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How Does a Spray Tan Work?

Beach TimWoman in bathing suit with a spray tane

A spray tan, also known as sunless tanning or airbrush tanning, is a popular method used to achieve a bronzed or tanned appearance without the need for exposure to the sun's harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. It involves the application of a specially formulated solution onto the skin, which interacts with the outermost layer of the skin to produce a temporary tan. In this article, we will delve into the details of how a spray tan works.

Spray tans typically involve the use of a tanning booth or a handheld airbrush device operated by a trained professional. The solution used in spray tanning contains an active ingredient called dihydroxyacetone (DHA). DHA is a colorless sugar derived from plants, such as sugar beets or sugar cane. When applied to the skin, DHA interacts with the amino acids in the dead skin cells of the outermost layer, known as the stratum corneum.

The reaction between DHA and the amino acids leads to a chemical process called the Maillard reaction. This reaction produces a pigment called melanoidins, which results in a temporary change in the color of the skin. The resulting tan can vary in shade depending on the concentration of DHA in the solution and the individual's skin type.

Before getting a spray tan, it's important to prepare the skin properly. This usually involves exfoliating the skin to remove any dead skin cells, ensuring a smooth surface for the tanning solution to be applied. It's also recommended to avoid using any oil-based products, as they can create a barrier that prevents the solution from properly interacting with the skin.

Once the skin is prepped, the tanning professional will guide you through the process. You may be asked to wear disposable undergarments or protective eyewear to ensure the solution is applied evenly without staining clothes or getting into the eyes. The tanning professional will then use the airbrush or spray gun to evenly distribute the tanning solution onto your skin.

During the application, it's important to stand in various positions and follow the instructions of the tanning professional to ensure that all areas of the body are covered. They may use different techniques to create contours and enhance certain areas, providing a more natural-looking tan.

After the application, it's necessary to allow the solution to dry completely. This typically takes a few minutes, but it's important to avoid contact with water or excessive sweating during this time to prevent streaking or uneven color development. Once dry, the tanning solution will not transfer onto clothing or other surfaces.

The initial color you see after the spray tan is applied is not the final result. It takes some time for the Maillard reaction to fully develop and for the tan to reach its optimal color. This usually occurs within a few hours to a day after the application. The tanning professional will provide instructions on when to shower and how to maintain your tan for the best results.

It's worth noting that a spray tan is temporary and typically lasts for about 5 to 10 days, depending on various factors such as individual skin type, the quality of the tanning solution used, and how well you care for your tan. To prolong the life of your spray tan, it's recommended to moisturize your skin regularly, avoid prolonged exposure to water, and refrain from exfoliating too vigorously.


Spray tans provide a safe and convenient alternative to traditional sun tanning. By utilizing the Maillard reaction, the tanning solution interacts with the skin's outermost layer to produce a temporary tan. With proper preparation and maintenance, a spray tan can provide a natural-looking bronzed glow without the harmful effects of UV exposure.

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