Spray Tan Horror Stories and Photos

The road to the perfect fake-bake is fraught with peril. Anneli Rufus talks to the bronzerati about polka-dot bodies, “tan-taches,” and crime-scene body outlines left on white bed sheets.


After making it to third place on Dancing With the Stars, Erin Andrews posted a picture of her feet on her Twitter page. They looked like maps of an archipelago, their natural pink-white hue splotched with huge, coppery splats. The brown knuckles were especially gross. Andrews' June 2 tweet explained it: "unfort now I'm addicted to spray tan :)! ... It's not easy getting 10 wks of DWTS spray tan layers off your feet!!"

A lot can go wrong when you try to make yourself look natural by airbrushing your entire body.

Click Image Below to View Our Gallery of Celebrity Spray Tans Gone Wrong

Celebrity photographer Benjamin Reed remembers shooting a bodybuilding competition in which the bronzed competitors sweated profusely under hot stage lights. Their "tans," Reed says, were "melting down their muscles and dripping on the floor."

"There is a famous story—true—that Jennifer Lopez got a spray tan for a big award show," says makeup artist Victoria Duke, founder of the Florida-based Academy of Glam. "She looked like the bronze goddess she is famous for being. However, a last-minute wardrobe change and a decision to pull her hair back caused one huge embarrassing moment. She strutted down the red carpet the color of cafe au lait—except for her white ears and the big white spots behind them. People were talking and laughing about it for weeks."

Spray tanning is the application of dihydroxyacetone (DHA), which isn't a dye but a colorless sugar-derived carbohydrate whose interaction with amino acids in dead skin cells darkens them. It's virtually the same chemical process that chefs call the Maillard reaction, which caramelizes onions and burnishes brioches. In a sun-fearing era, DHA is FDA-approved. The Mayo Clinic calls it a "practical alternative" to UVs.

So it won't kill you—but it just might cripple your dignity, at least for a week or so until those browned, outermost skin cells slough off. The classic Oompa Loompa look, celebrity-gossip-blog gold, usually comes from choosing a spray-tan solution too strong for the individual's natural skin tone: say, a tawny or toffee or "deep" shade, rather than subtle almond or sand.

"It's surprising how few people understand the science behind spray tans. Many believe that the higher the level of DHA in a solution, the darker the tan," says Wendy Loupos, who introduced spray-tanning to Australia in 1999 and now directs the spray-tan-solution company Salon HQ. "This is crazy. High levels of DHA lead to an orange tan." She knows all about using too much spray. "I've had girls call me in tears after going orange from over-application. Some of them have even resorted to bathing in bleach to remove their tans," Loupos says.

That doesn't always work. The thing about spray tans is that once they "take," water can't wash them away. But spray tans require seven hours after application to manifest; during those hours, any water contact will strip the solution and its tanning effects from places where skin gets wet. So don't shower. Don't sweat. Don't cry.

"A friend of mine had a date with this guy she'd had a crush on for ages," says Academy of Glam's Duke. "They had a great evening and a steamy session in bed. Unfortunately, she had gotten a spray tan that morning and the outline of her tan was left on his sheets. It looked like a crime scene.”

"I had a client last week who went right home after getting sprayed and gave her son a bath," says Alix Peterson, owner of Denver's Sinless Sun Airbrush Tanning Studio. "She wound up with no tan halfway up her arms," making her look as if she were wearing white gloves. Other clients get their hair done right after getting sprayed. "They're not careful with the shampoo bowl and they get white rings around their heads. Others decide to water their yards—they end up with white polka dots." Tanners who leave the salon wearing snug belts that cause sweating, Peterson says, end up with that sawn-in-half look.

