Getting A Spray Tan As A Brown Woman Helped Me Embrace My Skin Tone

I instantly became obsessed with my (fake) sun-kissed glow.

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I learnt firsthand about the pleasure and pain that comes with tanning when I embarked on my first chaperone-free beach holiday with friends in my late teens. We slathered ourselves in baby oil and sunbathed for hours under the sun in Goa, the idyllic seaside state that’s a popular getaway from the frenzy of my hometown, Mumbai, India. The results were phenomenal. My color developed beautifully, and for a few weeks I was all bronzed limbs and naturally contoured features. It was a high like no other, for reasons I can’t quite explain. I felt like I looked like a better version of myself.

The pain part of the proceedings commenced when I went back home. Colorism is rampant in South Asia, where fairer skin is the preference of the majority of people, and discrimination against darker complexions is a very real social issue. Even though my family wasn’t militant about this, I did get a small taste. My mother had never expressly forbidden me from tanning or being outdoors (many South Asian girls are not allowed to play outdoor sports for fear that they’ll get darker), but there was a hesitation bordering on confusion when she saw me. My extended family wasn’t quite as subtle. There was some good natured but heartfelt pearl-clutching after my Goan escapade about how I should aim to be fairer, not darker. Instead of putting me off tanning, it just made me determined to do it more often. Of course, teenage rebellion meant I lived to fuel the fire and loved mining my family’s reaction for my own entertainment, but I also recognized early on that their views were outdated and problematic, and I wanted no part in conforming to them.

South Asia’s Colorism Problem

I want to note that even with my sun-ripened color, I was still on the relatively fairer side of the spectrum as an Indian woman, and benefited from that privilege. My experience doesn’t reflect the harsher condemnation a darker woman would receive in India’s fairness-conscious society. Most often, women and even men, are berated by their own families and communities for being dark, as though it’s a moral failing. Fairness creams are still the best-selling beauty product in India, many of which are ineffective at best and downright damaging at worst, with black-market ones containing dangerous ingredients like mercury.

After sunbathing on that fateful vacation, I tanned as often as I was able to find an unoccupied beach chair and never regretted the cosmetic results. But as I became more aware of the sun’s detrimental effects on the skin, including an increased future risk of skin cancer as well as degradation of the elastin and collagen that keeps our skin in its youthful, bouncy era, I began to practice safer sun habits. As a result, I haven’t had a full-blown tan for years.

Since sunless tanning products or spray tan salons weren’t available in India while I was growing up (and still aren’t), those were never an option for me. Even in the U.S., the tanning industry had ignored people of color and didn’t really market to them, until relatively recently. Many women of color weren’t even aware that professional spray tans or at-home products could be used on our skin tones to a stunning effect. So, when I finally did realize self-tanning products for deeper skin tones were absolutely a thing, I was all over them. I tried tanning drops and loved the results, but I still have to master the application techniques to pull off a truly flawless bronzing.

A Spray Tan Worthy Of A Bollywood Star

When I was offered a tanning session earlier this winter by celebrity tanner Isabel Alysa, I broke my no-beauty-events-on-Sundays rule to head to the Nordstrom flagship in midtown Manhattan for my first ever spray tan. California-based Alysa has a list of celebrity girlies that would make Pete Davidson blush. Jennifer Lopez, Selena Gomez, Kim Kardashian, Kylie Jenner, and Salma Hayek are on the list, and so is Miley Cyrus, who happens to be an investor in Alysa’s self-tanning brand Dolce Glow.

Alysa also flew to Italy last year to tan top Bollywood star Deepika Padukone for her role in the film Fighter, which released in January. You can see her glowing complexion in this song from the production:

I loved that a wildly popular mainstream actor and style icon like Padukone, who’s idolized by millions of South Asians the world over, was enhancing her naturally bronze skin tone this way, especially in a mass-market film. Bollywood has been notoriously fairness-focused and a majority of its female stars are still paler than the average Indian woman. Actors have widely endorsed fairness products in the past, including Padukone. She had, however, expressed regret over that and now seems to have swung the other way, by having a tan artist as part of her on-set glam team, surely a first for Bollywood.

My First Spray Tan Experience

I knew that the success of any sunless tanning venture is in the prep you put in beforehand, so I had exfoliated to an optimum degree, both mechanically and chemically. The week of the tan, I used U Beauty Resurfacing Body Compound for a few days to loosen dead skin cells and sloughed them all off in the shower with this A+ mitt, Wildpier Deep Exfoliating Glove. I then took my un-moisturized, make-up free self to the tryst with Alysa.

Alysa is no stranger to tanning deeper skin tones — she’s an educator and trainer in the space and has been raising awareness about how all skin tones, not just pale ones, can be beautifully enhanced by a tan. I was supremely excited to see how my skin would look when boosted with an IRL filter.

As she sprayed me in a pop-up tanning tent set up in the treatment rooms in Nordstrom’s beauty enclave, Alysa explained that her tanning solution was loaded with hydrators to quench the skin post-application. “The key ingredient in tanning solutions, dihydroxyacetone or DHA, which creates the browning effect by reacting with amino acids, can be very dehydrating,” she says. To combat that, her formulations incorporate seven different compounds of hyaluronic acid, and two peptides to help promote skin firmness, lift, and brightness.

All through the 10-minute session, for both face and body, Alysa instructed me on how to position my limbs and torso, ensuring that she gets every square inch of real estate covered. The movements she uses with the spray gun are customized to each client. Everyone gets two coats. From what I could tell, the first layer seemed like it was laying down a foundation for a base tan. For the second dip, her strokes felt more precise and intentional — she used scooping movements that seemed like she was contouring my body. “I want every client to walk out with a natural-looking tan. I designed my technique and movements that allow me to enhance contour shading to look natural,” she shares.

I noticed an instant caramelization, which was the bronzer component of the solution. The tan itself would take 24 to 48 hours to develop, and I was instructed to shower with only water after eight hours. I was expecting my skin to be desert dry after my shower, but was amazed at how hydrated it looked. I was instructed to skip body lotion so the tan could have a chance to fully develop, as oils tend to wear spray tans out faster.

How The Spray Tan Enhanced My Brown Skin

When I say I was not prepared for the outcome the next day, I mean not prepared. There’s a reason J.Lo looks like J.Lo, and that reason is spray tanner. I was just a shade deeper — I would have honestly loved more — but my complexion looked enhanced in every way. My olive color had more depth and richness, and my skin literally looked illuminated from within, as if lit by a thousand mini light bulbs. The camouflaging effects were also major: the redness on my cheeks was less noticeable and small blemishes and pigmentation on my body blended in better. I looked like I had emerged after the most relaxing week at a beach spa resort, which sounds like a cliché but just trust me and go with it.

For the 1.5 weeks that it lasted, I was living. I truly feel like I haven’t had such instant gratification from a beauty service in a long time. It was transformative and a huge confidence boost, and I’m predicting a lot of spray tans in my future. As someone who’s never been ashamed or embarrassed by my skin tone, I guess I see tanning as a way to own my color even more fully. I have nothing to prove but life just looks better to me through brown-tinted glasses.