I Tried It: Airbrush Tanning

The week before our Wedding Weekend Extravaganza I took to getting myself a fancy pants spray tan. My skin is incredibly pale, and while I’m not really against looking fresh-faced and ivory-colored, lately my legs are also covered in bumps and bruises and scrapes from CrossFit. I thought a tan might help me camouflage that, so I set out to get one!

I am generally a lily white or sunburned kind of gal — there is not a lot of in between for me. In fact I went to Maui for 12 days and hardly came back with a tan line despite many days on the beach. My skin’s natural state just doesn’t really evolve to glowy. Maybe you are one of those lucky folks who can just pile on the Jergens Natural Glow for a couple of weeks but I am so pale that even that will turn me orange, if it works at all.

So these were my legs the day I got sprayed (crappy iphone photo in bad lighting. Awesome!) But you get the idea:

Not a tragedy, but I knew (FOR SURE) I needed to involve a professional. Also, I knew I didn’t want to fry myself up in a tanning bed. I’m too old for that, man. Too much time spent in tanning beds in my 20s and all I have to show for that are laugh lines. BOO. So — a spray tan, it was!

There are two main types of spray tans you can get if you go to a salon: A spray booth tan or a custom spray tan. Both have pros and cons, but I chose the custom spray. Here’s why:

1. I’m sorry, but a decade later this experience is burned into my brain. This would totally happen to me! I didn’t want to take that chance.

2. Booth tans require you to walk through a series of timed poses without supervision, and most say it takes a time or two to get it right. While this is nice if you have time to experiment, I didn’t. It takes a certain level of skill that I didn’t want to practice. I just wanted it right the first time. We were heading to our Wedding Festivities Friday, so I scheduled my tan for Thursday evening after work.

3. A custom tan in my area only runs about $10 more + tip. SOLD.

Prior to Tanning

So I was advised there are a few things you need to do to prepare yourself for your tan:

*Make sure your skin is completely exfoliated and shaved. You are basically having someone spray a bunch of dye on you that develops over time (icky, but true!) so if you show up with dry skin, the dye is going to look blotchy

*That said, most salons will recommend that you do not moisturize for up to 6 hours prior to your appointment. I don’t get it, but I complied.

*You will want to remove your makeup. Maybe bring some of those makeup remover towelettes in your bag with your change of clothes. (I’ll talk about the clothes to bring in a minute.)

During Your Appointment

*You will arrive for your spray tan and need to decide your comfort level around nudity/tan lines.

*If you decide your comfort level involves wearing undergarments (thong/bra) bring ones that you don’t mind getting dirty. Even though the developing dye they spray is invisible, it is usually mixed with an instant bronzing agent that does have visible color. This will get on your clothes.

*Also if you do wear undergarments, make sure that you are comfortable with the tan lines they are going to leave. You may want to try on your swimsuit over them to make sure you won’t look funky when the tan is done.

My Experience: I’m just gonna throw it out there that I’m pretty comfortable with the idea of getting (mostly) naked in front of strangers. Not like random strangers, but for professional strangers my modesty level is fairly low. Keep in mind this is their job and part of what they do involves seeing naked people. They aren’t analyzing you, no matter how awkward it may seem.

I ended up choosing to just do it in a thong (boy, aren’t we getting all cozy up in here today) which I felt like was a good combination of getting a great tan without any hoo-ha flashing. That worked for me. If you want to keep more clothes on, again these are professionals, so no one is going to make you feel bad about that. It’s about YOUR comfort level. This is a service YOU are paying for, no one makes the rules but you!

*With a custom spray tan you will still be walking through wacky positions in various states of undress (which is hilarious, actually, if you can stop and be objective in the moment) but you will be doing it at the behest of the person controlling the dye gun. For me, this is worth its weight in gold. They won’t spray until you are ready. No chance of you coming out looking like Ross Gellar!

After The Spray

*When you are done, they will probably make you stand in front of a fan for a minute to let everything set. You will be dry but still feel sticky. You now have developer on you, plus the visible bronzing agent so you will feel kind of sticky like you just got home from a day at the beach but with less sand in your crack. (Yeah, I said it.)

*Pack some loose (preferably dark) clothing. The dye is water soluble so things are not going to stain for life, but the clothes you bring will get a bit bronzy. Just in case, don’t pack your super expensive and tight white pants, ok?

*Wait 6-8 hours before showering or sweating. This is tricky because you will look and feel like a slightly sticky Oompa-Loompa when you leave. You will want to shower immediately, but you cannot. Here I am in the Oompa Loompa phase

*Also, and maybe this is just a personal preference, don’t plan to have drinks with the ladies afterward. Or really anything social. You will feel kind of gross, look kind of orange, and brown stuff is going to be rubbing off on your clothes. Maybe have a nice night in! 🙂 Your color will continually develop as the night goes on.

*When you finally can shower (and it will feel GLORIOUS!) don’t exfoliate or use shower gels or lotions with mineral oils or AHAs in them. Both will decrease the length of your tan.

