Sunless Tanning Tips series: Part 4 - Application

Welcome to Part 4 of my Sunless Tanning Tips series!! In this post, I'll teach you how to apply self-tanner like a pro!

Sunless Tanning Tips Series: Part 4 - Application - tips on applying  your sunless tanner, whether it's a lotion, gel, mousse, airbrush solution, or aerosol! Fourth part in a series of sunless tanning tips where you can "Learn how to Self-Tan Like A Pro"!

(This post may contain affiliate links which were added to make it easier for you to find the items. If you click on an affiliate link and make a purchase, I will receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you). You are free to use the links or not - if you do, I thank you!)

Now that you've chosen your product and have gathered all the necessary tools, we're ready to talk about application.

Let me start off by saying a couple of things:
  • Don't be afraid! It's just sunless tanner (ST)/airbrush solution (ABS). If you make a mistake, you can fix it with bronzer, remove it (with a little elbow grease), or just wear long sleeves or jeans. And a sunless tanner mistake is way better than a sunburn any day!
  • Practice makes perfect.

As I mentioned in one of the other posts, I've been using ST regularly for about 15 years now. I've had a lot of time to practice and perfect my technique. I can get my tan on in about 10 minutes. But it used to take a bit longer - so don't worry if it takes you longer, you'll get faster with practice!

Sunless Tanning Tips Series: Part 4 - Application - tips on applying  your sunless tanner, whether it's a lotion, gel, mousse, airbrush solution, or aerosol! Fourth part in a series of sunless tanning tips where you can "Learn how to Self-Tan Like A Pro"!

Here is the basic order of how I apply:
1) Shower & exfoliate
2) Apply lotion to areas that "grab" color
3) Apply ST/ABS in this order:
  • left lower leg
  • left upper leg
  • right lower leg
  • right upper leg
  • stomach
  • back
  • chest
  • right arm
  • left arm
  • face
4) Detail - wipe excess ST/ABS from elbows, knees, feet, face
5) Apply ST/ABS to hands
6) Detail - wipe excess ST/ABS from nails, cuticles, and palms

And now, I'll go into detail about each step!

  • Prior to applying ST/ABS, it's best to shower, shave your legs, and exfoliate. If you don't exfoliate, your tan is going to fade more quickly, and it may not fade evenly.
  • Use a non-moisturizing shower gel. Do not use bar soap or anything that will leave a film on your skin. If you have used something to remove a previous sunless tan, be sure to go over skin with a non-moisturizing shower gel with nylon exfoliating gloves to remove any residue.
  • Use nylon exfoliating gloves to lightly exfoliate skin. Loofahs do not exfoliate evenly, so it's best to avoid them.
  • After showering, you may apply lotion all over your body if it absorbs well - but know that it may make your sunless tan lighter. You definitely want to apply lotion to feet, knees, elbows, and hands, as well as any other areas that you know tend to "grab" color.
  • I'll talk about maintenance & reapplication in an upcoming post.

  • A colorguide (the tint in the product) makes self-tanner (ST/ABS) much easier to apply evenly - especially if you're a beginner. This tint makes it easy to see where you have already applied the product, so if you see a lighter area on your skin, you know you missed a spot and can go back and apply to that area.
  • I highly recommend wearing vinyl gloves (or latex) to prevent staining of your palms. You can also use a tanning mitt (probably works best with mousses), but most will have some "leakage", so it's best to wear a glove on the hand inside the mitt. The only time I don't wear gloves is when I use a microfiber pad with airbrush solution (ABS). However, not all pads are equal, so sometimes a glove is necessary if the ABS leaks through the pad (usually towards the end of your tanning session when the pad tends to be more saturated).
  • Work with one area at a time, as I do in my list above. (Tip: If you do your arms first, you're going to be moving and bending them while tanning the rest of your body, which can mess up the ST on your arms. Save your arms for later!)

  • Apply in a circular motion, then smooth by moving hands in an up-and-down or side-to-side motion. The purpose of this is just to make sure you've covered all areas evenly. If you're using a product with a CG, it will be easier to see if you've missed any spots.
  • Don't try to rub the product "in". It's not moisturizing lotion. Use enough that you can easily move your hands over your skin, and once the product is on evenly, leave it alone. As a matter of fact, even if the CG looks uneven, as long as you haven't missed any spots, leave it alone. The two most common mistakes made are, 1) not using enough product, and 2) trying to rub it in.

  • Work in a well-ventilated area.
  • Keep the can at least 6-10 inches from skin. Any closer and you're going to apply too much - any further away and you're just going to be wasting product.
  • Keep the can moving while tanning each body part - this helps make sure you're applying evenly.
  • Optional: I'm always worried about uneven application with aerosols, so after applying to each body part, I stop and used my gloved hands to lightly skim over the damp skin. Just as if I was applying a lotion. It makes me feel like it's applied more evenly.

