What is Spray Tanning?

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Because we now know that baking in the sun (or in a tanning bed) is REALLY bad for our skin, people are turning to spray tanning to get that beautiful bronze glow.

But what is spray tanning? How does it work? Is it better than self tanners?

In this article, we’ll explain what spray tanning is, how it differs from fake tanners, and whether it’s the best way to get a glowing skin.


What is Spray Tanning?

MaxiMist Spray Tan

Spray tanning is an easy and healthy way to get and maintain a great tan. Professional spray tanning is simple, quick, and produces natural-looking results with few of the health risks of tanning beds or sun tanning.

The active ingredient in all spray tans is dihydroxyacetone (DHA).

Regardless of the other ingredients in the formula, it’s DHA that’s responsible for the temporary darkening of the skin.

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. This process is called a maillard reaction.

Though all spray tan products contain DHA, they don’t all carry the same percentage. Generally speaking, the higher the percentage of DHA, the quicker and darker the spray tan will develop.

More DHA = a darker spray tan color.

Everyone has a different body and skin chemistry. The percentage of DHA can be customized by the spray tan artist to accommodate your unique skin and desired result.

b tan Spray tan solution


Aside from having a conversation with the spray tan artist in terms of what you’re looking for, another way to figure out what percentage of DHA in your tanning formula is best for you is to find the Fitzpatrick Scale for your skin, and your skin’s undertones.

This will help you dial in a spray tan color that will work well with your skin, hair, etc.

If you’re planning on getting a spray tan before a big event, get it done a few days before. A few days is just enough time for a spray tan to develop fully, and ensure nothing went wrong like spray tan on your hands, cracking, or missed spots.

Spray tan methods

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 gun to apply the spray tan in a spray tan tent.

Tanning artists often work freelance and you can schedule in-home appointments. Typically an appointment lasts for about 30 min.

They will use a portable tanning machine, which provides a similar level of control and consistency as tanning booths. When applied correctly, you won’t have streaks or dreaded tan lines.

Spray Tanners are actually clear

Spray Tan Solution

DHA is colorless. This means tanning products don’t need to have the cosmetic additive they use to make it look brown.

Tanning companies add a bronzer into the tanning solution.

Though it’s the bronzer component (not the active tanning ingredient), that can rub off your clothes and it doesn’t play a role in tanning your skin, it’s added primarily for marketing purposes.

If a consumer doesn’t know that DHA is the real tanning ingredient, they’ll opt for the bronze formulas over clear because they think it will work better.

The bronzer also makes it easier to make sure you have full coverage and you haven’t missed any spots.

Is spray tan bad for you?

Spray Tan Nose Plugs

Not really, as long as it is applied correctly.

The FDA does recommend not inhaling tanning solution and keeping it out of your mucous membranes, like your eyes, nose and mouth.

Spray tanning is considered safe, as long as you don’t breathe it in.

Now that can be difficult if you’re in a booth and you can’t hold your breath for 15 minutes. This is where you have to do your homework before you book an appointment.

Make sure the salon has nose plugs like those shown above, and extractor fans.

Also keep your mouth and eyes closed during spraying.

Spray Tan vs Self Tanner

Self Tanners

All forms of self-tanners and spray tans use the same active ingredient – DHA. As to which is better, let’s look at the pros and cons for each so you can make up your mind.

Spray Tanning

Spray tanning is easy. Whether you go to the salon and use a booth or have someone come to your house and use an air gun, you don’t have to do anything except stand there.

The booth or technician then sprays your entire body with a fine mist and you’re done!

Another benefit of spray tanning is the fact that it dries quicker than a lot of self-tanning products.

That means it’s less likely to get all over your clothes, your bed sheets your car seats, pets, etc.

Some people like the color and evenness you get with spray tanning. Others think self tanners give them a better result. Because everyone has slightly different skin chemistry, you’ll really need to experiment a bit to see what works best for you.

The biggest drawback to getting a spray tan is the cost. One session can cost anywhere from $25 to $50, and even higher in many places.

Spray tanning works out to be a lot more expensive than using a self tanner at home.

Then there’s the inconvenience of either going to a tanning salon or scheduling an appointment for someone to come to your house for a spray tan.

A spray tan will last about a week. If you want to sustain your tropical glow, you’ll have to pencil in weekly appointments with your tanning artist.

Self Tanners

Self tanners also last for about a week. So you will have to reapply as often as you would need to schedule a spray tanning appointment.

And of course there is the whole issue of potentially breathing in your spray tan, whereas this is not a concern if you are using a self tanner.

There are lots of different varieties of sunless self tanners on the market. If you are not keen on a particular feel of a certain product, you can get self-tanners in lotions. mists, foams, mousses and serums.

But you have to apply self tanner yourself. It can be messy, it can be hard to apply evenly everywhere. It’s particularly hard to apply to your back. But it’s way more convenient.

Spray Tan Prep

We’ve put together a full article on spray tan prep. But for a quick version, here a few tips to maximize your spray tan results.

  1. Take a shower and make sure your skin is free of dirt, oils , lotion, sunscreen, etc.
  2. EXFOLIATE! This will help ensure that the DHA in your spray tan isn’t reacting with the dead skin cells you are just about to shed. Not only will it keep your tan lasting longer, you will avoid blotches where your skin is uneven.
  3. Make sure you are wearing loose fitting clothes. Avoid socks, denim, yoga pants or anything that fits snuggly.
  4. Wear sandals or flip flops.

Spray Tan Aftercare

To help maintain your spray tan for as long as possible, here are a few aftercare tips. Again, we’ve got a whole article on spray tan aftercare with complete details.

  1. Wait 4-8 hours after you spray tan before you take a shower.
  2. When you do shower, make sure you’re using soap and lukewarm (not hot) water. Rinse your whole body and towel away any dripping water. If you don’t wash and rinse the bronzer off of you properly, once you step out, bronzer residue can drip down, creating a running, streaky look.
  3. Avoid any skin care products with any products with glycolic or salicylic acid in them. These are chemical exfoliators, which means they’re indirectly speeding up the tan’s removal.
  4. Avoid crossing your legs or arms and try to minimize skin to skin contact.
  5. Use an oil –free moisturizer like coconut oil after your shower.

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).