Trends in the fashion industry move at a frenetic pace, and so it’s always something new, it seems, week after week, making the rounds. However, one trend that seems here to stay is the sunless tan. Also called a “fake tan” and often a “spray-on tan,” the sunless tan is an easy, quick, affordable way to get some color without risking exposure to the sun, which can be quite harmful.
Some of the risks of prolonged exposure to the sun include but aren’t limited to:
- Burning and blistering
- Excessive dryness
- Uneven skin tone
- Skin cancer
This is why many seek out sunless tans. The two most popular options are spray tans and airbrush tans. There are so many things that are similar about these two self-tanning processes, that many believed they were the same thing. Let’s first look at the similarities, and then we’ll discuss the differences of spray tanning vs airbrush tanning.
How Does Spray Tanning and Airbrushing Work?
Although you may get the gist of how the spray-on sunless tans work, you may still want to know how a solution sprayed onto the skin can safely and effectively give you a perfect tan appearance without having to bake yourself out in the hot sun for hours at a time. It’s actually chemistry at play here.
The main substance found in all creams, lotions and spray tan solutions is dihydroxyacetone (DHA), which is a color additive. When sprayed onto the skin, it actually reacts with the dead skin cells on the outer surface of the epidermis. This darkens the cells and coincidentally gives the skin the appearance of a deep, rich tan. Though as those skin cells fall away and are washed off, that tan appearance goes, which is why the fake tan is only going to last for a few days.
Since it basically flakes away from the surface of the skin, there are no negative or lasting effects from the additive.
What is DHA?
Dihydroxyacetone (DHA) is also known as glycerone, and it is a simple saccharide (triose) which acts as the main ingredient of sunless tanning products. This isn’t some dangerous chemical that’s created in a laboratory using things that are harmful to the body. In fact, DHA is a natural chemical that’s found readily in sugar beets and sugar cane, hence the “glycerone” which is just basically fermented glycerin.
This isn’t a new product either. DHA has been used in sunless tanning products since the 1960s. While it’s a lot more popular today, thanks to the spread of sunless tanning and the myriad methods used to tan, like spray and airbrush tanning, it’s actually been on the market for quite a long time. In the 1970s, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) permanently approved this ingredient. That’s how safe it actually is.
The Differences Between Spray and Airbrush Sunless Tanning
These tanning solutions are actually a lot more similar than dissimilar. For instance, both are administered via a spray. Both offer an even coat. Both are safe, effective alternatives to tanning out in the sun. Though let’s get a bit more in depth concerning each individual method.
Spray Tanning Application
Simply put, spray tanning is the process by which a tanning solution is sprayed onto the body via nozzles, typically from a booth. Inside of the booth are nozzles that are strategically placed around the booth’s perimeter. After stepping inside the booth and starting the session, you’ll be sprayed with an even coat of tanning solution. The booth is pre-programmed and fast bursts of a predetermined quantity spray onto the body. However, the client does get to select options like the levels of the tan, how dark it is, etc.
Spray tanning can also be done through the use of a spray gun machine and the help of a friend or tanning technician, however the process is still a bit different than airbrushing. We’ll talk more about that later.
Let’s discuss the pros and cons of spray tanning.
Benefits of Spray Tanning
- A very quick and easy method of tanning
- Process is entirely automated
- The amounts are programmed to give you the perfect amount of tan
- Instructions are very easy to follow
- The nozzles give you great coverage over your body
Downsides of Spray Tanning
- Concealed areas are not reached, inner thighs, under the breast, etc
- Must follow instructions or could end up with negative results
- Spray could get into orifices like eyes and mouth
- Booths aren’t always in the most sanitary conditions, as they’re used often
- Excessive spray can leave you looking orange, and it can streak
Airbrush Tanning Application
Airbrush tanning is also administered to the body via a spray sunless tanning solution. However, instead of walking into a booth and allowing an automated system to do the work, you’re instead intricately handled by a professional with a small airbrush assembly. A professional will spray this tan onto the body using a airbrush tan machine, which uses a finer tip sprayer than a standard spray tan gun. The process is a lot more delicate, hands-on, and time consuming, but the finished results can be worth the effort.
Here are the pros and cons of airbrush tanning:
Benefits of Airbrush Tanning
- A professional technician is administering the spray tan
- The person giving the tan will reach those troublesome areas well
- Streaking and blotting can be corrected easily
- Artisans using the airbrush can add definition, different tones, etc
- Airbrushes are much more sanitary than booths
- Much easier to customize your tanning
Downsides of Airbrush Tanning
- You’ll have to make an appointment with a professional
- You must be comfortable around another person without your clothing
- More skilled airbrush artists will charge more money
- A bit harder to find this service than booth spray tans
Costs of Spray Tanning and Airbrush Tanning
The price you pay for sunless tanning is definitely going to depend entirely on the method you use. For instance, the cheapest method you can find is going to be over-the-counter lotions and creams. Though for the purposes of the spray vs airbrush argument, let’s stick only to those two methods.
Spray Tanning is Less Expensive
For a single tanning session in a spray tanning booth, the average cost is going to set you back around $20-40 a session. Of course, the price point depends on the quality of the equipment, the reputation of the tanning salon, and other factors.
One big cost savings is that many tanning salons offer tanners an “all-you-can-tan” monthly membership. That means, depending on the plan you choose, your membership can include unlimited spray tan sessions. In our local area, we’ve seen unlimited memberships as low as $18 a month. In this case, your cost per tanning session can get extremely low!
Airbrush Tanning is More Expensive
Airbrush tanning involves a more hands-on process and can give you a lot more detail, and it requires a technician to apply the tanning solution, so you’ll be looking at spending a bit extra. On average, having an airbrush tanning session can start around $40, and go all the way up to $80 per session. Again, the price will depend on the location, the skill and reputation of the person applying the tan, etc. But expect the average airbrush tan to run you around $55.
Spray Tanning at Home is the Cheapest
Aside from using your tanning membership multiple times per month, the cheapest way to get your spray tan on is to do it yourself!
Yes, it’s totally possible to do a spray tan at home! There are tons of amazing spray tanners that you can buy and apply yourself using self-tanning tanning mitts or applicators. If you’re looking for a good at home spray tan, check out our list of the best organic spray tans to get the best quality product.
If you see a whole lot of spray tanning in your future, you may consider opting instead for your own personal spray tan machine. These machines are pretty portable and there are spray tan kits that include solution and additional accessories you may want. You’ll need someone’s help using a machine for spray tanning, so if you’ve got a friend to help you, this could be a good solution for you.
The obvious downside is that doing anything yourself is never going to be as easy and convenient. But if you’re willing to put in the effort, it could potentially save you hundreds.
Which Tanning Method Should You Choose?
The type of tanning method you choose should depend entirely on what you want out of your tan. Say you’re interested in just getting some color on your arms and legs, so you can dress comfortably in the summer and show off your tan. If this is all you’re after, a spray tan via a booth might be a great way to go.
However, let’s say you want to go to the beach and show off some definition, or you have a fitness competition to attend. An airbrush tan can actually give you a variety of tones and shades, and make your body look a lot better than just being tanned. A skilled airbrush practitioner can add definition to your body and make you look thinner, more cut up and ripped, and better overall. So with an airbrush tan, you get what you pay for, as you get a more complete tan.
At the end of the day, either option would likely be great. The DHA is safe, sunless tans look amazing, and they’re very quick and easy to apply, regardless of the method. You can go from pale to bronze in a matter of minutes with a sunless tan.