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How to Prevent—and Fix—Self-Tanning Disasters

The tan in a bottle has evolved. No longer the orange mess of the '80s, it is now fool-proof and streak-free. Well, not exactly, but we can help.
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Retinal damage, skin cancer, sunspots, wrinkles, dry and leathery skin — the list of reasons not to slather yourself in tanning oil and lie in the sun are endless. But a girl's gotta have her summertime glow, and that's what self-tanners are for, if used properly. We'll show you how to fix self-tanning disasters, and better yet, how to prevent a streaky, splotchy mess in the first place.

First, the basics: Sunless tanning products work on the top layer of skin (the dead cells you slough off when you exfoliate.) The dihydroxyacetone (DHA) in the product reacts with the amino acids in the dead skin cells to produce melaninoids, which result in increased pigmentation in that top layer. So, a sunless tan lives in the top layer of your skin, and does not extend any further. A good tan then, starts with an even top layer, and a bad tan can be faded out by exfoliating the top layer away. Beyond exfoliating, here are some tips for avoiding catastrophe.

5 DISASTERS TO AVOID

Streaks, Blotches, and Stripes
Prep your skin beforehand. Shave your legs, exfoliate, and moisturize. Start exfoliating a few days before you self-tan, and avoid over-moisturizing immediately before you apply the product. Finally, apply the tanner slowly and be sure to rub it in completely, paying extra attention to the knees, elbows, feet, and neck, all parts of the body that will absorb the tanner more readily.

Tinted products are the most fool-proof, because you can see the distribution of the sunless tanner before it develops. Opt for a lotion instead of a quick-drying foam, for a better window of opportunity to correct any uneven spots before the DHA starts reacting with your skin. We recommend Clarins' Self Tanning Milk SPF 6 ($30), which requires 1-2 hours to develop, with the added benefits of hydration and protection.

Still nervous? Try Benefit's Jiffy Tan ($24). It provides an immediate tan that will stay put all day, but if you mess it up, you can just wash it off in the shower. Since this lotion's far from waterproof though, we don't recommend it for a day at the pool or the beach.

That Too-Orange Glow
When trying out a new brand of self-tanner, always start with a light to medium shade, rather than a dark one. You can always go back and apply the darker shade, but you can't undo the damage once you've turned day-glo orange. Experts also recommend diluting your self tanner by mixing it with equal parts of moisturizer. But exercise caution, because if you don't blend the two properly, you'll end up with streaks and spots. To play it safe, try Jergen's Natural Glow daily moisturizer ($6) — they've done the work for you and blended lotion with a self tanner. The result? A gradual, natural tan, and soft skin to boot.

Premature Fading
Since you can exfoliate to fade an uneven tan, it follows to reason that you can also exfoliate away a perfect tan. To keep your sunless tan intact as long as possible, avoid shaving your legs for 48 hours after you've applied the product. Also avoid long baths or chlorine-filled pools, all of which will rub off the top layer of skin and interfere with the DHA reaction.

Orange Palms and Feet
These are a dead giveaway that your tan is faux. To avoid, apply the tanning lotion or cream with gloved hands (latex gloves work best because they are non-porous). This can make the application process more difficult, however, so if you don't think you can apply the product evenly with gloves, don't. Instead, wash your hands repeatedly throughout the process. Do one body part at a time, and after rubbing the product on each part, wash your hands.

Stained Clothes and Feet
To avoid getting your new tan all over your clothes, wait at least 15 minutes after you've finished applying it to get dressed. To ensure that the self-tanner has set, dry your skin with a blow-dryer on a cool setting (sweat will make your tan streak, so be careful). When you are ready to dress, avoid clingy nylons in favor of breathable cotton, and you should be golden.

DAMAGE CONTROL
Self-tanning is a messy process, and even the most devoted self-tanorexics can make mistakes. Here are a few tips for cleaning up the mess, if you end up with a bad sunless tan.

Tan Remover Solutions
These are especially useful for getting the orange off of your palms, fingernails, and the bottoms of your feet. If you don't have the patience to wash your hands 15 or 20 times while applying the lotion, just use Jersey Girl's Shimmer Dimmer ($14.50) or St. Tropez' Self Tan Remover, in towelettes ($6 for 10) or a soap ($15). These products are most effective in removing the tan before the DHA has started the chemical process or color change. They can still help after the tan has begun to develop, but they will not be able to remove streaks or blotches completely.

Loofahs, Scrubs, and Shaving
Exfoliate, exfoliate, exfoliate, to slough off some of the affected dead skin cells. Draw a bath, shave your legs, and then scrub the darker streaks or spots with a loofah. Be careful not to overscrub, or you'll end up red and splotchy, in addition to unevenly tanned.

Harsh Chemicals
We don't necessarily advocate these, but they are an option if you're in a real pinch. Chlorine, peroxide, bleach, and anti-dandruff shampoos are all supposed to strip off the top layer of skin and interfere with the DHA, thereby lightening the fake tan. They may also irritate sensitive skin, so exercise caution — dilute the chemicals with moisturizer and avoid your face and neck at the very least. And never apply immediately after shaving or exfoliating.

Makeup
If self tanners go awry on your face, first try to blend with a tinted moisturizer — a heavier foundation will only draw attention to the uneven color. Next, aim for a fresh-looking face. Skip the bronzers and blushes because adding a third shade of tan to your face will only exacerbate the problem. Apply a natural lip gloss, and for a more made-up look, draw attention to your eyes with liner rather than color.

Add More Tan
Prefer filling in the light spots to lightening the tan spots? It's a little tricky, but if you're on the pale side, you can try to fill in the color with self tanning towelettes. Try Estee Lauder's Go Tan Sunless Towelettes ($28 for 10) or Comodynes' Self-Tanning Towelettes ($15 for 8) to fill in the light spaces and even out your color.

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