The Fool-Proof Way I Get A Natural-Looking Spray Tan On Darker Skin

Spray tanning has never been easier.

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A woman with self-tanner applied on her skin wearing an orange bikini, sunglasses and a scarf wrappe...
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When the topic of self tanner comes up in Black and brown spaces, you’ll likely hear something along the lines of, “I’m already brown, why would I need to tan?” I was often the one with this response until I tried a Dr. Dennis Gross Glow Pad on a whim. For the following two days, people gave me ceaseless compliments, and the skin care benefits I’d been willingly missing out on became all too obvious.

“I have always felt a bit unwelcome by tanning brands and within tanning spaces because they do not do enough to diversify their content,” says Alicia Lartey, a UK-based esthetician and content creator who champions tanning on darker skin. “It is really a shame because there is a big market for Black women using spray tan [products]. The main benefit for me is that ethereal, sun-kissed glow. The added bonus of tanning is that you can use self-tanner to hide hyperpigmentation.”

While I was still dreaming about the results of my first dance with self tanner, I decided to go the whole nine yards and try a professional spray tan. At the St. Tropez counter in Nordstrom’s NYC Beauty Haven, my technician Abigail immediately made me feel welcome as she talked me through each step in a familiar Jamaican accent. She started by prepping my skin with a full body exfoliation featuring a probiotic yogurt mousse and warm buffing mitts. I’ll admit, the intimacy level of this service is neck and neck with a Brazilian wax; however, a skillful tech like Abigail can make you forget about the chilly tanning solution and the relative stranger spraying it against your fully naked body.

Between her wealth of knowledge and the experts who helped me prepare, I left holding the keys to a fool-proof tan on darker skin every time.

Don’t Go Straight For the Darkest Color

“So many people think that if you have a darker skin color you need to go for the darkest formula, but it’s all about the color you want in the end,” says St. Tropez Tanning Expert Sophie Evans. “Do you want to look like you’ve had a weekend away or a two week vacation?” Understanding your desired final result is crucial for achieving the best finish and requires a conversation between you and your technician. While Sophie suggests using the vacation analogy when discussing the kind of tan you want, you can also point out concerns like tan lines or ashiness. Abigail and I settled on the express tan formula of which she applied two passes to achieve a “subtle glow” finish.

You Might Need to Customize

Every spray tan solution is a little different, so while seeking out a seasoned professional is the first initial step, you may need to try a different product or method if your first experience isn’t perfect. Sunless tanning products contain a sugar called DHA that reacts with proteins in dead skin cells and turns them darker, creating the tanned look. The amount of time you leave the solution on your skin determines the final result and offers an opportunity to play with customization and color.

“My ‘gradual’ tan may look different than your gradual tan,” Evans tells me. Patch testing can also be helpful to ensure the color develops appropriately. I left my tan on for four hours before rinsing in a lukewarm (not hot!) shower. Although the bronze seems to wash away completely, over the course of the following day the natural glow I initially loved returned in full force.

Be Mindful of Hyperpigmentation

Because spray tans work with the natural melanin in skin, visible dark spots may become darker (temporarily). The experts suggest pointing out specific problem areas to your technician, who can then apply a barrier cream to those areas which will block the DHA from developing. This trick is commonly used on the nipples, face, and hands, which often develop darker than the other areas of the body. “Sometimes [darker areas] get darker and sometimes the spray tan solution will make them more even,” says Falen Whipplemore, CEO and Founder of Valet Tans. “You really don’t know until you try it. You can always remove it if you don’t like it!” A simple scrub of lemon juice, water, and salt can help to remove those unwanted dark patches.

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Come To Your Appointment Prepared

Showering and exfoliating 24 hours before your appointment removes dead-skin buildup and ensures a longer-lasting spray tan. Avoid wearing lotion or other body products the day of the appointment so the DHA can bind and develop correctly. And make sure to wear dark, loose-fitting clothing to avoid color transfer afterwards. For tanning at home, Alicia recommends showering, exfoliating, and shaving before application.

Don’t Skimp On Aftercare

Extend the life of your tan by moisturizing regularly and avoiding long, hot showers. Evans warns that oils will breakdown your color and should only be used if you’re seeking to remove an old tan. It’s important to remember that everyone loses color on the hands and face faster as we wash these areas more frequently. You can touch up your tan with a self-tanning mist or mousse to keep up the even glow, but you should see the full results lasting upwards of 10 days.

It’s Harder to Do It Wrong On Darker Skin

You’ll be relieved to know that unlike many esthetic services, spray tans are among the least risky for darker skin tones. The sugar in spray tans is derived from vegetables like carrots and beets (which account for the dreaded orange hue often associated with a spray tan gone wrong). “With darker skin it’s actually harder to make mistakes because you have a base color,” says Whipplemore. While it’s still possible to be left with a red-yellow hue it’s much less likely.

As the summer wanes, looking as if I’ve just returned from an island vacation brings me a sense of calm, and that effortless sun-kissed appearance gets harder to achieve as the year goes on. That, paired with the spa-level attention, makes spray tanning the kind of service I’m officially adding to my must-have monthly beauty services.

If you’d rather stick to the more affordable at-home self tanning session, check out five expert-vetted tanners below.

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Whipplemore recommends this self-tanning product for a full-body tan at home or to touch up between your professional services. The rapid-dry formula can be rinsed off between 2-4 hours after application for the best results.

Evans recommends this no-rinse, clear mist for touching up the face and hands on a days-old spray tan. While the color pay-off is less intense than a classic spray tan or self-tanning product, it’s portable and easy to apply, making it perfect for an extra boost of color whenever needed.

Dr. Dennis Gross is known for their daily peel pads that transform skin into a sunkissed glow. The Glow Pads are similar with an easy, one-step application process and color that develops over several hours for a natural hint of color that’s perfect for first-time tanners or when in a hurry.

Unlike most tanning products, the Pure collection doesn’t include bronzing ingredients that must be washed away. Alicia swears by the transparent, easy application that’s ideal for those worried about color transfer to clothing or bed linens.

These drops instantly turn any skin care or makeup product into self-tanner. Available in three different shades, users can create highly customizable results making this perfect for a more seasoned tanner looking to create a buildable, natural-looking bronze.

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