How to Prevent (and Fix) Self-Tanning Disasters
by Neha Gandhi
The tan in a bottle has evolved. No longer the orange mess of the ’80s, it is now fool-proof and streak-free. Well, not exactly, but we can help.
Retinal damage, skin cancer, sunspots, wrinkles, dry and leathery skin — the list of reasons not to slather yourself in tanning oil and lie in the sun are endless. But a girl’s gotta have her summertime glow, and that’s what self-tanners are for, if used properly. We’ll show you how to fix self-tanning disasters, and better yet, how to prevent a streaky, splotchy mess in the first place.
First, the basics: Sunless tanning products work on the top layer of skin (the dead cells you slough off when you exfoliate.) The dihydroxyacetone (DHA) in the product reacts with the amino acids in the dead skin cells to produce melaninoids, which result in increased pigmentation in that top layer. So, a sunless tan lives in the top layer of your skin, and does not extend any further. A good tan then, starts with an even top layer, and a bad tan can be faded out by exfoliating the top layer away. Beyond exfoliating, here are some tips for avoiding catastrophe.
5 SELF-TANNING DISASTERS TO AVOID
Why is my Self-Tanner Blotchy? Here’s How to Fix Blotchy Self-Tanner
Prep your skin beforehand. Shave your legs, use a quality exfoliator like this one ($47, sephora.com), and moisturize. Start exfoliating a few days before you self-tan, and avoid over-moisturizing immediately before you apply the product. Finally, apply the tanner slowly and be sure to rub it in completely, paying extra attention to the knees, elbows, feet, and neck, all parts of the body that will absorb the tanner more readily.
Tinted products are the most fool-proof, because you can see the distribution of the sunless tanner before it develops. Opt for a lotion instead of a quick-drying foam, for a better window of opportunity to correct any uneven spots before the DHA starts reacting with your skin. We recommend Clarins’ Self Tanning Milk SPF 6 ($34, nordstrom.com), which requires 1-2 hours to develop, with the added benefits of hydration and protection.
Still nervous? Try Tarte's Better Bod Bronze & Contour ($39, tarte.com). It provides an immediate tan that will stay put all day, plus it comes with a cute self-tanning mitt for goof-proof application. Also importantly, could that packaging be any more adorable?!
How to Avoid That Too-Orange Glow
When trying out a new brand of self-tanner, always start with a light to medium shade, rather than a dark one. You can always go back and apply the darker shade, but you can’t undo the damage once you’ve turned day-glo orange. Experts also recommend diluting your self tanner by mixing it with equal parts of moisturizer. But exercise caution, because if you don’t blend the two properly, you’ll end up with streaks and spots. To play it safe, try Jergen’s Natural Glow daily moisturizer ($9.99, ulta.com) — they’ve done the work for you by mixing self tanner with lotion. The result? A gradual, natural tan, and soft skin to boot.
How to Avoid Premature Fading
Since you can exfoliate to fade an uneven tan, it follows to reason that you can also exfoliate away a perfect tan. To keep your sunless tan intact as long as possible, avoid shaving your legs for 48 hours after you’ve applied the product. Also avoid long baths or chlorine-filled pools, all of which will rub off the top layer of skin and interfere with the DHA reaction.
How to Avoid Orange Palms and Feet
These are a dead giveaway that your tan is faux. To avoid, apply the tanning lotion or cream with gloved hands (latex gloves work best because they are non-porous). This can make the application process more difficult, however, so if you don’t think you can apply the product evenly with gloves, don’t. Instead, wash your hands repeatedly throughout the process. Do one body part at a time, and after rubbing the product on each part, wash your hands.
How to Avoid Stained Clothes and Feet
To avoid getting your new tan all over your clothes, wait at least 15 minutes after you’ve finished applying it to get dressed. To ensure that the self-tanner has set, dry your skin with a blow-dryer on a cool setting (sweat will make your tan streak, so be careful). When you are ready to dress, avoid clingy nylons in favor of breathable cotton, and you should be golden.
Self-Tanning Damage Control, for When You Make A Huge Mess
Self-tanning is a messy process, and even the most devoted self-tanners can make mistakes. Here are a few tips for cleaning up the mess, if you end up with a bad sunless tan.
How to Remove Self Tanner
These ways to remove self tanner are especially useful for getting the orange off of your palms, fingernails, and the bottoms of your feet. If you don’t have the patience to wash your hands 15 or 20 times while applying the lotion, just use St. Tropez’ Self Tan Remover ($19, ulta.com) or Tanologist’s Tan Eraser + Primer ($14.99, ulta.com). These self tanner removal products are most effective in removing the tan before the DHA has started the chemical process or color change. They can still help after the tan has begun to develop, but they will not be able to remove streaks or blotches completely.
How to Remove Your Self-Tanner Using Loofahs, Scrubs, and Shaving
Exfoliate, exfoliate, exfoliate, to slough off some of the affected dead skin cells. Draw a bath, shave your legs, and then scrub the darker streaks or spots with a loofah ($7.99, amazon.com). Be careful not to overscrub, or you’ll end up red and splotchy, in addition to unevenly tanned.
How to Remove Your Self Tanner Using Chemicals
We don’t necessarily advocate the use of harsh chemicals, but they are an option if you’re in a real pinch. Chlorine, peroxide, bleach, and anti-dandruff shampoos are all supposed to strip off the top layer of skin and interfere with the DHA, thereby lightening the fake tan. They may also irritate sensitive skin, so exercise caution — dilute the chemicals with moisturizer and avoid your face and neck at the very least. And never apply immediately after shaving or exfoliating.
How to Use Makeup To Conceal Self-Tanner
If self tanners go awry on your face, first try to blend with a tinted moisturizer ($40, sephora.com)— a heavier foundation will only draw attention to the uneven color. Next, aim for a fresh-looking face. Skip the bronzers and blushes because adding a third shade of tan to your face will only exacerbate the problem. Apply a natural lip gloss, and for a more made-up look, draw attention to your eyes with liner rather than color.
How to Fix Your Self-Tanning Mistakes By Adding Even More Self-Tanner
Prefer filling in the light spots to lightening the tan spots? It’s a little tricky, but if you’re on the pale side, you can try to fill in the color with self tanning towelettes. Try Comodynes’ Self-Tanning Towelettes ($20.71, amazon.com) to fill in the light spaces and even out your color.
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