How to Get Tan on the Cheap Before Beach Season

When the sun is out in full force and everyone heads to the shore, you probably don't want to be the palest person on the beach. Millions of Americans choose indoor tanning to get the coveted bronze glow every year, turning to salons with full service tanning beds, at-home tanning applications, and professional airbrush tans. Here's the skinny on cheap tanning.

Although tanning beds and sun lamps promise dark, even tans in less than 15 minutes, the risks are fairly high. Tanning beds expose you to three times the UVA radiation than if you had soaked in natural sunlight and dramatically increase the risk of skin cancer (melanoma).

There are alternatives: Spray tanning at a salon or DIY at home.

A professional spray tan treatment involves donning a disposable garment, stepping into a booth, and being sprayed with a light mist for several minutes. The mist contains Dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a chemical that interacts with the skin's proteins and amino acids to produce a darker tone. (Note: Some health professionals recommend holding your breath, closing your eyes, and covering your nose/mouth to avoid inhaling DHA.) Drying takes about 10 to15 minutes, depending on the shade. A one-off tanning session costs $25 to $50, which isn't particularly cheap, but you get even color with no streaks and circumvent UVA radiation. The disadvantage of spray tanning is that you'll smell like chemicals while the spray sets over several hours and until your next shower. Spray tans last a week or more, depending how you take care of it.

When shopping around for a salon that offers spray tanning, check the websites for specials. Many offer student, holiday, and new client discounts on package services as well as unlimited, low-cost monthly plans with automatic payment. Hollywood Tans, for example, offers an unlimited EFT Membership for $19.99 a month. Sun Tan City offers an annual membership starting at $120 (prices and plans vary in 250 locations). L.A. Tan, with dozens of locations in the Midwest, offers $25 spray tan sessions or $50 for a monthly spray tan package.

Self-tanning sprays and lotions, available online or at drug stores, also contain DHA and are popular options if you prefer to apply the product yourself and save money. Product prices range anywhere from $5 to $15, making them far cheaper than salon services. You'll also need supplies, like sponges and brushes (and sometimes help from another person), to distribute the product to hard-to-reach areas. Self-tanners last anywhere from a day to a week, and usually require a shower the next morning (after the DHA sets in) to wash off excess color, just like a spray tan. There are also drawbacks to this method. Uneven application can leave streaks and liquid/aerosol products can get messy; be sure to remove carpets and have extra towels handy if you're trying a self-tanner.

Our picks for the best self-tanning sprays are Banana Boat Sunless Tanning Spray (starting at $6.67), Sally Hansen Spray On Makeup (starting at $11.74), and Sex Symbol Aerotan (starting at $14.90) -- all of which garner strong reviews from spray tan fans.

Reviewers of Banana Boat Sunless Tanning Spray gush about how quickly the mist dries, the ease of use for back application, the citrus scent that helps cover up the DHA smell, and the week-long staying power. Those who used Sally Hansen Spray On Makeup note the consistency of the spray (it comes out like hairspray) and how well it covers unsightly marks and veins on legs. They say the spray dries quickly without color rubbing off, even on white sheets, and lasts a day or until your next shower. Sex Symbol Aerotan reviews mention the coconut scent and the natural, golden color with a glimmer. They also report that the color sets easily and stays on, and likewise lasts a day or until your next shower.

If you're considering a salon spray tan or cheap at-home self-tanning, keep these tips in mind:

  • Shower, shave, exfoliate, and moisturize in advance to prime your skin for better absorption.
  • For salon spray tanning sessions, you'll be given disposable garments to wear in the booth. You'll leave the salon smelling like chemicals, so it's best to wear loose, dark clothing that you can throw in the wash the next morning. Tight garments like a bra or underwear might result in lines forming as the color sets and/or cause color to rub off.
  • The standard recommendation is to wait at least six hours after a spray tan or self-tanner application before showering so your tan can set in correctly.
  • Water, sweat, and exfoliation shorten the life of your tan, so keep showers brief and cool. Use a daily moisturizer to prolong the tan.
  • Tan safely, no matter what method. Use sunscreen (at least SPF 30) to protect against daily sun exposure, and schedule annual skin screenings with your dermatologist.