  • Dampen the pad slightly before applying ABS.
  • Be sure to apply enough solution to the pad. Not using enough product is a common mistake with ABS, too. Using a fine mist spray bottle, I use about 20 sprays on the pad for each part of body. You may need more or less depending upon your body surface area.
  • The trick is to lightly skim the skin with the pad rather than rubbing it on the skin like you're washing in the shower. I usually apply in a somewhat circular motion to get the ABS on the skin, then I very lightly use an up-and-down motion to smooth it out and make sure I've covered everything. Just think about the fact that this product was made to be sprayed on the skin - so it's not supposed to be rubbed in - it should lay on the surface of the skin.
  • The amount of ABS you use is going to vary depending upon the size of your body and how much of it you're tanning. I'm 5'3" tall, and if I tan everything except my face, I will use around 1.5 oz. of ABS. That is doing one light coat of product which gives me a light-medium tan.

  • Apply a light layer of lotion to feet.
  • Since the skin on your feet will absorb more ST/ABS than the skin on your body, you need to use a lighter product on them. One way to do this is to use a gradual tanner. These are products readily available in drug or grocery stores, and are designed to be applied several days in a row to create a "gradual" tan. Since they have a lot less DHA (the ingredient that tans the skin) than ST/ABS, a lot of people like to use them on hands and feet.
  • Another way to tan feet is to just mix a little lotionwith the ST/ABS you used on your body. This dilutes it enough that your feet won't be too dark. (This is what I do.)
  • Wearing vinyl/latex gloves, put about a pea-sized amount of lotion and same amount of ST/ABS (or the equivalent amount of gradual tanner) in one palm. Gently mix together, and start applying to one foot like you would apply lotion. Be sure to blend the "line" where the regular ST/ABS ends below ankle.
  • Repeat for other foot.
  • Some people find that they need to apply more lotion to hands after 1-2 hours. This isn't the case for me, but it is for some.

  • Tanning your face can be a little tricky. Some people find that ST/ABS causes breakouts - and I'm one of those people. Most people find they have less issues with untinted, fragrance-free ABS. I used to make my own facial tanner with minimal ingredients, and that worked really well for me. Unfortunately, I've had issues finding ingredients for it, so I recently found a similar product online
  • Be sure to apply into hairline.
  • If you have very light hair, you may find that ST/ABS can make it look yellowish. You can help prevent this by tanning your face when your hair is wet, or by applying a little conditioner to the hair around your face.
  • Use a cotton swab to remove ST/ABS from any areas you know "grab" color.
  • Blend ST/ABS onto neck and down to chest.

Now that I've applied the ST/ABS everywhere but my hands, I do a little detailing. As I mentioned in previous posts, there will be areas on your body that will "grab" color. Some of those areas are the same for everyone - knees and elbows, for instance. I remove my gloves and use a damp wash cloth to gently wipe some of the ST/ABS off my knees and elbows. I also use a cotton swab to remove the ST/ABS from my tattoos and my toenails/cuticles.

Now is a great time to clean up your tools - I rinse off my gloves (being careful not to splash water on my ST/ABS), and rinse out my microfiber pad. I clean off the countertops or whatever else needs to be done.

  • Hands tan a lot like feet, so you'll want to use a gradual tanner or dilute your ST/ABS with lotion - just like I explained for feet.
  • Apply like lotion, getting between fingers, and blending onto wrists.
  • Use a damp wash cloth or makeup remover wipes to carefully clean nails, cuticles, and palms.
  • You may also find that you need to remove a bit of ST/ABS from knuckles - but you'll only know for sure once you've tanned. The general rule is - the drier the area or thicker the skin, the more ST/ABS it will absorb.
  • Some people find they need to apply more lotion to hands after 1-2 hours. I've practiced enough to know how much to dilute the ABS so I don't have to reapply lotion, but I used to have to do it all the time. 
  • I always tan my hands, feet, and face slightly lighter than the rest of my body. I think it looks better (at least on me), and I can always darken those areas with makeup or bronzer. Better too light than too dark!

Now that you've applied the product - how long do you leave it on?

Well, this is another tricky area. Despite what most product packaging tells you, your skin is going to absorb the maximum amount of DHA it can absorb in about 6-8 hours. Most ST/ABS products take a full 18-24 to develop completely, but you stop absorbing DHA after 6-8 hours. It will continue to develop even after you wash it off.

However, when you use a tinted product, you also have dyes that are staining the skin. In some people, this is a good thing. Their skin holds onto that pretty brown tint and it makes their sunless tan even darker. So if they leave their product on for 10-12 hours, they might very well be darker due to the stain from the tint.

But for others, like me, the tint absorbs and fades unevenly, giving me a splotchy tan after a day or two. I could use an untinted product, but I really like seeing where I've applied the ST. So I shower the ST off after 4-6 hours. This allows my skin to absorb most of the DHA without absorbing the tint.

I don't like to sleep in my tinted ABS (it stains the sheets), so I usually tan around 7pm, then shower sometime between 11pm and 1 am.


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