The Holy Grail for Your Best Tan Ever
PSA: This is officially the longest post I think I've ever written, and probably the most detailed. Feel free to skip around or read it all the way through.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know it’s a taboo topic. In fact, it's so taboo that the U.S. Federal Government excises a "tan tax". It's the same "sin tax" added to cigarettes and alcohol. Equivalent? I think not. Let’s start with that.
Introduction to Tanning: Benefits v. Risks
Is tanning in a tanning bed bad for you?
I can’t tell you how many people hear the word “tan”, and within 5 seconds scream out “skin cancer!” just as a knee-jerk reaction. My mother and sister are two of them.Tanning, like a lot of things, can be a huge benefit to your health if done safely and in moderation.
Newsflash: dermatologists from the most prestigious medical universities in the United States use photo-therapy ("light" therapy, aka UV rays) to treat a variety of skin conditions from excema to psoriasis and charge your insurance upwards of $200/session for that. Fun fact: that’s the exact same technology as using some high-level beds for five minutes in a tanning salon (meaning a bed with a higher UVA/UVB percentage, which we'll go over in a bit).
What are the benefits of using a tanning bed?
Wait...what? Can a tanning bed actually be good for you?! Yes, dear friends, it can. When used correctly, tanning beds allow you to completely control your sun exposure to maximize the benefits and mitigate the risks of sun exposure. While the risks (a.k.a. “leather skin”, sunburns, and technically- yes, skin cancer) are well known, none of those should occur if you take my advice, or the advice of another certified tanning professional. Side note: not all tanning salon employees are the same. Hint: take your tanning advice from a manager with years in the industry or someone who is SmartTan certified. Not Brittany the high schooler who just loves to tan.
I have always maintained that the world would be a better place if everyone would just tan a little. Tanning beds create the same Vitamin D produced by the sun, which translates to endorphins (happiness) when absorbed into the body. That’s one of the reasons that tanning beds are recommended for people who suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Of course, haters of the tanning industry will argue otherwise, but you know I'm only here to present you with cold, hard facts.
Tanning also gives you an amazing confidence boost. Tan skin can equal the appearance of dropping ten pounds instantly (hence the saying “if you can’t tone it, tan it”). It emphasizes muscle outlines, curves, and ladies, it can add the outward appearance of over one full cup size. Studies have actually proven the correlation between tanning beds and higher levels of self-esteem.
Tanning also has the bacterial disinfectant qualities of the sun. That’s why tanning beds do wonders for people with skin concerns of all kinds: ranging from acne to rosacea. That’s a big reason why people obsess over tanning; if you ever struggled with body or face acne, dermatitis, excema, or a myriad of other skin issues, tanning beds will become your best friends.
Tanning is a science. That's why people that have been doing this for years can still be doing it wrong.
So... how do you do it right?
The 10 Commandments to the Darkest Tan of Your Life
I. Thou shalt understand the skin.
For the purposes of this article, I want you to be familiar with three parts of the skin:
The epidermis, the outermost layer of skin, provides a waterproof barrier and creates our skin tone. (Remember this one for UVBs)
The dermis, beneath the epidermis, contains tough connective tissue, hair follicles, and sweat glands. (Remember this one for UVAs)
The hypodermis, the deeper subcutaneous tissue, is made of fat and connective tissue.
II. Thou shalt speak the language of melanin.
You've heard people on social media talking about "melanin-poppin'" and "melanin queen"s, so you're probably somewhat accustomed to the word. But you probably still have no idea what it means. Fear not, people.
Melanin is a magical little thing also known as skin pigment. In the broad, general term, it's the pigment for everything. But for now, we'll just talk about it in relation to the skin. The 3 most common types of melanin are:
Eumelanin is the most common and is brownish in color.
Pheomelanin creates a reddish-brown color and is the reason for freckles and red hair.
Neuromelanin is found in the brain, and we still don’t know what its function is or why it’s there.
Melanin is created by these little organisms known as melanocytes- and while we all have the same amount of melanocytes in our bodies, the size of those 'cytes is what matters. The larger the melanocyte, the more melanin it can produce. Melanin is a good thing- it's our skin's way of protecting our deeper tissues from the damage of the sun. This always makes me think of the Scooby-Doo movie where the monsters can't survive sunlight.
"You could use a little sunlight! *Monster disintegrates* That's one part of the mystery solved. The creatures need our bodies to survive in sunlight. Like a human suit. SPF 1,000,000." - Velma. I'm still trying to figure out where the "SPF 1,000,000" comes into play, scientifically, but for now, I'll let sleeping dogs lie.
III. Thou shalt know their UVA, UVB, UVCs.
UVCs don't reach the Earth's surface. I was just testing you. If you're in a tanning bed and you've never heard of these, whoever let you in there is fired. Tell them I told you so.
UVA: long wave ultraviolet light. As you'd probably assume, these longer waves penetrate deeper into the skin into the layer that produces melanin.
