Self Tanning: A First-Timer's Experience

I am forever jealous of naturally tan girls. I am really a summer girl, but despite these long hours in beaming rays of sun, my skin takes after my mother’s Irish descended family—heavy in the MC1R gene which supports the creation of melanin distribution in the skin. While my freckles have faded with years of indoor study, tanning has remained challenging, even after traveling closer to the equator during my J-Term class to Peru. So, two weekends before my college’s spring break, I decided to embrace my vacation glow in a potentially more difficult, but more skin-friendly route of a fake tan, using L’Oréal’s Sublime Bronze self-tanning towelettes.


Preparing for my first self-tan should have been relatively easy; the directions are the first things printed on the back of L’Oréal’s tanning toilettes, with eight straightforward tips for first time users like me.

However, I was left with a lot of questions that L’Oréal probably assumes people with common sense will know. Luckily, I am not the first one to question my ability to self-tan and found a lot of similar minded people on Yahoo answers. Honestly, if you have a question, just Google it or go for it! There are other girls who have wondered the same thing as you, so it’s either on the internet or you’re about to have a really good story.  


The golden rule for every fake tan is to take your time. Rushing through the process was my pitfall, and unlike your early morning eyeliner—which you can wipe off later when you realize you were way too tired to be trusted to do a cat eye that morning—your fake tan will be stuck to you for days. The best friend of dry shampoo, I hate taking showers so I made the poor decision to exfoliate and shave my legs out of a cup of water over a towel on my dorm room floor, and save my showering for my post-tan self. Not an entirely enjoyable process, but there were so many other steps ahead of me, I passed by the foundation of the process and scurried on to the more interesting towelettes.

What surprised me the most upon opening up the packing of the L’Oréal towelettes was that the towelettes were actually white. Branded the color ‘medium’ I had expected the towelettes to also be caramel colored and clearly rub off, but there was no color residue that I could see at all. Granted, this also was at one o’clock in the morning, but I could not see any indication that I had gone over a certain patch of my skin and not another part of my body. This was the most challenging part of the process. I kept on rubbing because I wanted my desired color, but there was no color to be seen! I definitely could smell the solution though. Even if I couldn’t see my summer glow, I definitely knew it was on my body from the pleasant aroma and slightly sticky residue and called it a night, covering my dorm couch with towels and sleeping with a dark colored blanket to avoid the discoloring of lighter colors.

When I awoke, I could not have been more surprised. Color streaked down my body in pleasantly tan smudges. The areas I did well, like my calves and the supine side of my arms looked really nice. As the directions instructed, I was wary about putting too much product around my joints, and distributed the product thoughtfully around these areas, filling in everything else—or so I thought. The night prior I had intentionally left my upper thighs bare of product, knowing because of the weather no one was going to see them anyway, but areas I thought I had covered, like the areas behind my knees and my lower thighs were poorly done and obviously streaky—not at the fault of the product, but my thoughtless application. I also neglected to fill in the skin around my armpits, giving me the appearance as if I was just sprouting wings and about to fly away. However, with a short sleeved top and a bottom which extended past my knees, the towelettes and I cooperated nicely to create the summer glow I’d never had before.

It was time to test my new summer body.


If I had been braver, or perhaps been warmer, I would have bared more skin. However, due to the Minnesota temperatures I decided to wear a dark dress (Yahoo will remind you it is imperative to wear dark colors so you don’t ruin your light colored clothing!), tights, and a sweater which covered up most of my body, minus my collar bone, neck, and wrists.

“Does anything look any different about me?” I asked my boyfriend in the car on our way to Five Guys, tackling my first victim of the day. I had wanted to ask my roommates, but they were both gone for the weekend, probably giving me the opportunity to spend so much of my night tanning in the first place.

Although I had rolled up my sleeves in the car, it took until Five Guys for him to notice something actually was out of the ordinary. “I thought it was the sunlight!” He exclaimed over our milkshakes, but in the shadows of our fries, it was much easier to see. A harsh line divided my arm in two, separating the top of my arm from the bottom, hot dog style.

“It doesn’t look really good, does it?”

“No, not at all!”

What I really wanted to know is what he thought about the permanency of tanning. After talking a bit about it, he expressed that he was most comfortable with self-tanning as an every once in a while kind of venture—although everyone should be free to do with their bodies as they please. Intentionally altering your body frequently might cause an individual to analyze their body image in a way they wouldn’t otherwise—and it makes hand holding more difficult in fear of rubbing off on another person.

Another person who I really wanted to talk to about my tanning adventures was my language exchange partner from Spain. In his fifties, I was hopeful he would have an insight on bronceado through a historical and cultural lens, when the Spanish invaded South and Central America, resulting unjust caste system based upon skin color, similar to that of the United States, where people with fair skin were given more advantages in society. What does tanning mean in the vision of race, when people were categorized as mestizo or as Spanish due to the color of their skin for thousands of years and to this day? My tan towelettes only came in medium. Does that signify anything? Not in Spain, my language partner was quick to reassure me.

His daughters tan in the summer without any racial implications, although it doesn’t mean that racism doesn’t exist. Swedish company Emmaatan is experiencing backlash as their tanning products hover on becoming blackface, their customers enjoying ‘trendy’ skin while maintaining the privilege so unfortunately associated with lighter shades (article here). Throwing bleaching creams into the mix make things more confusing than ever, as women of all skin colors around the world are told to adjust their bodies by beauty products in order to uphold the beauty industry and a plethora of unattainable beauty standards. When using any kind of beauty product, one should be considerate of what the implications of the product mean to another person, or another group of people.

Finally, there was one more person with whom to discuss my tanning ventures, the woman to start it all: my mom. My mom is one of the freckliest people I know. While many people think of freckles as little dots across your face, my mom has them everywhere. “Have I ever disliked them?” She asked when I called her late at night, staring at my hidden body in the mirror. “No, they help me connect to people. When I hear someone saying something rotten about someone else, about the color of their skin, I can point to any one spot on my body, and say, ‘Hey, I’m that color too. We’re all human.’

While I enjoyed being tan for a couple of days, despite the streakiness and the fact that I couldn’t wear any cute clothes for fear of ruining them, what I enjoy most in this world is knowing there is a bit of my mom in me. Be it her MC1R gene, or her attitude towards life, I carry part of my mom with me at all times, and I hate to see it covered up by a fake tan which could easily become costly and covers up the parts of me that I love the most. I come from a line of strong woman and I am proud to show their lineage in me, freckles and all.