Exactly How to Keep Your Spray Tan From Fading, According to an Expert

Here today, gone still here tomorrow.

fading spray tan legs
(Image credit: PhotoAlto/Frederic Cirou)

Here’s the life cycle of getting a spray tan: You amp yourself up for five days, telling yourself you won’t turn orange like an Oompa Loompa, then spend the day of your tan obsessively checking for streaks and spots, then prance around for approximately one week in a golden glee of tank tops and selfies, then watch for two weeks as your beautiful, glimmering bronze fades to a patchy, sad nothingness.

Sadly, your faux tan won’t last forever. “The darker the spray tan, the longer, in theory, it should last on your skin, because it’ll contain a higher level of DHA,” says celebrity spray tanner and co-founder of Isle of ParadiseJules Von Hep. (Side note: DHA is short for dihydroxyacetone, the active ingredient in sunless tanners.) “A light, subtle tan will last for roughly five days, a medium tan will last seven or eight days, and dark tan should be able to last for 10 days,” he says.

Of course, that all depends on one thing (or, okay, about a trillion things, which I shall address below): How well you take care of your tan. And that includes prepping the right way and living your post-tan life the right away. Lucky for you, you’ve got Team MC and Jules to help you stretch that spray tan out a few days longer than usual, so you can spend two work weeks in the office looking like you spent them in Ibiza.

#1: Exfoliate Carefully

The key to a lasting spray tan is to exfoliate with specific products for the 24 hours before your tan, and for the duration of your tan. “If you’re using a retinol, or any face or body products that have AHAs in them, like glycolic, lactic, and citric acids, avoid them for at least 24 hours before your spray tan,” says Von Hep. “They cause your skin to exfoliate on a deeper, cellular level, which can cause the pigment to fade faster.”

However—and this is important—this does not mean you should skip exfoliating your skin. “Exfoliation [beforehand] is key to getting an even, long-lasting tan,” he says. Dry, dehydrated, flaky skin absorbs extra DHA, which results in streaks and blotches, so do all of your waxing, shaving, and exfoliating at least 24 hours before your tan. The easiest way to exfoliate? A good ol’ washcloth. But if you’re into the ideas of scrubs, below you can find options that leave skin evenly smooth, without leaving behind a residue.

Try These Exfoliating Products

Expert Tip: Factor in Your Period

According to Von Hep, timing your spray tan around your period can really help prolong its color. “I’ve noticed with some of my clients that their skin doesn’t take the tan as well as when it’s the week before their period—or they’re on their period—as opposed to if they get spray-tanned the week after their period,” he says, adding that hormone levels can play a part in how well the pigment develops. Yes, it sounds weird, and sure, it may not exactly be based in science, but I trust anyone who tans Blake Lively and Kate Moss for a living. So post-period tanning it is!

#2: Swap Your Oil-Based Moisturizer

Let’s cut to the chase: Oils are basically the death of self-tanners. "Oils act as a barrier on your skin that will prevent the tanner from evenly absorbing,” says Von Hep, "so if you use an oil-filled exfoliator or moisturizer before you tan, you're basically guaranteed to have problems." And if you use an oil after you get your tan, you’re just asking for it to fade. “Oils will break down the pigments in the tan, so I definitely recommend avoiding them if you have a spray tan,” he says.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that you should forgo all moisture. In fact, the one thing that’ll keep your tan looking fresh longest is to keep your skin as supple and hydrated as possible. So if you’re usually a lotion-hater, guess what? You’re super into lotions now.

Shop These Moisturizing Products

#3: Add a Topper

Listen, no matter how well you prep and pray, your tan is going to fade at some point. I know—the world is unfair, everything sucks, etc, etc. But you can still minimize the fade (and subsequent mental withdrawal) by using a “topper”—i.e. a tint of some sort—to retain a level of glow.

“I tell my clients to mix a few self-tanning drops in with their moisturizer and apply it daily, especially if they’ve gone swimming that day,” says Von Hep. His favorite? His Isle of Paradise Self Tanning Drops, which are also infused with a color-correcting component (i.e. peach pigments for light skin, green for medium skin, and purple for dark skin) that'll boost your tan's brightness each time you apply it.

And, when all else fails and your tan is but a distant memory, there’s always dim lighting and Instagram filters. Or, you know, just accepting your skin for the shade it naturally is.

Try These Tan-Topping Products

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Chloe Metzger
Beauty Editor

Chloe Metzger is the deputy beauty director at Cosmopolitan, overseeing the editorial content and growth strategy of the hair, makeup, and skin space on digital, while also obsessively writing about the best hair products for every hair type (curly girl here; whattup), and the skincare routines that really, truly work (follow her on Instagram to see behind-the-scenes pics of that magazine life). She brings nearly a decade of writing and editing expertise, and her work has appeared in AllureHealthFitnessMarie ClaireStyleCaster, and Parents. She also has an unhealthy adoration for Tom Hanks and would like to please meet him one day, if you could arrange that. Thanks.