Get a streak-free sunless tan with our beginner’s guide to spray tanning for first-timers.
You might call me pale—I prefer porcelain. I’ve never set foot near a tanning bed, and I slather myself with SPF 50 at the beach. My mom had a minor bout with skin cancer when I was a teen, and I’ve been serious about sun protection ever since.
But whenever spring rolls around, like everyone else I long for a little healthy glow.
So faced with the prospect of going to a co-worker’s wedding bare-legged for the first time since winter, I decided to try getting a spray tan. I’m too clumsy and impatient for the at-home products, which seem to require careful application and a long period of sitting still to dry. Maybe, I thought, the fake bake is best left to a professional.
I made an appointment at A Moment’s Peace Salon & Spa in Franklin, Tenn. They use the VersaSpa Sunless Tanning System that involves standing up in an enclosed booth while you’re sprayed by tiny jets with a dihydroxyacetone (DHA) solution, which like most sunless tanners reacts with the amino acids in your skin to create the color.
The night before my first time spray tanning, I showered, exfoliated and shaved but skipped the moisturizer as the salon instructed. Once there, the attendant led me into a small room with the tanning booth attached and explained the 4-5 minute process, which involves moving through a series of 4 positions to ensure seamless coverage.
I must have been obviously anxious, because the attendant assured me that there was a cheat sheet in the booth to help me remember how to stand. He also said the spray was nontoxic, and not to worry about getting it in my eyes, nose or mouth. This was reassuring, but I didn’t plan to test it out!
We talked about how naturally fair-skinned I am and how tan I wanted to be—he suggested that out of Light, Medium or Dark, we should set the machine to Medium. Light might be so subtle that I’d feel I’d wasted my time and money, he said, but Medium would make me look “like I’d gone away for the weekend.” I agreed, he left the room and I began the preparation process.
First, I put on the hairnet the salon provided, leaving a bit of hair showing. I peeled off all my clothes—yes, all of them. Then I removed my makeup with some wet wipes provided, which I found a little abrasive. (Next time I’ll wash my face before I get there.) Finally, I put a protective barrier cream on my palms, the soles of my feet and between toes and fingers—basically anywhere that the product tends to cling and give you the dreaded orange appearance.
Inside the Booth
Now, I was ready to get inside the booth. It’s the size of a small shower, but it reminded me of those new airport scanners—circular and futuristic-looking. It’s equipped with a heat lamp to protect you from getting too cold. I positioned my feet on the line about three feet from the jets, being careful not to slip because the bottoms of my feet were slick with lotion. I assumed the first position, facing front with my arms at my sides, and pushed the start button. After a few seconds, I heard it whir into action.
The light mist wasn’t cold, and had a pleasant, fruity smell. After the 8-second spray, a female voice told me to change to the next position, which the attendant had described as the “running man”: facing the right side with my feet in mid-stride, my right arm up and bent at the elbow, and my left arm down and bent. Position 3 is the mirror image of that pose to the left, and position 4 is facing the back with your hands at your sides but bent at the wrist to keep the spray off your palms.
There wasn’t much time in between each spray to change positions, so I felt a little frantic. Then, I was instructed to turn to the back and then the front while the jets air-dried me, twice each time. I relaxed a little, knowing the tricky part was over. That was followed by a moisturizing mist; then I was dried again. Finally, the voice told me to exit the booth. I felt a little like I had just gone through an automatic carwash.
I looked in the mirror, but there was nothing to see, really: The tan develops gradually over the course of about 8 hours and typically doesn’t begin to show for at least 4. VersaSpa offers a bronze version of the mist if you want instant results, say for an event, but otherwise clear is recommended.
As I had been instructed, I used the wet wipes to go over the areas where I had put the barrier cream—again, to make sure the tanning product wasn’t too heavy there.
I was a bit reluctant to put my work clothes back on, even though the attendant said the color wouldn’t transfer because I had been dried in the booth. I have to admit, I was surprised not to see any stains or marks on my clothes when I took them off later that night.
About an hour after I left the salon, I noticed that distinctive self-tanning smell—a side effect of the chemical reaction between the product and skin cells that creates the color. I’m not crazy about it, but there’s essentially no way to avoid it. I started to notice the color develop within a few hours, and the next morning, it was like I’d been to Cancun in my dreams! The smell did linger, though, and I woke up to stained sheets several mornings after my trip to the booth. But the color washed out, no problem.
Overall, I liked the results, which lasted about a week. It looked natural, not like the orange Snooki look that you can get if you’re too zealous with the at-home tanners. And it was far more even than I ever could have achieved on my own.
On a subsequent visit, I tested out some pre- and post-tanning products by VersaSpa meant to improve the color and extend the life of the tan. I did get a darker color initially, and the tan seemed to fade more slowly and evenly. But the products are pricey, so I'd recommend them only if you plan to tan on a regular basis. The result without was still fantastic, and more than sufficient for a special occasion.
I don’t think spray tanning will be a weekly indulgence for me, but I definitely plan to pop into the booth occasionally for a pick-me-up!
What to Wear
You’ll be completely naked for the actual spraying process, but you can put your clothes back on almost immediately after. There’s little chance of the product getting on your clothes, but you may not want to wear your Sunday best, just in case.
Do’s and Don’ts
- Do exfoliate well before you go.
- Don’t moisturize the day of your appointment.
- Do generously apply barrier cream to the areas of your body that tend to absorb more product: feet, knees, ankles, hands and elbows.
- Don’t worry about getting the spray in your eyes, nose or mouth.
- Do feel free to shower and sweat the day after your tan.
- Don’t shave or use abrasive products for a few days to preserve your color.
- Do buy a darker shade of foundation or bronzer to match your tanned skintone while the color lasts.
- Don’t swim in a chlorinated pool if you want your tan to last as long as possible—chlorine will make it fade faster.