Tan Types & Tanning Alternatives

woman sun tanning

When you think of tanning the first thing that probably comes to mind is tanning outside in the sun. Though there are a selection of different ways to tan.

The main types of tanning are sun tanning, spray tanning, self-tanning and tanning beds. All of them will help you get a natural looking tan. Some options will be better for certain people too. For example, some pale skinned people might be best to opt for a spray tan because their skin might not tan naturally.

Below we will get into the different types of tanning and tanning alternatives, how they work and which option might be best suited to you.

Types of Tanning

Sun Tanning

The first type of tanning is of course tanning in the sun. When you tan in the sun the UV rays cause your skin to tan thanks to a reaction in the skin where something called melanin is increased which makes your skin appear darker.

Keep in mind that while tanning in the sun the tan will not show up immediately. For example, you might have spent some time in the sun in the afternoon, but the tan might not start to show until later that evening.

This is important to note as to be careful not to overexpose yourself. If you are not used to tanning in the sun you should keep your first sessions short. 30 minutes should be more than enough to gradually build a tan over a period of days. Typically, it will take 3-5 sessions to build up a base tan.

Another important thing to consider when tanning outside is the time of the day and the strength of the UV rays. The best time of day to tan is late morning or early afternoon. This is typically when the UV index is strong enough to tan without being too high. For more on this check our article – what UV index is best for tanning.

Keep in mind that in some countries and seasons tanning outside may not be possible due to the UV index not being strong enough to develop a tan. Therefore, in these cases you will have to opt for another tanning alternative like we are going to cover below.

Spray Tanning

A spray tan typically has 2 important elements to the mixture. One is a bronzer which will give you an immediate color and the second is a thing called DHA.

DHA takes time to develop on the skin and to darken the surface level of the skin. Once it has developed and you shower the bronzer part of the mixture will wash off though the DHA part will remain, and the skin will remain tanned for around 5-7 days.

It’s worth mentioning some spray tan mixtures may just include one element or the other though.

Arguably the best tanning alternative is spray tanning. The benefits to spray tanning are you get a tan almost immediately if not within a handful of hours. Also, spray tanning is considered safe, you don’t have any concerns about overexposure to UV rays like you might with sun tanning or even tanning beds.

For some people with pale skin, they might not be able to tan traditionally so a spray tan is the only reliable option for them.

When it comes to spray tanning you have 2 different types of spray tans. One is a regular spray tan that is done by a machine automatically. Secondly you have an airbrush spray tan which is done manually by an operator.

We will talk about them more below. For our full comparison check our article – airbrush tan vs spray tan.

Regular Spray Tan

A regular spray tan is applied automatically by a machine like a VersaSpa or VersaPRO for example.

These machines work relatively well and apply the spray tan quickly.

Using these machines tends to be a bit cheaper than opting for an airbrush tan. Though some would argue the aren’t quite as reliable and thorough as an airbrush tan.

Don’t forget to check our article – how much does a spray tan cost.

Airbrush Tan

When compared with a regular spray tan an airbrush tan is applied manually by an operator.

This often makes for a more thorough tan than is more smooth overall.

Airbrush tans tend to cost more than opting for a regular spray tan, but some may say the cost is worth the difference. It seems airbrush tans are now more popular, and some spray tan businesses are now only offering airbrush tans.


Self-tanning is one of the cheaper spray tan alternatives. Also, it is works similarly to a spray tan. Self-tanners often include a mixture of bronzer and DHA or one or the other to create a natural looking tan.

The main difference here when compared with a spray tan is that you will apply it yourself either by hand or using something like a tanning mitt. Don’t forget to check out our own blackout tanning mitt.

The main problem with self-tanning is you may be more likely to make an error which could leave you with a patchy looking tan. When a spray tan is applied it tends to be more evenly spread which makes application more smooth.

Admittedly with some practice while using a tanning mitt a self-tanner can also look just as good as a spray tan. Self-tanning often works out cheaper than the other tanning alternatives out there.

Tanning Beds

The final type of tanning available are tanning beds. Tanning beds have bulbs which create artificial UV light which will tan your skin just like the sun. The main difference here is that the UV light created is typically stronger than the suns rays so usually only a short time is needed on the bed.

One thing with tanning beds is you should always start slow when using them. This means shorter and less frequent sessions when starting out.

This is to make sure your skin can tolerate the strength of the lights. If you are beginner we suggest checking out our article – tanning bed time chart. There we explain exactly how long you should be tanning for in a tanning bed and how to increase the time as you go progress.

When compared with spray tans, tanning beds tend to be cheaper but some people have their concerns of overexposure which may damage your skin in the long run.

This is why we recommend keeping sessions shorter and not as often to keep the exposure levels to a minimum (2 sessions per week should be enough).

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