Spray Tan vs Tanning Bed, which one is the best option for beautiful, sun-kissed skin?
Spray tanning has been around since the 1960s and has become a popular tanning solution as people are worried about UV exposure. Spray tanning sprays chemicals on the skin (mainly DHA) that cause a reaction with dead skin cells, resulting in a darker complexion. This process can be done in a salon or at home.
Tanning beds, on the other hand, have been around since the 1950s, and have been declining in popularity due to health risks. These beds soak the body in UV light, tanning the skin.
Like spray tanning, you can choose to go to a tanning salon or purchase a tanning bed for home use.
In this article, I consider the spray tan and the tanning bed and take a close look at the pros and cons of each.
Spray Tan Vs Tanning Bed – Which One is Best?
So which one is the best, the spray tan or the tanning bed? This depends on what your needs and goals are.
The bottom line is that the health risks of tanning beds are quite high, relative to the benefits.
As dermatologist Dr. Zoe Draelos put it, “If you want to be tan, use a spray tan — which is a safe alternative to tanning by artificial or natural ultraviolet light.”
It’s best to avoid tanning beds, as most of the benefits can be acquired in other ways. Responsible sun exposure, done outside, is a much better choice than tanning beds.
Both spray tanning and tanning booths have their place in some users’ hearts, and different people will want to use different options to achieve the color they seek.
Let’s look at the pros and cons of each.
What is Spray Tanning?
Spray tanning is the act of using a spray tan machine to coat the skin with tanning solution. I’m not including the bottled sunless tanning lotions such as Beauty by Earth’s sunless tanner (reviewed here) in this category.
Sunless spray tans work by coating the skin with various chemicals, mainly DHA (Dihydroxyacetone). DHA isn’t actually a paint or a dye, but rather it works by causing a chemical reaction on the skin.
The DHA reacts with the amino acids in dead skin cells, and turns them a tan color.
For typical spray tans, you have two options for tanning. First, you can choose to go to a tanning salon to get a professional spray tan from a trained service provider in your area.
This will likely result in the best look, but it can get expensive! And it requires regular re-application every week or so to keep up the spray tan.
The other option is to go with a home spray tanning system.
For example, the MaxiMist spray tan package shown here includes pretty much everything you need to get a beautiful spray tan.
Just keep in mind that you’re supposed to be using the spray gun in a regular up and down motion in order to get a nice, balanced, streak-free spray tan. This is almost impossible to do yourself, so you’ll need someone else to do the spraying for you.
If you have a partner that can handle the spraying for you, then you’re all set. But if not, each time you want to spray tan, you’ll need to have someone come by and spray you.
Spray tan application usually only lasts for about 7 days, so you’ll need to reapply the tan each week to keep it up.
What Is Tanning with a Tanning Bed?
Tanning bed sessions are also available at local salons, gyms, and spas and with home units. A tanning bed consists of a group of UV tanning bulbs on the inside of a coffin-shaped bed.
These bulbs are turned on with you inside. The body is soaked in UV light which turns the skin a golden bronze over time.
Most tanning beds use only UVA light, though some use a combination of both UVA and UVB light, and a few use only UVB light. These are “bronzing” beds.
Like spray tanning, tanning beds are often found in tanning salons, spas, gyms, and the like. You can go to a local professional for a tanning bed session, or purchase a home tanning bed.
An example of a home-based tanning bed is this Sun Technologies Solar Wave Home Tanning Bed.
Tanning beds are frowned upon by all major dermatology groups and cancer societies across the world. In fact, many countries have made home use of tanning beds illegal (such as Australia), and many states have made tanning bed use by those under 18 illegal without parental or doctor’s permission.
Virtually no one suggests you should be tanning in a tanning bed for beauty purposes. And many countries consider tanning beds to be carcinogens on the same level as cigarettes and asbestos.
Still, some users swear by their tanning beds, and many people flock to tanning salons for regular tanning sessions.
These users see and feel benefits, but I hope they recognize the dangers of these beds!
