Beauty Guru: Your Complete Guide to Airbrush Tanning

When done correctly, self-tanner doesn't have to be scary. It can be a great way to feel the summer vibe without the sun damage. Here are a few tips to help you achieve a perfect summer glow:

Step 1: Barrier Cream and Exfoliation

Before you do any self-tanner application, exfoliate your entire body. The tan will last longer because it will be applied to fresh skin. If you are a regular self-tanner user, multiple applications of self-tanner without exfoliation just looks dreadful. You must get that stuff off.

A barrier cream or body lotion will help certain areas absorb less of the self-tanner. This should be applied to the knees, ankles, feet, elbows, wrists and hands. These areas of thinner, drier skin soak up the tanning solution much faster; therefore they will process out darker if one doesn't limit the skin's absorption abilities. The lotion ensures these areas can't absorb too much tanning product.

Step 2: Get Your Tan On!

The preferred and best method is getting a spray tan from a trained professional. They know the dry spots, the contouring tricks, and how to do an even application. If that's not possible, then utilize these helpful self-tanner tips:

Avoid the tanning spray booth.

If you can't get a professional hand-sprayed application, then this choice may work but has its issues. Some people turn orange because one really can't choose the tanning solution being used. If your stance during the application is too stiff, you can streak. Bend your knees and back slightly when doing your back. This allows spray to get in that crease mark where your bum meets your legs, as well as limits how much gets behind the knees. No smile lines underneath the bum; it's a dead giveaway that you have been tanning. If you must use a spray booth, definitely bend! Turn your feet outward, not straight ahead. This will help you get an even distribution on the insides and outsides of your legs, regardless if you're facing front or back. And if you forget the barrier cream application, you will need to wipe off those areas listed in Step 1 immediately before it fully absorbs.

Self-Tanner Lotions

Your first application should be evenly distributed everywhere except the areas with barrier cream (refer back to Step 1), which should receive a bit less self-tanner. Remember to wipe the palms of your hands with a soapy washcloth about every five minutes, or they will stain. The washcloth is pertinent in this step. Simply rubbing your hands together with soap isn't enough to keep them from staining. The second application will be purely for contouring.

Tanning solutions on scars

Typically scars tend to grab more product as well, so while you do want to get these covered, take a baby wipe and wipe the scar after the application. If it is a fine-line type of scar, make sure you use the baby wipe over your finger nail or over a nail file to wipe the scar, leaving self-tanner on the area around it. It will blend.

Step 3. How To Contour

I swear by contouring; it is amazing. Most beauty professionals who spray tan will know the contour spots. Once you have self-tanner (spray or lotion) on your entire body, simply apply more self-tanner in these zones:

  • top of the cheekbones;
  • directly above and beneath the clavicle bones of your chest;
  • top of your shoulders and top of the arms to give a sun-kissed glow;
  • inside the arm - Accentuate the bicep by making a fist to find the bicep, then spray or apply extra self -tanner underneath the muscle;
  • inside the leg - Point your toe to the ground and put pressure on the ball of your foot to pop out the calf muscle. Apply your self-tanner or airbrush the area directly below the calf. If using a spray, you will want to spray upward in a "J" motion towards the back of the knee;
  • stomach - Apply extra spray or lotion from the bra-line down to the hip bones on both sides of the stomach, leaving the middle area (about 5 inches wide) untouched by this second application. Use a zigzag motion, if you are using an airbrush sprayer, and a circular motion, if using lotions.

Fake Tan Give-Aways

1. The orange face.

You can avoid this look entirely by using the right self-tanners that have a good percentage of DHA or erythrulose. This determines the 'orange factor.' Too much of either ingredient can cause this orange hue. My favorites for airbrush machines are Sun Labs Ultra-Dark or Norvell. For lotions, I like Jane Iredale's Tantasia and Bare Minerals' Faux Body Lotion.

2. Overly tan fingers, toes, ankles and wrists.

As mentioned earlier, if you apply the same amount of self-tanner here as you do the rest of the body, it is guaranteed to be too much. Simply apply barrier cream lotion before spraying or applying self-tanner in these areas and use less self-tanner in general. Follow this by wiping them with a washcloth.

Do you do any type of self-tanner? Which is your favorite method? Does the contouring work for you? Tell us in the comments below!

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Mel B. is a writer of all things beauty, educator, and brand manager for HAI Styling Tools, and CoFounder of, where Beauty Pro's connect, network, and answer questions for savvy women wanting the best beauty information. When she's not working, you'll find her hanging with her family in Encinitas, CA, or just contemplating life with walks along the beach, typically with a coffee in hand. Email her at