What I learned from my mother, who happens to be an oncologist: Freaky-sized moles are to be removed, nitrate-packed deli meat is suspect, and above all, hit a tanning bed and you’re speed dialing the Grim Reaper. “Do you know what that’ll do to you?” I barked at one college friend, after she confessed to having her skin professionally seared in high school. My annoying lecturing wasn’t limited to just the occasional tanning-salon customer. “You need an SPF of at least 15, at the very least 15,” I admonished a friend in Aruba, like a belligerent Coppertone cop.
Self-tanners are of course another possibility, but I found it difficult to shuck the early 80s memory of them turning you orange, just like it was difficult to forget the first wave of colored contacts that made your pupils look like they could shoot lasers. To this day, those who self tan often serve as de facto product reps themselves, convincing skeptics that their skin won’t resemble rotting papaya.
Naturally, it helps if the proponent boasts a tan that looks like it results from weeks on the shores of Bali instead of a night shellacking in the bathtub. A friend of mine, a blonde bronzed goddess who’s often asked if she just got back from Miami, argues convincingly for the color improvement in contemporary self-tanning products. But she admits what hasn’t gotten better is the smell. Be prepared for a chemical-like scent similar to hairspray fumes, an aroma that will thankfully disappear by morning—right about the time your lovely new tan starts to appear.
Like most self-tanaholics, my friend—we’ll call her I’m Not Orange—has her applications down to a science. Coppertone Cop will share them with you.
1. I’m Not Orange uses the tinted self-tanners; with the colorless ones, “you’re not sure if you’ve spread it out evenly because you can’t see it.” After having tried a few self-tanners for just one night, I can attest to this. The Coppertone Sunless Tanning Bronzing Foam and the Neutrogena Sunless Tanning Micro Mist absorbed so quickly and near-invisibly into my skin that it was impossible to see where I’d applied it or if I’d missed a spot or 10. “I prefer creams,” says INO, “because I feel like I have more control with the cream versus sprays or foams (which I find are more difficult to manage).” And she also reminds applicants, “When you’re applying it to your knuckles, knees, and elbows, they tan darker, so you have to be careful.”
2. INO applies self-tanner in the evening, about a half hour before she goes to bed. The drying time for self-tanners largely varies, and one can really only judge by experience. The Neutrogena spray claimed it took only five minutes, but our thighs sexily stuck together for a full hour after.)
3. INO recommends the Estee Lauder Sun Performance line and L’Oreal Sublime Bronze Self-Tanning Gelee—”although this year the Estee Lauder one seems runny, so it doesn’t dry as fast.” Neutrogena Instant Bronze is effective, but it dries too fast. “If you haven’t spread it out fully and it dries on you, it gets caky.”
4. Although most brands offer a specific tanner for the face, INO avoids these. “I find the face ones are too sensitive and I don’t get tan enough, so I use the ones for the body.” It’s a personal choice: brave potential breakouts or sport a different color head.
5. INO does two applications to get her base tan, which lasts about a week. “The thing with tanner,” she explains, “is it just tints your upper skin layer. So as your skin sheds, about a week later, the tanner starts to come off. At that point, you just have to exfoliate all over your body, and then do it all over again.”
6. “Tan palms are a dead giveaway you’re using tanner,” shares the wise INO. She advises washing your hands after applying tanner to each body part, or else the tanner will tint your palms. This step separates the streaky nubies from the pros: “Once you’re done with your whole body, when you want the top of your hands to get tan, you just put it on one hand and then rub it on the top of your other hand. That’s how I end.”