The Cost

So what kind of cashola does this set you back? I’m sure it varies. I spent $75 plus potentially the cost of a new set of sheets.

Here was the breakdown:

$40 for the tan
$8 for the fancy pre-lotion crap (that I probably wouldn’t buy again)
$17 for the post-tan “extender lotion” that really just looks like a fancy pants Jergens Natural Glow (I probably wouldnt’ buy that again either, but now I will have it for the next time, so…)
$10 for tip

Potentially the set of sheets? Well, we have bright white sheets on our bed and I couldn’t shower before sleeping that night. I wasn’t sure how much would rub off on my clothes 5 hours after the spray, but let me assure you: A LOT RUBS OFF. I washed my sheets afterward, and while everything totally came out, they are sort of dingy looking now. I’m sure I could bleach them but they are old sheets and I want a new set, so there. 🙂

The Result

Well, if you compare crappy, poorly lit iphone picture to crappy, poorly lit iphone picture I think you can tell a difference.


Don’t believe me, here’s another couple shots. See? Much darker with the spray tan!

Was it flawless? No, there was one spot on the inside of my hand/wrist that was a little dark, but that is to be expected I think. Can you imagine if I had done a booth tan? I feel like patches of my entire body would look like this! For a week. And that would be awful!


Overall I was very happy with the quality and precision, and I didn’t have to worry about barrier lotion or my fingers and toes or having blotch armpits, or looking like an *actual* Oompa Loompa.

How Long Does It Last?

I exfoliated, scrubbed, shaved and bought the fancy pre-lotion. I also followed all the instructions, waited to shower, didn’t use any mineral oil body wash, and followed up with a post-tan lotion extender. Whew! I’m exhausted thinking about all that maintenance. I would say the tan looked flawless for about 3 days. On day 4 it started to fade in spots. On day 6 it was patchy. By day 8, I was hardly tan. I’m writing this on Day 12 and I still have brown patches on my legs, despite exfoliation and it’s not that attractive. The Tan Aftermath isn’t that pretty.

The Verdict

Despite The Tan Aftermath, I would totally say this is worth it. You don’t have to spend $75. In fact, I could have spent $45-50 for the same quality. Also, most salons sell packages that make the tans considerably less expensive. The girl I saw has a package that is 3 for $100 and I’m honestly considering it.

It’s pricey enough that I won’t do every couple of weeks, but maybe I will treat myself and for $100 go once a month all summer. We’ll see!

Any other questions that I didn’t answer? Leave ’em in the comments and I’ll respond.

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10 Responses to I Tried It: Airbrush Tanning

  1. Jeff says:

    Thanks very much for this, Holly. I always wanted a tutorial/education on how this works. ; )

  2. Holly says:

    I figured as much, Jeff. I put myself in hard hitting journalistic situations like this just for folks like you 🙂

  3. Bri' says:

    Love your site Holly! About 5 yrs ago, I decided to get a custom spray tan to surprise my Husband coming home from Iraq. I choose to go topless ( totally weird for me). Halfway through I had apparently locked my knees and fainted on the poor lady. She was about to call 911 when I came too! Talk about mortified! I finished the tan, but with numerous smears due to the fall. That was my first and last spray tan!

    • Holly says:

      OH NO! That is hilariously tragic! 🙂 Hey, at least it was worth it for a good story. HAHA

  4. Lauren says:

    I think spray tans are terrific, and I’ve been really surprised that, in my area, too, the professional version doesn’t cost much more than the booth tan. I’ve done both, and have been MUCH happier having someone else spray me.

    The first time I went, they offered me the little paper underwear that some waxing salons have, and I wore them. After that, I decided that since I was practically naked, anyway, I might as well just go for it. I have to say, I didn’t feel any more awkward in the buff. The whole experience is so surreal and awkward, even slightly clothed, that full-on nudity was no worse.

    Totally worth it!

  5. serrorserror says:

    Thanks for teh blow by blow! I love knowing what I might be getting into ahead of time. Somehow, knowing makes it so much easier!

    • Holly says:

      Oh man, I totally agree Sara! If I know what I’m in for, I feel less anxiety. Especially when there is nakedness and strangers involved. Next month I’m going to get my body fat measured — I’ll have to report back on that too since um…nakedness + strangers — AGAIN! I think I’m gunning for some kind of awkward situation award 🙂

  6. Adri says:

    Oh my goodness! I just completed my first on ramp session at American River Crossfit tonight, and then when I got home and got on Pinterest, I found your blog! I don’t know if that’s a coincidence or what, but if it is, it’s a crazy one!

    • Holly says:

      Adri — that is such a crazy coincidence! Well good luck with the on-ramp and I can’t wait to see you around the box — you’ll have to say hi! 🙂

  7. Jesabes says:

    Honestly, booth spray tans aren’t nearly as complicated as Ross Gellar makes them out to be. I don’t understand the counting thing (Mississippily or no), why wouldn’t you turn immediately and wait for the five seconds while already in the correct position? But anyway, the booth tan I got was 360 degrees anyway – no turning needed:)