Q&A Tuesday: How to Get the Perfect Sunless Tan

We receive dozens of emails this time of year asking about self-tanners. They range from what are the best formulas, how to make them last to the ins and outs of spray tans.  I thought I would answer them all in one post at the beginning of the season for easy reference going forward. 

How to Get the Perfect Sunless Tan

There is a theory in the business world that you need to log 10,000 hours in a particular field to be considered an expert. If I look back on my life, the one area I have likely reached this milestone is in self-tanning. I’ve been slathering my body with sunless tanning lotion since the 5th grade, right around the same time that the kids in school realized I was freakishly pale, and voiced their strong dislike of it.

I bought my first bottle of Rite Aid brand lotion with babysitting money. I remember like it was yesterday, the feeling of optimistic anticipation as I poured sticky, white goo all over my little body. The more lotion, the better the tan, I thought. I had visions of looking like Christie Brinkley. My long, lanky limbs would turn into that of a bronzed supermodel. I would be gorgeous.

You know how this turns out.

I looked like an Oompa Loompa, with a rare streaky skin condition.

That would be lesson enough for the average person, but average I am not. I did this dance for close to a decade. Every year, at the first hint of warm weather, I would be back at it. Each time with the same boundless, naive optimism. I spent a few years in the drugstores, trying various brands. Then, with time and better-paying part-time jobs, I worked my way to the department stores. I ordered from TV and the back of teen magazines. I did everything.

In between my sunless attempts I thought maybe I could just train my skin to tan by the sun. What if I laid out every day? I started with 15 minutes a day and added 5 minutes the next day. You know, to ease my skin into a tan. Or, tanning beds. I actually laid in a tanning bed. That was smart. Generations of Irish skin and countless family members with skin cancer be damned, I was going to out maneuver genetics.

Like the reason I wasn’t tan was because I wasn’t trying hard enough.

After a few less than glamorous sunburns, I learned my lesson. I will not tan. I cannot tan. Luckily, with time, science and technology brought us to where we are today. There are countless options available, all reasonably priced, that can make even the palest of the pale look healthy and sun-kissed without the use of harmful rays.

Let’s start with at home options. When I self-tan at home, I only focus on my legs, arms, face, and neck. I don’t do it myself for special occasions or before vacations when I know I’ll be in a bathing suit (more on that in a minute). At home is just for the day to day.

I shave the night before since my skin is sensitive. Doing so gives my skin some time to calm down. The night before I use an extra emollient moisturizer. Dry skin is the death of good, smooth tan. The next day in the shower I use a gentle exfoliant on my knees, elbows and any other area that may need it. St Tropez makes a phenomenal in shower self-tanner. That’s right, you shower as usual, then turn off the shower while your body is damp and apply the lotion. Wait 3 minutes and rinse off. I have no idea how it works, but it’s a revelation. The color is subtle, but takes the glare off – so to speak.

When I want something a bit darker and have more time, I use a traditional St. Tropez lotion and apply with their mitt. Always use their mitt. It prevents your hands from getting stained and gives better coverage. The formula goes on dark so you can see what you are doing. After the initial application, I’ll use their in shower lotion to maintain the life of the tan.

I know, I’m so smart. Remember, I’m an expert.

Now, when I go on vacation, quick trips or for special occasions, I get a spray tan. It’s quick, easy and guarantees I don’t miss a hard to reach spot. The prep is the same, but it takes some thought regarding scheduling. Do you wax? If so, do that the day before and shave the night before. Same if you need a manicure and pedicure. If you get a pedi after your tan, it will come off. The morning of, exfoliate all over with a loofah brush. Wear loose fitting clothes to your appointment. I have an inexpensive tank dress I bought at Target in black that I wear just to tan. Don’t wear your best bra either, one that is on its last leg is totally fine. Your clothes may stain a bit, so you don’t want to love what you’re wearing. Once the tan sets and you shower off the excess, you don’t have to worry about staining.

I’ve found that Norvell, a line of salon quality self-tanning formulas, is the best. All salons are different so ask ahead about what options are best for you. Read Yelp reviews of local salons – that’s your best bet in finding a good fit. I typically get a Full Body Tan and love the results. Last weekend I flew to Vegas and tried their new One Hour option. It’s the same tan, but you are dry, and the tan sets in 60 minutes. You can get dressed and go about your day as usual. Last Thursday I had a 10 am spray tan scheduled. The appointment was 30 minutes long. I was totally dry by 11:30 and at the airport by 2 pm. Seriously amazing. By the time I landed I was perfectly bronzed. The Full Body Tan runs me $55 and lasts a week. The One Hour is $65 and lasts just as long.

Having a good technician is key since they operate the “hose”. I work with the owner, Kim, of my local salon. You’ll know you are in good hands if your technician shows you how to move your body, so you get even coverage. They should also put lotion on the back of your hands, allowing them to remain clean. After the spray, she’ll pay close attention to cleaning the back of your hands, finger and toe nails. Your hair is in a shower cap for protection. You’ll wait about 15 minutes before you get dressed. If you have a traditional spray, you’ll feel tacky for a few hours. With the one hour option, you’ll be dry before you leave the salon.

Regarding showering, the longer you wait, the better. Typically it’s recommended that you wait 12 hours. I schedule my appointments in the morning and shower the following morning. All important to know, so you fit it into your schedule. If you are tanning for an important evening event, your tan will look it’s best 24 to 48 hours after your appointment. For Friday night weddings I would tan on Wednesday evening or Thursday morning.

Of course, you’re naked so make sure you’re comfortable with that. Kim has seen my entire neighborhood naked, and my modesty went out the window after I had kids. Nothing phases me. Do what you gotta do for beauty is my philosophy. I do wear a little thong since everything doesn’t need to tan – and I like seeing the tan line.

My inner 5th grader gets excited every time I see it.


Megan Kristel

Megan Kristel is an entrepreneur, working mom, and former personal stylist. Tired of the one-dimensional portrayal of women online, she founded The Well Dressed Life as a resource for other professional women.

  1. Maybe it’s time to come to terms and embrace pale skin. I have scars all over me now from melanoma surgery and biopsys. I chased the perfect tan worldwide from my 20’s until I got basal cell at 49.

    1. My attempts at tanning with the sun lasted one summer in my teens. The rest of my life I’ve spent in SPF 100. Some people really like how a light tan looks and feel more confident with one. My point of the blog was to help them get one safely, effectively and without the sun. Sorry if the point was lost.

  2. I’m beginning to like a paler look but I think it’s because I’m starting to see it as healthier and the sun damage I see on my arms gets splotchier the older I get.

    That said, on the “mainland” its easier to be paler. When I go home to Hawaii, its a lot tougher. There, even people who don’t try to tan, are tan. Like it or not, even loved ones make comments about how my paleness is “blinding”. So self-tanning spray is a wonderful option. Thank you for differentiating them here. I’m excited to try the in-shower option!! Never heard about that before.

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