UVB: short wave ultraviolet light. The shorter waves of UVB are the ones that focus directly on the outermost layer of the skin.
Neither UVA nor UVB are the best thing in the world for your skin- but there are lots of worse things; and like we discussed, there are significant benefits to getting some rays in a healthy, moderated way. But fine, haters, you want me to speak your language? Hear we go:
What's more harmful: UVA or UVB? In the tanning industry we remember it like this: UV-Aging or UV-Burning. Both are not ideal, but you get to choose which you believe is the lesser of the two evils. Or, if you're doing it right, you'll vary your UVA and UVB exposure to make sure you don't lean too far to either side. Speaking of which...
IV. Thou shalt vary exposure to different rays.
Continuously using different ratios of UVA/UVB is actually way easier than it sounds.
The way that most salons work is with a "level" type of system (example pictured above), where the higher level beds cost more money because they "tan faster" or "are better for you". Not necessarily the case. In fact, because the different levels of beds give off different ratios of UVA to UVB rays, you'll notice that some levels seem to tan you faster - that simply means you're getting more color to the outer layer of the epidermis. While this color is more instantly visible, it also fades faster. The best color comes from having both a beautiful base tan and an outer glow. Those lower level beds usually focus on building a base- which means, as crammed as they are, you've got to throw them in to your rotation to get the best tan.
V. Remember to always use a product.
I swear, I will personally smite you for this. If you've never smelled the pungent aroma of burning skin, let me tell you this: it's not attractive.
Tanning products can basically be broken down into two categories: lotions and oils. Heads up, if you're using a tanning bed, ask before you use an oil because some of those formulas will destroy the acrylic.
Oils can be nice to switch things up- they're great for moisturizing and giving off a nice glow. However, as a rule of thumb, I would always use a lotion- even if it's just underneath an oil.
The right tanning lotions work hard to replenish any of the characteristics skin might be deprived of as it incubates in the sun (that's a new way to phrase it, lol!). For example, to combat the adverse consequences of UVAs, many lotions include anti-aging ingredients and formulas to restore any elasticity skin might lose from the tanning process (which is what makes the skin look like it's aging). So people who complain about premature skin aging as a result of sun exposure have oftentimes done it to themselves by using inadequate products. Keep in mind tanning lotions, just like every other industry, are constantly evolving to provide more benefits and counteract any negative side effects of tanning. You can choose formulas that include tattoo color-fade protection, weight loss technology, cellulite-fighting technology, silicone to soften the skin (which some people hate but it's a game changer in my book), and even ingredients to make your skin tingle and wake up (these are called "sizzle" or "tingle" lotions, and in my experience, few people like these. Make sure you know if you're buying one of those).
Within the realm of tanning lotions there are two big words you need to know: accelerators and bronzers. The two have been in an epic war since the dawn of time, so you've got to know what you're getting and make your own decision about what you want.
An accelerator is a lotion that.... well, it's a lotion. Basically, this just means that there is no added color. Any color you get from this lotion will be all you. No rub off, no orange, nada.
A bronzer is a lotion with a little added color. This gives you a kick start to being tan, although these do occasionally get orange if they're not applied right or if you don't watch out around dry areas (i.e. your hands, knees, and feet). If you buy the right kind, the color shouldn't rub off. In my opinion, this is the quicker way to a tan. So even if it's a little bit of fake color, I want it. Color is the main reason I tan so why wouldn't I cheat a little?
VI. Thou shalt use the right product(s).
The proper lotion or oil is a game-changer, and there's so many options out there it can be overwhelming to choose. How do you decide?!
Go with a reputable brand. Designer Skin. The Fox Tan. Bali Body. Millennium Tanning. Those are just a few of the brands that are available to tanners- but definitely the ones I'd recommend.
Designer Skin (pictured above) is well established in the industry. Their lotions are pricey, but their results are worth it, and each lotion is specially formulated with specific things in mind. Wear a lot of white but want a bronzer that won't transfer to your clothes? There's a lotion for that. Worried about your skin's elasticity? There's a lotion for that. Want to visibly blur skin texture for a more perfect, airbrushed look? There's a lotion for that. When I want my darkest tan in a bottle that's going to last me a while, that's the brand I want.
The Fox Tan is a newcomer in the industry, recognizable from their insane Instagram posts touting crazy results- and from what I've experienced, they're able to back it up. I actually had to go a few less minutes in the bed after I started using their products, or I'd get pink. I hate accelerators- which is all this brand makes. But these work so well that I'm willing to sacrifice my cheated color for the real deal. I've been super impressed and I think you will be too.
Bali Body is the other Insta-famous brand offering only accelerators. They offer a shimmer bronzer, but it's not meant to develop or be used for tanning. It's more of a one-night deal, but it is gorgeous. I've been so impressed with it that I'm throwing this brand in here even before trying their tanning oils because I'm pretty optimistic.
