How to maintain a tan while swimming

Prolonged water submersion or swimming CAN fade a spray tan.

But contrary to popular opinion, it is NOT actually the chlorine, salt, or chemicals  in the water that are “bleaching” out your tan. The bleach levels in pool water can certainly dry out the skin (which will increase fade over the next few days), and possibly lighten the tan a little, but they are normally not at a high enough percentage to “bleach” skin and clothing.

There are exceptions of course, some public pools may maintain very high chlorination levels for public health reason (higher then home pool owners would use because of eye discomfort involved),  which will add in an additional contribution to the tan fade.

But it is still not the most common cause of fast or uneven tan fade while swimming. Rather the fade one sees, is the effect of prolonged water submersion, causing your dead “tanned” skin cells to separate easier, or speed up your tans exfoliation rate.

Water seeps under the dead skin cells, and into the skin layers, causing the skin to swell and fill with water between the cells. A water fills pockets between cells, skin gets “pruiney” and wrinkled looking, after prolonged water submersion.

This soaking also loosens the attachments, holding dead skin cells against living cells beneath. The dead skin cells are spray tanned brown, so as they lift, the tan will lighten, because less “brown” cells are on top, lightening the color.

This will happen with fresh, salt, or chlorinated water, from pools, streams, even a prolonged tub soak. Which is one reason a long tub soak is a recommended method of tan removal.

Limiting or slowing this separation will help your tan last longer, even when swimming or hot tubing.

Do keep in mind, even with the steps below, if you are swimming or Hot Tubing daily, your tan will fade faster. The steps below can help, but they will never completely prevent excessive fade off.

I have used the steps below myself many times when swimming to help slow my tans fade rate, and have even swam for hours at a time while on vacation snorkeling.  But I do not normally swim or hot tub daily. If I did do so, I am not sure it would be worth the trouble to also try and maintain a sunless tan at the same time.

These tips are more as a guide to help ones’ tan last longer when they are swimming, but not a guarantee your tan will last “just as long” when you are regularly swimming, as when you are not swimming.

So, use this as a general Guide, to help you. No guarantees are provided.  ?

What makes the tan colors we see?

An airbrush/HVLP applied sunless tan is made up of two colorant agents. The temporary brown instant visible tint, (cosmetic) you see when the product is first sprayed onto the skin, and the slower developing, longer wearing DHA based tint.

The cosmetic brown color you see when spray tanning solution is first applied to the skin, is a temporary water soluble brown tint. Think of it as “make-up” on your skin. This will wash away in the first shower. This is normal, this is NOT your sunless tan.

This will leave the more permanent DHA based sunless tan behind, which will last through normal daily activity. This takes 2- 8 hours to develop color, and can darken for up to 24 hours. Color will last for 5-7 days depending on your skins exfoliation rate, your skin care habits and lifestyle.

Step One Proper Exfoliation – doing it right! :

If you exfoliate the skin well before tanning, and apply airbrush tanning solution to clean dry product free skin, then shower before sweating or activity, you tan will not sweat or “run/drip” off.

I recommend an exfoliating mitt, or gloves, such as this one here: Smittens Exfoliation Mitt , used with a mild non moisturizing gel cleanser for exfoliation.  Look for a “clear” translucent type shower gel,

When holding the bottle up to the light it should look transparent, and allow light to easily shine through. (soaps on right) Brand and color do not matter.  See image below for examples.

Avoid a milky, opaque creamy type lotion shower gel product (Soap on left) (Dove, Oil of Olay, Caress etc) as these usually contain added moisturizers, and conditioners, that can coat the skin surface, and should not be used pre tan.

Bar soaps can normally be used pre-tan, for most clients, as long as they are not moisturizing bars. Do avoid Dove brand bars as they can coat skin.  After using any bar soap, I personally would recommend client go over the skin with shower gel and a mitt as a final cleansing step, to remove any coating layer left on the skin from the bar.

Bar soaps do to their makeup and pH, can be very harsh and drying to the skin. They should not be used regularly, and saved only for occasional use, such as spray tan removal, or pre tan prep. If your skin is very dry, you tan fades fast, or you have itchiness, sensitivity or skin that exfoliates very fast, avoid bar soaps.