Spray Tan Pros and Cons
Let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages of spray tanning.
Benefits of Spray Tanning
Color Any Time of Year
Spray tans allow people to achieve a luminous sun-drenched look at any time of year, without getting exposed to sunlight or the UVA rays provided by a tanning bed.
Few Health Risks from Spray Tanning
There are relatively few health risks to spray tans, and dermatologists and cancer societies are strongly in favor of using self-tanners and spray tans to get the golden skin without unnecessary risk of harm or future skin cancer.
Even Coverage and Color
If the person doing the spraying is good, it’s possible to get perfectly even color across the body. With a good spray tan, you’ll get a nicer color than even if you were to tan outside.
Spray Tanning Can Be Done Anywhere
Spray tans can be done at any time of year, in any location (including the home!) so you can get tan anywhere, in any climate. It’s a great idea to get a spray tan before going on vacation, so you’ll have color before you arrive at your destination!
Spray Tans Can Sculpt the Body
A skilled spray tanner (likely from a salon) can sculpt the body to some degree, using different shades of tan to highlight features like abs or minimize features like cellulite.
There’s a reason bodybuilders use spray tan before their competitions!
Spray Tanning is Reasonably Inexpensive
Compared to indoor tanning beds, spray tanning equipment is pretty cheap. A few hundred dollars will give you the basic setup, including the tent and all the spray equipment.
The spray tanning liquid (Norvell is the best) is not terribly expensive, and all in all, the total cost is quite a bit less than a tanning bed setup.
Drawbacks of Spray Tanning
This is all good, but there are some potential downsides to spray tanning.
Salons Provide the Best Spray Tans
If you want the very best spray tan, you’ll likely want to plan to go to the salon and have a professional spray tan application. This requires visiting the salon every 7-10 days to keep up the tan. Of course, this will start to get expensive over time.
Typically a salon spray tan will be $30-50.
Home Spray Tan Systems Usually Require a Second Person to Spray
Some home spray tan systems are fantastic and can give great results. However, the proper spray tanning motion is a smooth up and down movement. Home Spray Tans should almost always is applied by a second person.
Some people can get good results by spraying themselves, but most systems work best if someone else does the spraying.
Often you will use much more spray tan solution if you try to do it yourself, and you really don’t want to have to deal with an ugly, streaky spray tan you applied yourself.
Frequency of Application
In order to keep up the spray tan look, you need to reapply every 7 or so days. This can get tiring and expensive, especially if you’re going to a salon!
Application of Spray Tan Requires You to Be Naked
If you don’t want awkward spray tan lines, you need to be naked for your spray tan application. For some people, this will be an awkward circumstance, especially as many salons don’t have spray tanners of both genders working.
Potential for the Dreaded Orange Look
Though this risk has lessened over time as spray tanning has improved, there is a risk that the spray tan color won’t blend well with the skin due to poor application and skin conditions.
This can lead to streaking or the horrid orange tan color.
You can find horror stories all over the internet, but if you are careful with your spray tan application, you should be fine.
Wash Hands and Feet Quickly to Avoid Awkward Dark Spots
Spray tans can cause strange effects on the hands, and especially on the feet. If you’re standing in a pool of spray tan, the bottoms of your feet can get unnaturally brown very quickly.
Use spray tan stick-on feet protectors in this case.
DHA May Not Be Healthy When Inhaled
There doesn’t seem to be any health issues with DHA on the skin, but there is some concern that DHA may not be healthy when inhaled.
As spray tans are aerosolized, there is a high potential for the inhalation of DHA during the application process.
Use spray tan nose plugs for protection.
Spray Tan Solutions Can be Smelly
In the past, many spray tan solutions were… well, smelly. They often had a pretty nasty odor associated with them, and where you’re supposed to keep the solution on your body for a few hours after the session before showering, it meant you had to walk around smelling bad.
And who wants to do that?
Fortunately, most modern spray tan solutions no longer have this issue. It’s a good idea to stick to reputable brands of spray tan solution.