The golden rule: Contrast is hell. Even an all-over tangerine fake-bake is better than a natural-looking color that’s rendered ridiculous by white streaks or spots. Celebrity makeup artist Christine Colucci, president of Makeup Mafia Inc., performs triage on models and stars when newly sprayed faces sweat under hot lights. Further troubles arise "when they spray-tan their bodies but not their faces," explains Colucci. "Then the face is white and the body's orange"—a Creamsicle combo that sends her scrambling with blushes, bronzers, and powders "to darken their faces and lighten their chests so that the colors get somewhat blended. Sometimes I've had to darken the girls' faces five whole shades to get it even close."

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Case in point: A photograph made the blog-rounds last summer of Kristin Cavallari on a red carpet sporting a hot-pink knee-length dress, beige sandals, orange legs—and porcelain arms, neck, and face. Oversprayed faces wreak havoc, too, says Colucci.

"It's hard to even find a lipstick that goes with that orange color. And sometimes the color of the lips blends in with the color of the skin. In those cases I basically go over the lips with foundation and then go over that with gloss.” Entire photo shoots are sometimes scrapped because someone's overdone the DHA. "I had one model who was so orange that her pictures couldn't be used" in the swimsuit catalog for which she'd posed, says Colucci. "She was obsessed with spray tans. It happens."

Sometimes contrast goes the other way: not orange-and-white but orange-and-oranger. In a classic 2007 pic, a bronzed Lindsay Lohan looks chocolate-brown between her nose and upper lip—it's a tan-tache. Without exfoliation and moisturizer, areas of rough or dry skin "grab darker," says Sinless Sun's Peterson. If not loofahed and treated with barrier cream before being sprayed, hands and feet and joints run particular risk of looking mud-caked, because they're our driest, most weather-beaten bits. Spray-tanned armpits can evoke black holes, Peterson says, "because no one ever moisturizes their underarms." Solution also collects in cuticles and creases, creating a spiderweb effect if not barrier-creamed and/or daubed off.

Having worked in the cosmetics industry for 19 years, Peterson said she got into the personalized spray-tanning business after her own horrific first visit to a tanning booth. The excess solution wasn't wiped off, so when the tan took effect, dark brown drip marks appeared all over her calves. They outlasted the rest of the tan by several days.

Automated tanning booths "are basically like a car wash and can be very intimidating," says Salon HQ's Loupos. She has seen what happens when failure to pivot fast enough or far enough in a booth results in a half-bronzed body: left or right, front or back. It happened to Ross in an episode of Friends, it's all too real, "and it highlights exactly why application by a spray-tan technician"—by hand—"is definitely the way to go if you're wanting a flawless result."

The spray-tan disasters that Miami dermatologist Loretta Ciraldo encounters aren't funny. They're scary and sad—because they might lead to death.

Real suntans reduce the likelihood of burning upon further exposure to the sun, thanks to a process that doctors call UV hardening. "Unfortunately, too many people believe that spray tans work like UV tans to create the same tolerance, which they don't," says Ciraldo, author of Six Weeks to Sensational Skin. In fact, recent research suggests that DHA renders spray-tanned skin even more susceptible to sun damage than untreated skin, Ciraldo says. "Spray tans don't increase melanin… I can't tell you the number of ladies I see who come back from Cancún with blisters, and we now believe that even a single blistering sunburn can lead to skin cancer. When I see young patients with melanoma, it's usually because they've had a blistering burn."

Not all spray-tan horror stories are about color. Peterson says some people have panic attacks in the automated booths. Colucci can't stand the smell of spray-tanned skin. "While I'm working on these people, I want to gag," she says. And just this week, one more spray-tan pitfall was illustrated when TMZ reported that spray-tan solution can set off SCRAM monitoring bracelets, like the one worn by Lindsay Lohan, giving false readings for alcohol.

But hey, it does make you look thinner.

Anneli Rufus is the author of Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto and the Nautilus Award-winning Stuck: Why We Don't (or Won't) Move On, and the coauthor of Weird Europe and The Scavengers' Manifesto. In 2006, she won a Society of Professional Journalists award for criticism.