Having a tan is commonly seen as a sign of health and youth, when it can be quite the opposite – any changes to the pigment in your skin caused by the sun is a sign of damage. This is why many people turn to fake tan as a safer alternative to sunbathing or sunbeds.
Sun exposure can accelerate signs of ageing, including wrinkles, and can cause types of skin cancer. You can read more about the damage it does – both short and long term – in our What is SPF and why is it so important? guide, and if you’ve realised this later in life, we’ve also explained how to get rid of age spots.
If you’re used to getting spray tan and can’t get to a salon, or want to try fake tan for the first time, we’ve spoken to experts at St Moritz – arguably one of the leading tanning companies and our favourite go-to brand – to explain how fake tan works, how to apply it and, most importantly, how to remove fake tan when it all goes wrong!
Most fake tans contain a molecule called dihydroxyacetone (DHA). When applied to your skin, this molecule reacts with the amino acids in your dead skin cells to produce brown molecules called melanoidins. The reaction, called the Malliard reaction, is the same one that gives baked foods their brown colour and distinct biscuit flavour. And you guessed it, it’s the reason lots of fake tan leaves you smelling like biscuits.
Most fake tans contain up to 15% DHA, and the higher the percentage is, the darker the tan will develop.Other fake tans, aimed at more of a gradual build-up, use a compound called erythrulose instead of, or alongside, DHA. This molecule causes the same reaction with amino acids but is slower to take effect and lasts longer, as a result.
When we’re not on lockdown, the easiest way to get apply fake tan is via a beautician for a spray tan.
However, while we’re stuck indoors, many of us are taking tanning into our own hands.
With the potential to end up with patchy, orange blobs on your skin, it’s important to take care when applying fake tan products.
These products come in different formulas, including creams, sprays and mousse, and the easiest we’ve used is the St Moritz Insta-Grad tanning Mousse.
It’s a tinted mousse so it instantly applies a bronze glow and also gradually develops a tan over time.
Due to its gradual nature, it smells more like a moisturiser rather than having a strong biscuit smell.
“Make sure you shower and exfoliate well ahead of applying tan,” Jordan Cook, expert tanner at St Moritz told mamabella. Exfoliating gets rid of patches of skin that contain more dead cells than others – which are likely to react more strongly with the active ingredients in the fake tan and turn darker.
Moisturisers can prevent the tan from developing, but if you have dry patches like your elbows, you could use a little bit of moisturiser there before tanning to avoid them becoming darker than everywhere else.
“If you normally wax, make sure you do this at least one to two days before your tanning treatment,” added Cook. Likewise, “if you normally shave, make sure you do this at least 16 hours before tanning.” Hair removal can make your skin particularly sensitive, so giving your skin time to recover is important.
“Wear loose, dark clothes after you apply fake tan, as you don’t want anything tight that will rub where the tan is developing on your skin” she continued. “For females – if you can go without a bra afterward for a couple of hours, this prevents rubbing. Tanning before bed is a great way to let it develop fully overnight.”
The better you care for your skin after you have used a fake tan, the longer it will last.
After it is applied to the skin, the reaction will continue to darken your skin for around 24 to 72 hours, then it will last last three to ten days.
For St Moritz, Cook recommends waiting four to six hours after applying the tan before you shower. “The longer you leave it the darker the tan will be, but we recommend to not leave on for longer than 12 hours.”Other tanning products require different waiting times, so read the bottle carefully for instructions.
“Try not to get caught in the rain after applying tan as raindrops may distort where the tan has been applied and you may end up with small white dots where the rain has landed,” added Cook. Getting too hot and sweaty straight after fake tanning can also create patches as your tan develops.
In the shower, the tan will start washing away. “Do not panic and think all your tan is coming off” said Cook. “The tan leaving your skin is just a guide colour and will leave you looking tanned and glowing underneath.”
From this point on hydration is the key. The tan will continue to develop even after the shower, for between 24 and 72 hours depending on the product. “Keep skin well moisturised as this will increase the longevity of the tan as well as ensuring it fades evenly and doesn’t become patchy in drier areas” she says.
Using a non-abrasive skin wash will also mean the tan is not stripped away by your soap or shower gels.
If you find you have applied too much fake tan, or it has turned out really patchy, do not panic. While there isn’t a way to remove fake tan instantly – more’s the pity – acting fast can help lessen the effect.
And you have a few options.
Gently exfoliate the skin, without scrubbing too vigorously, or use lemon or lime juice to help the colour fade. We highly recommend Evolve’s Tropical Blossom body polish. This polish has the added benefit of being oil-based. Oil breaks down the DHA molecules and helps the tan fade faster.
Alternatively, run a bath and fill it with bath oils – we recommend the Olverum Bath Oil. It’s not cheap but a very small amount goes a long way. Plus it smells amazing. Bath oils can also be beneficial if your tan is streaky or patchy. Soak in the bath and use an exfoliating mitt to remove any stubborn patches. Read more about the benefits of this bath oil in our guide to the best multi-purpose makeup and skincare.
If possible, a trip to a steam room or swimming pool will also help lighten the appearance of fake tan – which on lockdown might be tricky.
Even if you haven’t made a mistake, it’s still a good idea to remove fake tan before applying any more. This is where patches can appear, if older tan remains.
Always make sure to wash your palms and the soles of your feet immediately after applying fake tan to avoid staining. If fake tan still remains on your palms, create a paste by mixing baking soda and water together – rub this over the areas you want to remove fake tan and leave it for a few minutes.
This doesn’t work for other parts of your body because the skin on your palms and the soles of your feet is thinner than in other regions of your body. The other options – body polish, bath oils and tan eraser products – will also help.
Abigail is a leading science journalist writing about space, sustainability, technology and culture. She is author of The Art of Urban Astronomy, a must-have guide to the night sky that guides you through the seasons and learn about the brightest stars and constellations, the myths and legends of astronomy and how to identify star clusters and galaxies.