Tanning Bed Pros and Cons
Tanning beds are frowned upon by dermatologists and cancer specialists but are still quite popular among end users. Many of the benefits and negatives are similar to tanning outside, though there are some differences.
For additional context regarding suntanning in general, I highly recommend checking out my article on the benefits of tanning outside. It is a super deep-dive into the current science and risks and benefits of tanning outside.
Much of the information in that article is relevant to tanning beds, as well.
Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of indoor tanning systems now.
Benefits of Tanning Beds
Can be done anywhere
Tanning beds can provide a tan in any location, at any time of day. As long as there is electricity! Note, though, that some home tanning beds require a 220v electric outlet.
That probably means a costly visit from a professional electrician.
Can help alleviate Seasonal Affective Disorder
Some find that tanning in a tanning bed can help mitigate the blues associated with seasonal affective disorder.
If you live in a place where it is cold and dark for significant times, a large dose of artificial sunlight can boost your mood.
Provides a Very Small Amount of Sun Protection
Base tans from tanning beds provide a very small amount of sun protection, something like an SPF 2. That’s SPF 2, not SPF 20! And this base tan provides little UVB protection, so it is not as good as an outdoor tan base-tan.
Tan Lasts for a Long Time
A tan acquired from a tanning bed will last a fairly long time, in the range of a few weeks to a month. This depends on how frequently you have been using the tanning bed, and how dark you’ve gone, but it will certainly last longer than a spray tan will.
Can Improve Some Skin Conditions
Some skin conditions such as vitiligo and psoriasis can be treated with ultraviolet light such as that created by tanning beds.
However, most dermatologists recommend supervised medical treatment for these conditions, as opposed to simply jumping into a tanning bed.
Disadvantages of Tanning Beds
UVA and UVB Radiation from Tanning Beds is Dangerous
Tanning beds are associated with higher rates of the deadly melanoma and squamous cell carcinoma, two skin cancers. Melanoma is by far the most dangerous skin cancer and is of great concern.
Indoor tanning is banned in several countries, including Australia and much of Canada.
Many US States have banned indoor tanning for minors, and the general consensus is that indoor tanning is unhealthy and risky.
Potential for Eye Cancer without Protection
Tanning beds can increase the risk of eye cancer, especially if you don’t wear goggles during your sessions.
No UVB radiation
Most tanning beds only provide UVA light, and do not expel light in the UVB spectrum. This is because UVA light was thought to be less harmful than UVB light which causes sunburn. But we now know that UVA light is dangerous too.
We know that base tans made from UVA and UVB light provides better protection than base tans made from UVA light. Sunlight gives an SPF 3, while tanning beds will give an SPF 2 or so.
If you get a base tan from a tanning bed and then go outside, you may have some small amount of protection from UVA radiation, but you will not have any protection from UVB radiation.
See our article on bronzing beds and tanning beds for more information.
Not Much Increased Vitamin D
UVB rays increase vitamin D production in the body, which is helpful for a whole bunch of reasons. However, indoor sunbeds only provide UVA radiation. As a result, there’s no big change in vitamin D.
However, as my article on the benefits of outdoor tanning discusses, vitamin D is not the whole story when it comes to tanning, and other chemicals like Nitrous Oxide and serotonin may play a bigger role than previously realized.
Premature Aging and Wrinkles
Tanning beds may cause wrinkles and premature aging as you get older, so beware.
Expensive for Home Use
Tanning beds are pretty expensive, and unless you have a whole family using the tanning bed, they may not be cost effective.
The tanning bed bulbs alone can be costly, and the tanning bed itself is often over $2000. And don’t forget the electricity, as well!
All of this adds up.
Tanning Bed Rash
It’s not uncommon for regular users of indoor tanning beds to find that they have broken out with splotchy, itchy red bumps. This tanning bed rash, and is an annoyance.
It can be hard to figure out what causes tanning bed rash, but usually, it has to do with unsanitary conditions in a tanning bed or an allergic reaction to the soup of lotions, creams, accelerators, and the like that are used in the bed.
