, right?

The active ingredient in DHA-free self-tanners is erythrulose. Well, it turns out that not only is erythrulose very similar in structure to DHA. It triggers the same side effects as DHA.

So DHA-free self tanners are still linked to the same skin aging, DNA damage and lowered vitamin D production as self tanners that contain DHA.

Not to mention that you will not get the same results from a DHA-free self tanner as you would a tanner with DHA.

Don’t be fooled by what is clearly just a marketing strategy. 

Spray Tan Vs Self Tanner

We’re going to outline the main pros and cons of spray tan vs self tanner, so you can see how they stack up against each other.

Spray Tan Pros 

  • Easier – Literally all you have to do is strip down and just stand there. No fussing around with messy product and no cleaning up afterwards.
  • More Uniform – Spray tans provide a more uniform spray pattern with micro droplets, making sure the tan is even. Take care with your hands and feet, though.
  • Never missing a spot – a tanning booth or a tanning professional using a spray gun will, unlike most of us, not miss any spots.
  • Darker Tan – You can get salon spray tan with higher DHA levels than in retail self tanners. This is a pro if you are looking for a very dark tan (just watch out for the dreaded orange goblin look).

Spray Tan Cons

  • More expensive – As you would imagine, a service provided by a professional will be more expensive than the DIY version.
  • Risk of internal DHA exposure – DHA has been found to cause health problems if it is inhaled. This is why it’s extremely important to close your eyes and hold your breath while getting sprayed near your face. Wear nose plugs as well.
  • Time consuming – Getting to and from your appointments can take a big chunk out of your day.

Self Tanner Pros 

  • It’s a lot cheaper – The average price of one spray tan session is more expensive than one bottle of self-tanner which usually holds about 4 applications. You don’t need to be a math genius to figure out how much more cost-effective self-tanning is.
  • It’s less time-consuming – Because you can do it at home, no need to rearrange your schedule to fit in appointments. You can do it whenever you want. That time spent to and from the tanning salon can be better put to use.
  • More privacy – Most of us don’t love getting naked in front of random strangers. It can be an intimidating and even self-deprecating experience that can lead to emotional and mental stress. A self tanner is much less personally intrusive.
  • It’s safer – While DHA has been FDA approved for topical skin use and is safe on your skin, when inhaled or absorbed by mucous membranes can cause all sorts of issues. There is no risk of those issues if you are using a self-tanner lotion mousse or foam. If you are using a self tanning mist, just don’t breathe it in and keep it away from your wet bits.

Self Tanner Cons

  • Application needs to be right – self-tanners can give you a cracked, streaky, uneven result if you are not applying it properly (with a mitt!).
  • Messy – apart from taking longer to dry than spray tans, running the risk of staining clothes and bed sheets, it can stain your hands, floors, cabinets, pets… if you’re not careful. If you are using a mist, there will be overspray, so it’s best to get into the tub or shower that has surfaces that are easily wiped down, to do it.
  • Hard to Reach areas are hard to reach – if you are looking for an all over tan to strut in your bikini, then unless you’re the featured act at cirque-du-soleil, you may have  hard time contorting yourself to be able to apply self-tanner on hard to reach like your back.

Take Away 

Both spray tanning and self tanning work the same way, essentially using the same active ingredient to darken your skin.

Spray tans are easier, more expensive, and should be guaranteed to come out even and flawless.

Self tanners are perfect if you have a busy schedule, are much cheaper, can be messy, and can be challenging to apply to every spot.

There are inherent risks if you are overusing either. A spray tan runs more of a risk of the spray tan getting into your bloodstream causing more issues. But as long as you close your eyes, plug your nose, don’t breathe and keep your girlie bits covered, you’ll be okay.

If you are trying to decide between getting a spray tan or getting a self tanner, they are both viable options.

Why not try both and see which you like best?

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).