Self-Tanning 101: Basics and Prep Work

Some of what is coming at ya’ this month!

I was about 4 months pregnant with my first baby when my mom had her first occurrence of Stage 3 Melanoma. When that baby was 10, Mom had her second diagnoses of Stage 3 Melanoma. That baby is now 18. I realize that the classifications for Melanoma have changed since then.

I have been using self-tanner on and off for almost all of that 18 years. I wasn’t what you would call a huge lay-out-in-the-sun or get-in-the-tanning-bed kinda girl. After Mom’s cancer, I never did it again. Ever.

Over the years, I have become pretty knowledgable of how self-tanners work and the most effective way to apply them. I’m not an expert or anything but I’m excited to pass along all I have learned.

The self-tanning industry has grown so much in the last few years there is NO reason what so ever that women have to put their lives at risk for a beautiful tan. Don’t do it.

All this month in several posts I’m going to introduce you to many products that can and will deliver the tan you want. Then at the end of the month I will do a recap on each one and tell you my favorites.

My very first experience with self-tanner was an Avon product. It was a spray bottle, not aerosol but a liquid spray bottle. To say that I was sometimes orange and streaky would be putting it mildly…I was. The product though was top notch. I wish they still made it, actually.

The Basics

How do they work?

All self-tanning, high end or drugstore…ALL of them…have the same main ingredient…dihydroxyacetone (DHA).

That sounds sort of chemically scary, but it really isn’t that scary.

It is a chemical derived from a sugar acid.

DHA will bind itself to the dead skin cells on the outer layer of your skin. Those same dead skin cells will eventually fall off your body which is why your sunless tanner will have to be reapplied on a somewhat regular basis.

The higher the amount of DHA the darker the tan it will provide.

DHA is also responsible for the icky yucky smell that some self-tanners have but again, not to repeat myself, they have come a long way in that department as well! For instance, I tried one product that actually smelled SO GOOD I was kinda shocked.

What is the secret to successful Self-Tanning?

Getting all the product rubbed into your skin. Not leaving any to air dry.

Yep, that’s it. Just making sure that you fully and completely have every bit of the lotion\gel\moose whatever form it takes rubbed into your skin. The streaks and smears are a result of a build up of product that hasn’t been rubbed in evenly and eventually that will dry.

This also helps to insure that you don’t apply too much product which can make you look like you have drowned your body in a bag of Doritos.

Pick the Right Color

On every bottle or tube you will see “Light” | “Light to Medium” | “Medium” | “Dark” | ok…you get my drift…the bottle will AL:WAYS list a color. I’m pointing this out because it’s important to pay attention to what the bottle says.

These descriptives aren’t really about your skin tone color right now prior to self-tanning BUT what it will be AFTER you tan. These will reflect the color you can achieve when applying the self-tanner. They describe the end result.

Now having said that, you do have to take your skin color into consideration when choosing what color product you need.

If you are extremely fair skinned choosing a “Deep Dark” option might make you end up looking too unnatural too quick. Choosing a “Light Medium” tanner and building it up by applying more product daily might be a better choice for you.

Opposite to that, if you are darker naturally then choosing a “Light” might not be worthwhile since you won’t be able to tell any difference. Again, building to a deep color will be your best bet.

Know the Types Available

There are several self-tanners on the market. However, at the drugstore these are the most common:

  • Gradual Self-Tanner | This is the easiest self-tanner to use. You apply this just like you would your everyday moisturizer and over a few days time your skin will grow “gradually” darker. These can also help you to extend the life of your tan.
  • Self-Tanner Lotion | This is the most common type of self-tanner. It has the feel and consistency of any moisturizing product.
  • Self-Tanner Mist | Think of this as an “at home” spray tan. This is sort of an advanced product and definitely not for the beginner. I’ve been self-tanning a long time and I’ve never gotten up the nerve to try it.
  • Self-Tanner Towelettes | This is basically a wipe that has a self-tanning product on it. You will apply this by rubbing it all over your body depositing the tanner as you go.
  • Self-Tanner Moose | The same concept as moose for your hair. It will look like liquid until it comes out of the bottle then it is a foam. In my opinion, a moose is easier to apply than a lotion. They glide over the skin easier and dry somewhat quicker than the lotion.
  • Self-Tanner Serum | These are fairly new to the drugstore and as far as I’m aware only one company makes it. It will be a lightweight product that is easy to apply.

The Prep Work

Body Exfoliator, Latex Gloves, Face Exfoliator

THIS will make or break the success of your self-tanning experience. You HAVE to do this. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have enough time or you’re not in the mood…you…have…to…do…the…prep…work!

It’s also important to note that you need to “PREP” not only your very first time to apply self-tanner but EVERY time you re-apply. When your tan starts to fade and it’s time to re-apply, follow the same Prep Steps!


When we exfoliate, we get rid of dead skin and allow the new skin cells to come to the surface. Dead skin cells won’t absorb lotion evenly. The way to win at self-tanning it to have your tan look natural and even over every part of your body. Dead skin cells just hanging around will NOT produce a natural tan.

Shave your face (if you want to read about the benefits of that go HERE). Shave your legs. Use an exfoliator on your face and your body. I would highly suggest a separate product for your face and body. A body exfoliator would be too harsh for your face.


Use a moisturizer that is NOT oil based, no Aragon, no coconut, nothing like that. Just a straight run of the mill moisturizer. Unless you are super dry, you don’t want to apply a ton of moisturizer because it will act as a barrier for your tanning lotion. Just a light layer of lotion on your skin that will prep your skin so that it will absorb the self-tanner evenly.

Use Gloves

This could potentially be the most important piece of advice I will give about self-tanning. I have told countless people to use gloves. They look at me like I’m crazy. I’m not though. I”ve been doing this a long time. USE GLOVES!

No matter how much you wash…or how quick you wash…you will never wash away all the self-tanning product. I know what you are thinking. It hasn’t had time to soak into my hands because I am washing them immediately after I’m done putting the lotion on my body. I’m so sorry but thats just not right.

You could never be quick enough to get all the product out of your hands. The more lotion you apply to your body just means more will absorb into your hands.

Your hands will be stained. I can guarantee it.

DISCLAIMER: I know that many many self-tanning girls use a mitt. I have read awesome things about them. Personally, I have never used them because when I came up with my “system” they weren’t around. Now, since I already have it down to a science…it’s kinda like “if it’s not broke don’t fix it”.

If you want to try the mitt, I say go for it, just make sure that there is enough of a barrier between the mitt and your hand.

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