Fortunately, it is usually not harmful, and usually goes away within a day or two.
Is a Spray Tan Safer than a Tanning Bed?
A spray tan is safer than using an indoor tanning bed. There’s no risk of developing cancer when spray tanning.
And as long as you’re careful not to inhale the spray, there’s little known risk from the chemicals involved in spray tanning.
Tanning beds, on the other hand, have significant risks associated with them.
They are less safe than both spray tanning and outdoor tanning, and in most cases should be avoided. If you’re going to use them, try to tan as fast as possible in the tanning bed.
As I’ve said elsewhere, the Australian SunSmart program is one of the most sensible advisors around when it comes to UV light exposure. They have one of the more sun-positive recommendation programs for outdoor sun exposure around.
They don’t recommend constant sunscreen use when outdoors, and they recognize clear benefits to sunlight exposure.
But even they recommend not using tanning beds at all, and argue that they should be banned. As they state, “The levels of UV radiation emitted from solariums [tanning beds] can be up to six times as strong as the midday summer sun. People who use a solarium before the age of 35 have a 59% greater risk of melanoma than those who do not use solariums.” (emphasis in original)
Getting UV exposure from the sun is a good idea in many cases. But getting UV exposure from a tanning bed is not the same thing, and is riskier. You don’t get the same benefits as you get from outdoor sun, and you take more risks.
If you want UV light, get it from the source. The sun, outside.
A Quick Primer on Responsible Sun Exposure
Here’s a quick summary of the SunSmart recommendations. And see this article on how long to tan outside for more information.
- Check the UV Index Forecast for your Area
- If the Index is under 3 while you’ll be outside, don’t apply sunscreen.
- If the Index is over 3 and you’ll only be outside for a short while, you don’t need to apply sunscreen. Cover up with clothing and a hat as needed.
- If the Index is over 3 and you’ll be outside for a long while, cover up with clothing, and apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen.
Can you get in the tanning bed with a spray tan?
Yes, you can get into a tanning bed (or tan outside) with a spray tan. Just keep in mind that a spray tan gives you no protection from the sun’s rays, and just because you look like you have a base tan, you don’t actually have one.
You will burn just as quickly with a spray tan as you would with no color at all, so you need to take care in the sun.
A base tan from a Tanning Bed gives perhaps an SPF 2 for protection, and a base tan from the sun gives perhaps an SPF 3 for protection.
Both give very little protection, but more than nothing. A spray tan gives zero sun protection.
And if fact, there is some evidence that the DHA in spray tan solution makes you more vulnerable to the dangers of ultraviolet light. You may want to use a little more sunscreen than normal if you’ve just got a spray tan.
As mentioned above, you probably shouldn’t be using tanning beds at all, so be cautious regardless.
Does a spray tan or tanning bed last longer?
A tan that you get from a tanning bed will last longer than a tan you get from a spray tan bottle. Similarly, a tan you get from going outside will last longer than a tan from a spray bottle.
However, you have to keep in mind that a spray tan can be completed in 30 minutes, and will last for a week.
A tanning bed tan, acquired over many sessions over weeks, will last for a longer time, but you’ll have to spend hours and hours in the tanning bed to get that full “base” tan.
Are spray tans better than tanning beds?
When it comes to the question of the spray tan vs tanning bed, there is a clear answer. Spray tans are absolutely a better choice than tanning beds for virtually all people.
There are very few risks associated with spray tan use, and the biggest downside is that if you want a home spray tan system, you’ll need to find someone to spray you. Of course, if you have a partner or friend who likes to tan, you can spray each other, and both can benefit from the spray tan.
Tanning beds have significant health risks associated with them, and just aren’t worth it. Instead, prioritize getting your sunlight by going outdoors. As I mentioned above, follow the SunSmart guidelines for sun exposure, and get your rays responsibly outside.
If you want to pick up a spray tanning system, the MaxiMist system is a great all-around choice. And it is compatible with the Norvell Self Tanners, which are excellent.