Millennium Tanning, as bad as it sounds, is- in my opinion- the discount version of Designer Skin. That's not to say that their products aren't as good, but just that they aren't packaged and marketed as flawlessly. But, you'll also spend (on average) less money with this brand. So it has its benefits, too.
Note: Use caution when buying tanning products off of third-party seller sites like Amazon or e-bay (does that still exist?). I can't tell you how many times I've seen someone come in, complaining about not being able to get a good tan, and every time the first thing I'd do is ask to take a look at their lotion. If the bottle and the label looked normal, I'd ask where they got their product. If their answer wasn't a reputable source, I'd open up one of our bottles, get a tiny bit of lotion out, and compare the formulas right on that person's arm. You'd be shocked how many times they had a watered-down version of the real thing, or an expired batch (yes- tanning lotions do have expiration dates). So go directly to the source and buy your lotion from your local tanning salon or on TanforLess.com.
VII. Thou shalt not burn.
I can't tell you how many idiots I've heard say "oh, I can only tan after I burn". No, dork, that's not how it works. I don't care who you are, (1) you're not a special little unicorn, (2) if your skin is red, that's a sign of irritation. Irritating your skin isn't the way to get it to do what you want. It's like bugging someone into doing something versus asking them nicely. Eventually they'll do it, but it's not going to be as good and it's going to be a sucky experience. The same is true of what I call "sunburn tanning". Sunburn = pissed off skin. Your skin does a lot for you- why would you repay it by being a jerk? Please don't make me get all scientific on this- just take my word for it: It's stupid.
VIII. Thou shalt have regularly scheduled appointments with a dermatologist.
This one can't be stressed enough: if you don't already have a dermatologist, get one, and make them your best friend. Dermatologists specialize in everything from acne to dry skin and can completely change your life- no joke. So having one is a great idea in itself. But also, having regular check-ins with a dermatologist can help you identify any weird growths on your skin, and mitigate those risks before they ever come to fruition. Make it a yearly thing, and go any time something new pops up. What may seem just like a freckle could be something much worse- but you can catch things early on to make the risk significantly lower.
IX. Thou shalt not let their skin get dry.
I love how ironic things are in nature- and here's a prime example. Skin in the sun dries out. Skin has to be in the sun (or simulated sun) to tan. Skin that is dried out doesn't retain color as long. Oh nature, I hate you sometimes. Anyway, skin that is moisturized is happier- it retains color longer, meaning you can tan less and get good results, therefore limiting the exposure you need to get in order to achieve a good tan. Also, if you don't want to (1) smell like burnt skin or (2) look like dried piece of fruit leather, it's a good rule-of-thumb to moisturize all the time. I am the biggest anti-stickiness person you'll probably ever meet- so my top three moisturizers (that work for super dry skin like mine and don't contain any alcohol, which dries the skin out) are Hempz,
X. Thou shalt not time it like an idiot.
Tanning time is one concept that even trained professionals can still get wrong. In fact, it's something that nobody else can really guess that isn't you. You know your skin, so your responsibility before engaging in any tanning is to classify yourself on what we call "The Fitzpatrick Scale":
Knowing what kind of skin you have will then enable you to decide on a tanning time best suited for your skin. This is the link to the information that even a lot of tanning professionals don't know. It's golden information. Take it all in.
Another note on timing: don't tan for no reason. This is a big one that nobody else is going to tell you. Tanning salons want you to tan all the time, the FDA wants you to never tan, and here I am speaking the truth: if nobody is going to see you for a month, or if it's winter and you're going to be wearing 80 layers for the next three months, give your skin a break. Of course before vacation, summertime, or an important occasion, go for it. But otherwise, you don't need to tan every day. Once a week will maintain a nice glow.
There's one more aspect to the timing of the tan: developing the tan. I actually used to manage a salon whose software made us wait 24 hours down to the minute before we could check someone in to tan. While that may seem a bit extreme to some, it actually makes sense. That follows the FDA's recommendation to allow a tan to develop for 6-48 hours by finding some middle ground. A tan (or burn, if you didn't follow the advice linked above) takes time to develop and can tell you a lot about what you should do to your tanning time in your next session:
Burned? Don't tan. Let your skin completely heal, and then whatever time you went with that burned you should be cut in half and built back up accordingly.
Pink? Don't tan. Let your skin completely heal, then tan at a lower time than you did before (I usually recommend 1-3 minutes less, depending on your level of pinkness.
Tan? Awesome. You followed my advice perfectly.
Got nothing? Awesome. I'd rather have you get no tan and be safe than burn. Add time in 1-2 minute intervals until you start to see a bit of color.
That's it. Follow those rules and you'll be well on your way to the most gorgeous tan of your life. Seriously, this is the single best article on this you will ever read. Share it for the good of your friends.
Now let me know:
Do I need to do an entire separate article debunking the myths of indoor tanning? A lotion review? Tips to solve common little tanning problems? Let me know if there's anything you want to see!