Summer means showing off your skin—lots of it. Before you slip on that sundress, follow this expert advice.
Which formula should I pick? They all have the same active ingredient, so just choose the type that you’re most comfortable applying. “Sprays, mousses, gels, and lotions all contain dihydroxyacetone [DHA], a simple sugar that reacts with the amino acids in the dead cells found in the uppermost layers of your skin, making their color deepen and stay tan for up to five days,” says Ricky Croft, the vice president of marketing for Sunless, a company that makes self-tanners. Some formulas (such as Clarins Self Tanning Instant Gel, $35, clarinsusa.com) contain a combination of DHA and erythrulose, another sugar, which causes a slower color change. The two ingredients are meant to work in tandem to give you a longer-lasting glow.
How do I avoid streaks? Exfoliate before you tan with a gentle granular scrub (such as Laura Mercier Almond Coconut Milk Scrub, $46, sephora.com). Use it “especially around elbows and knees, where there can be a buildup of dead skin cells for the tanner to cling to,” says Croft. To get an extra-thorough scrubbing in those tricky places, bend each arm or leg so your skin is taut before you slough, advises Renee Rouleau, a celebrity aesthetician in Dallas. Next, put petroleum jelly on your cuticles and nails so the tanner won’t tint them. Then apply the tanner strategically: Start at your feet and work upward, smoothing on a thin coat in long, even strokes. Try not to bend for too long in places where you’ve applied, since this can create creases. And resist the urge to moisturize right after tanning, even if your skin feels slightly tight. Heavy emollient lotions may inhibit DHA from being absorbed effectively.
How do I know if I’ve applied too much? The telltale sign: It takes forever to dry. Most of today’s tanners are absorbed by the skin in about five minutes. “If you’re waiting 15 minutes or more, you’ve overdone it,” says Croft. The result can be streakiness and that Oompa Loompa orange cast. As soon as you notice streaks developing, exert damage control by gently exfoliating or slathering on a self-tanner–removing product (such as St. Tropez Tan Remover, $18, sttropeztan.com). It helps take off tanner even after it’s fully developed.
What about those hard-to-reach places? Kevin Mendelson, a makeup artist and the global educator for Jane Iredale The Skin Care Makeup, has your back: Once you’ve bronzed the front of your body, but before doing your arms, he suggests, squeeze a dollop of tanner on the back of each hand and spread the formula from your lower back to your midback. For the upper back, use the same amount in your palms. Another option is a spray formula. Neutrogena Micro Mist Airbrush Sunless Tan ($11 at drugstores) allows you to coat skin at every angle, even if you hold the can upside down. To cover everything perfectly—say, for a special occasion—consider going to a salon for a professional application 24 to 48 hours before the big event. (Prices vary, but a session can cost up to $150 if a pre-tan exfoliation is included.) The intimacy factor is comparable to that of a bikini wax, and you’ll get paper underwear for a bit of privacy. More modest types can visit a spray booth (about $35 a session), in which a machine mists the formula evenly onto your body. You can go nude or sport paper underwear, and you’ll be issued protective goggles. A pro or booth application will last about as long as a DIY job.
How do I avoid shaving nicks? Make sure you’re not glopping on too much shaving cream, says Cindy Barshop, the owner of Completely Bare, a spa in New York City. You need just a thin coat to give the blade a little slip. Use too much and you’ll create drag on the razor—and that’s when nicks can occur. Barshop advises changing the blade after every three to five uses, depending on how coarse your hair is and how often you shave. (Thicker hair can cause more stress on the blade.) And to prevent rust, which can also compromise your razor’s slip, store it in the medicine cabinet rather than the shower.