Many exfoliation scrubs can leave a moisturizing or lubrication coating on the skin which may cause tanning solution to apply unevenly, rub off, or fade faster. Unless the scrub is made specifically for Pre Tanning use, such as this one: Yum’e Boddie Buff Scrub , please cleanse skin after use with a mitt and clear shower gel to remove residue.

A Fresh Tan will fade less:

A freshly applied sunless tan will fade less in the water then one a week old. This is because overall color is darker, and there are less “loose” cells to separate in the water. So try to plan your spray session a day or two before a pool event.

I would always recommend a trial run first, when testing how well your tan will stay while swimming.  Do not plan your first “test” during an important pool event with a crowd of friends and family, where you may feel uncomfortable if your tan does not hold up as well as you hope.

Generally, it is recommended you not tan “super dark” rather aim for a light to light medium tan.  The darker the tan (and the paler you are naturally) the more visible any fade will be, because you will have increased contrast between light and dark tanned skin. So opt for a slightly lighter color.  If your tan holds up well in a lighter version, then you can go a bit darker next time, if you choose.

Tan Protection while swimming, slowing the cell separation:

To lessen tan fade from swimming, limit swimming sessions to shorter ones of 15 minutes or so, rather than a long soak. Pat skin dry upon exiting, rather than “rubbing”. A freshly applied sunless tan, applied to well exfoliated skin, will fade less then an older tan of a few days or more, or one applied to poorly exfoliated skin.

A thick waterproof lotion based sunscreen can help slow tan fade and wear related to water submersion from prolonged swimming. Look for SPORT sunscreens, made for water sport use, such as products used by Surfers, Scuba Divers and Snorkelers, as they adhere better during prolonged water submersion. Lotions will normally “waterproof” the tan better then gels.

I personally like Blue Lizard, and have used this successfully on many long snorkeling swims. It can be purchased online at Amazon, and may be found at your local Walgreen s or other large chain drugstore.


After exiting the water, while the skin is still inflated with excess water, the tan WILL look lighter. But this is because the skin is swollen with excess water, and “stretched out” over a larger surface area. The tanned cells are spread out more, allowing one to see pale skin gaps between tanned cell (untanned skin.)

This is why fingertips  may look wrinkled after swimming, due to excess water absorption.  As the skin surface dries, and water evaporates out (this will take 20-30 minutes or longer depending on climate conditions, how warm or dry you are) the skin will “shrink” back to its normal size, and you will see the tan “darken” closer to its normal coloration, and depth.

It will normally also even out, and look less blotchy. But any areas of rubbing (for example, strap marks from scuba gear) will often be much lighter, as the water submersion, combined with the strap rubbing will have increased exfoliation/skin separation in those areas,

Rebuild any faded color- the Topper Coat!

After your swim, gently cleanse off any sun screen and pool or salt water, rinse, and towel dry the skin (pat not scrub), then reapply an “at home” self-tan product to rebuild any faded color.  If you scrub the skin with your towel, you can increase the skin exfoliation, so patting will better preserve your tan.

I personally like this mousse, which is a favorite when I travel on vacation. But you can use any mousse, aerosol, lotion etc of your choice. Just apply a light fresh coat head to toe before bed, and wake -up with a renewed tan to start the day.

If you will be hitting the Dance Floor for the evening, and don’t have time to wait for your mousse to develop color – Fake it with a water Resistive bronzer. Sally Hansens Airbrush legs is a bit tricky to color match, and blend. But once you find the correct shade, it can be a life saver. It’s also terrific when your feet, hands or chest are fading a bit too fast, and you want to spot refresh color.


Its available at most drug stores and comes in a range of shades. It comes in an aerosol or a lotion. I prefer the lotion personally.

This is a temporary, water resistant, low transfer, Body Makeup. It washes away with soap and water.

Products of this type are what you see on celebrities, dancers, and performers to look “perfect” on stage or at red carpet events.

I love these types of products to keep my legs looking great all summer under short shorts and summer skirts.

–  Vicki