Getting a Spray Tan? Here’s How To Prep for Best Results

Photo: Stocksy / Jovana Rikalo

A spray tan is supposed to be easy. You show up, get undressed, stand in place, and leave with subtle polish. But it's not like a drive-up car wash. You do need to do some prep before your spray tan (but it's still easy, promise.)

Knowing how to prepare your skin for a spray tan is the key to getting a smooth, long-lasting glow. If you have dry skin or ashy knees, the solution won't apply evenly and will fade quickly as you inevitably shed those dead skin cells. Full-body skincare is the name of the game here—that means shaving, exfoliating, moisturizing, and even hydrating from within. 

Experts In This Article

Then, just before your appointment, stop all of those things (except the drinking water thing). Here, we asked the experts to break down a full day-by-day plan to prep your skin for a spray tan, and tips on how to keep it looking fresh for as long as possible. 

How do I prep my body for spray tan?

A smooth, long-lasting spray tan requires full-body skincare, which starts at least a week before your appointment. Between getting your other cosmetic appointments out of the way, exfoliating, and shaving, here's what you need to do and when.

The week before

If you're getting spray tanned for a specific event, chances are, you have other appointments on the books. "Get your facial, laser, or any other skin treatment a week prior," says Tamar Vezirian, owner of Gotham Glow, an airbrush tanning salon in New York City. That includes eyebrow waxing, threading, pedicures, massages, or even Botox and fillers. That way, you won't slough (or zap, wax, or rub) off any color in the days following your spray tan. 

You also want to go in with your best skin possible. "Drink extra water and moisturize more than usual for the week leading up to your tan," says Sugar and Bronzed co-founder Courtney Claghorn. Hydrated, healthy skin means your tan will last longer and look better. 

The day before

The day before your spray tan is crucial. This is when you want to take your final pre-tan shower, shave, and exfoliate your skin to create that nice, smooth canvas. However, stick to physical exfoliation (like sugar scrubs) versus chemical exfoliation like salicylic acid, notes Claghorn, and "avoid oil-based products within 24 hours of your session."

If you already have self-tanner or spray tan on your skin, be sure to remove it first so you have a clean canvas for your next tan. "Old tan left on the skin can cause an uneven, fast-fading tan—because when the old tan sheds off, the new tan will go with it," says New York City-based spray tan artist Kelsi Zimmerman. "As someone who tans weekly, I will shave, use Bondi Sands Self Tan Eraser, then exfoliate with an exfoliating mitt and a salt scrub."

The day of

You want to show up with clean, dry skin so that the tanning solution isn't sitting on top of another product (and won't be able to really stick to your skin). "Remember to avoid wearing any lotions, deodorants, and perfumes," says Zimmerman. "If you have to shower right before, avoid taking a super hot shower as the heat can raise your skin's pH levels and result in an uneven tan."

Can I shave or wax before a spray tan? 

You can shave or wax before a spray tan (you may want to prioritize it so the tan lays nicely on the skin). However, timing is key. "It's best to wax 48 hours before your appt and get all wax residue off your body," says Vezirian. If you shave, do it the night before and "make sure there's no glide strip on your razor. It leaves a film on the skin, and the tan won't develop properly."

What happens if I don't exfoliate before a spray tan?

Of course, it won't be the end of the world, but the tan won't last as long as it could. Your skin will naturally shed dead skin over the next few weeks, and your new tan will go with it, Zimmerman explains. 

How to prevent strawberry legs when tanning? 

"Strawberry legs" are essentially clogged hair follicles that make your legs look like they are covered in black spots—like the seeds on the outside of a strawberry. "Shaving and exfoliating at least 24 hours before your spray tan can help to prevent strawberry legs," says Zimmerman. Proper skincare after your tan can also help: "Moisturizing is key, so the tan doesn't settle into the pores," adds Vezirian.

What to do immediately after a spray tan 

Ok, you're fresh out of your spray tan appointment. You're sticky and waddling home in your loose-fitting black clothes. Now what? "Leave it alone," says Vezirian. "Make sure you don't get any water on your body while the tan is developing. And no sweating." 

Your spray tan artist will tell you how long to wait before bathing (the time will depend on the solution they're using), but the general rule is that your first shower should be rinse only and no soap. "Use lukewarm water and pat dry; don't rub," says Claghorn.  Your second shower (the next day) can be a soap shower. "But avoid shaving or exfoliating until at least three to four days after your tan," says Zimmerman. If you have to shave, Zimmerman recommends using a conditioner instead of shaving cream, and shaving lightly.

Last but not least, a good daily body moisturizer is key. It will act as an emollient, sealing that tan in and giving it a longer life. "Any ultra-moisturizing lotion that has minimal alcohol and fragrances, which can strip the DHA—the active ingredient in spray tans that cause the skin to brown—and cause the tan to fade faster," says Zimmerman. 

Should any skin types avoid spray tans?

Spray tans truly are for every skin type, even those prone to dry patches from eczema (though Claghorn recommends getting clearance from your dermatologist first and stopping by the salon for a patch test) 

Zimmerman notes that if you've recently gotten sunburn, you may want to wait until you're fully healed before spray tanning. "Your skin is drier when you have a sunburn, and the spray tan will accelerate the peeling process, resulting in a super patchy, uneven tan," she says. You should also avoid getting a spray tan if you have any wounds, recently got a tattoo, a chemical peel, or anything that would make you more prone to infection. 

Final Takeaway

A spray tan can give you a nice natural glow without sun damage, but it doesn't come without maintenance. Be sure to get your other appointments out of the way first (your spray tan should be last in the line-up if you have an event) and prep the skin by exfoliating so that your tan looks smooth and even. Once you're bronzed, the rules are simple: moisturize, moisturize, moisturize to seal that glow in. 

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