Kim Carney / msnbc.com
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/25/2007 9:41:26 AM ET 2007-05-25T13:41:26

For years, a popular approach to getting a great tan went something like this: slather on some baby oil, then bake.

Today, of course, we know better. That kind of unchecked sun exposure can cause skin cancer, which kills thousands of people annually.

To get a safe tan, there’s really just one choice — sunless tanning.

You can leave it to the pros and try airbrush sunless tanning at a salon. Or, you can do it yourself, using a self-tanning lotion, gel, mousse or mist purchased in a drugstore, department store or spa.

For the most natural-looking results, follow these basic guidelines. Then read on for solutions to some common self-tanning problems.

  • Exfoliate first. Sloughing off dead skin with a loofah or exfoliating shower gel allows a self-tanner to work on fresh, new skin. Your tan will look more even and will last longer.
  • Apply self-tanner lightly to areas where the skin is thick, such as elbows, knees, ankles and knuckles. Otherwise, those areas will end up darker. Also, you can avoid darkening your eyebrows and hairline by covering them with a thin coat of petroleum jelly.
  • Wash your hands right after applying a self-tanner, or wear latex gloves. There’s nothing natural-looking about bronzed palms and fingernails. For a realistic-looking tan, skip body parts that wouldn’t tan in the sun, like your inner arms.
  • Wait as long as possible before dressing or getting in bed — even longer than the “several minutes” recommended on many self-tanners — to lessen the chance the product will rub off. Avoid exercising (sweating), showering or swimming for six hours or more.

Q. Help! My loved ones are avoiding me! Why do sunless tanners make me smell so gross?
A. That funky sunless-tanner smell (which has been described as somewhere between the odor of burning flesh and cat pee) is due to the chemical reaction taking place between your skin and the key ingredient in sunless tanners — dihydroxyacetone (DHA). It’s that reaction that causes your skin color to turn tawny. The smell typically goes away when you next shower. However, many newer products — including self-tanners by Chanel, Clarins and Bliss — manage to mask the characteristic sunless-tanner aroma with other fragrances. Since you can't assess stink potential just by smelling the product in the bottle, try a sample on your skin and wait a few hours to sniff before purchasing.

Q. Is it true that I look thinner when I’m tan, or is this just a fantasy of mine?
A. Lots of people feel they look thinner, and generally “better,” with a little color, said Debbi Hartley-Triesch, Nordstrom’s national beauty director. “Dark colors absorb the light, which can make something appear smaller,” she says. “Giving the skin a little more color, or a darker tone, will have the same effect.” Also, a tan tends to camouflage cellulite.

Q. I don’t have very much patience with this sort of thing. Which self-tanners require the least amount of work?
A. Self-tanning sprays and mists are quick, because often you don’t have to rub them in. Try Neutrogena’s MicroMist Tanning Sunless Spray or Bliss’ A Tan for All Seasons Self-Tanning Mist. Also, tinted products, such as Clinique’s face and body self-tanners, contain instant bronzers so you can see where you’re applying (which lessens the chance of streaks). On the go? Try a self-tanning towelette — individually packaged wipes containing just enough self-tanner for one application so that you don’t have to figure out how much product to use. Check out L’Oréal’s Sublime Bronze Self-Tanning Towelettes or Estée Lauder’s Go Tan Sunless Towelettes.

Q. That still sounds like too much effort. Is there an even easier way?
A. Use what drugstores call “glow” products. The color produced by these products — which are more like moisturizers than self-tanners — is so subtle that you can apply every day, as you would your daily moisturizer. With most glows, you don’t have to exfoliate first, and the wait time before dressing is just five to 10 minutes. Try Jergens Natural Glow Daily Moisturizer, which makes the skin soft, smooth and sweet-smelling, as well as subtly bronzed (after a few days). Other good bets are Dove’s Energy Glow and Aveeno’s Continuous Radiance. Also, bronzers — which come in powders, creams and mousses — are an alternate route to a quick and easy tan. Their main benefit: If you mess up, you just wash up with soap and warm water and start over. Try Estée Lauder’s Bronze Goddess Soft Shimmer Bronzer for the face, and Neutrogena’s Sheer Body Tint.

Q. Are more expensive self-tanners better?
A. Not necessarily, although more expensive products tend to contain beneficial additives such as sunscreen or antioxidants, said Susan Weinkle, a Florida dermatologist and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the University of South Florida who serves on the board of directors of the American Academy of Dermatology. The “best” self-tanner is different for everyone, and trial and error is really the only way to find the product that looks best on you. (Luckily, lots of brands give out samples.) Always test a product first on a small area of your skin — preferably somewhere hidden and pale — to find out if the color matches your skin tone (and how it smells).

Q. What if I look orange, get horrible streaks or make some other ghastly mistake?
A. To banish blotches and streaks, try applying an exfoliator, or check out a product designed specifically for fixing self-tanning mistakes: L’Oréal’s Sublime Bronze Self-Tanning Perfector & Corrector, which is a lightweight scrub that you massage onto damp skin.

Q. Do self-tanners offer sun protection?
A. Several self-tanners, and even some bronzers, now come with added sunscreen. Some to try are Clarins Self Tanning Milk SPF 6 and Physicians Formula’s Solar Powder SPF 20 Bronzer, both of which contain UVB and UVA filters. However the sunscreens are generally not water- or sweat-resistant, so you may need to apply additional water-resistant sunscreen. For best results, do so after the self-tanner is completely dry.

Kara Chalmers is a freelance writer based in Florida.

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