How do I keep stubble from popping up so quickly? Consider swapping that razor for a depilatory lotion or cream, which can yield longer-lasting results because it breaks the bonds inside the hairs instead of just cropping them at the surface, says Vermen Verallo-Rowell, a dermatologist in Kennebunkport, Maine. Some of the new formulas have subtle, pleasant fragrances to mask chemical odors, so they’re far less stinky than the ones from the days of the short-shorts commercials. Smooth the product on, let it sit for a few minutes—follow the package directions—then gently wipe off and rinse. (Do a patch test first, since the active ingredients can be irritating.) For an even more mess-free experience, try a depilatory that works while you shower (such as Nair Brazilian Spa Clay Shower Power Hair Removal Cream, $10 at drugstores).
How can I make waxing less painful? Take a dose of Advil or Tylenol about an hour beforehand. Home waxers can also step into a hot shower right before the treatment. “Heat opens the follicles, which makes the hair easier to yank,” says Ramon Padilla, the director of Strip: Ministry of Waxing, a salon in New York City. If your skin gets tender from the heat of melted wax, opt for hard wax. This type adheres more to the hairs than to the skin, so it’s less painful to remove than wax that’s removed with cloth strips. One thing that won’t ease the sting, says Padilla, is a pretreatment cocktail: Alcohol can actually make skin more sensitive to pain. “You’d be surprised by how many people go for a glass of wine before coming in to the salon because they want to feel numb,” he says. “But it may end up having the opposite effect.” If you’re a regular waxer, it’s also smart to exfoliate a few times a week. Skin flakes can clog pores, which makes hairs harder to remove.
Is there any way to prevent ingrown hairs? Those unsightly bumps are typically more common in people who have coarse, curly body hair, which tends to loop in on itself under the surface of the skin as it grows back. Pads and toners that contain alcohol and salicylic acid can help because they lightly exfoliate the skin, preventing hair from getting trapped. (Try Bump & Blemish Formula; $25, esbalabs.com.) You might also consider laser or IPL (intense pulsed light) treatments, which have been cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for hair reduction. They are pricey (starting at around $150 a session) but can save time and money in the long run for those prone to ingrown hairs, says Padilla. Initially, you’ll need approximately five treatments about a month apart, and perhaps a yearly touch-up after that. For best results, go to a salon that specializes in hair reduction (not a nail salon), or see a dermatologist. And consider taking an Advil beforehand, as the treatments can be mildly painful. Home devices (such as the Remington i-Light Pro, $250, ulta.com) have shown results on par with pro treatments, but you may need additional sessions, since at-home devices aren’t professional-strength.
Protecting and Moisturizing
How can I get the most out of my sunscreen? Apply a broad-spectrum product with an SPF of 30 or higher at least 30 minutes before heading outdoors so that “the formula can bind to your skin cells,” says Arielle Kauvar, a dermatologist and a skin-cancer surgeon in New York City. For exposed areas of the body, one ounce (a shot glass–size amount) is enough. If you’re outside all day, reapply at least every two hours, more often if you’re sweating or swimming. No sunscreen is truly waterproof (in fact, the FDA no longer allows the word waterproof on labels), and even water-resistant formulas come off when you sweat.
Is a heavy cream (ugh) the only answer for dry summer skin? “We tend to think that the heavier and richer the cream, the better it works,” says Rouleau. But even the thickest cream won’t necessarily give you long-term relief unless it contains ingredients like shea butter, evening-primrose oil, squalene (a fatty substance derived from olives and other natural sources), and petrolatum, which help trap moisture and strengthen the skin’s barrier. Try the lightweight Philosophy Hope in a Jar body lotion ($25, philosophy.com) or Fresh Brown Sugar Body Cream ($35, fresh.com).
Are pool water and ocean water equally drying? Surprisingly, no. Chlorine can leave skin parched, but salt water is a potent hydrator that can help deliver moisture to your skin cells, according to Verallo-Rowell. So if you’re dried out after a day of swimming in a pool, soak for 10 minutes in a bathtub of ordinary water and 1 cup table salt. Rinse briefly, pat yourself almost dry with a towel, then seal in the remaining moisture with lotion while your skin is still damp.