How to (Safely) Fade a Tan (If That’s What You Want to Do)

If there were an official AB FAQ, “How do I fade a tan?” would be right near the top, yet it’s one of the easiest to answer (though not to do). To fade a tan, you don’t need products marketed as “whitening.” You’ll need sun protection, progressive exfoliation, melanin inhibition, and a buttload of time and patience.


Affiliate links in this post are marked with an asterisk(*).


Should it be done, though? This post has been a struggle to write (I’m typing this sentence a solid four days after I started writing this). Fading a tan is a form of skin lightening, and skin lightening is heavily loaded with the baggage of colorism. I’ve personally experienced the distress that colorist attitudes can cause, and I don’t want to inadvertently promote it. Nothing in this post will lighten your skin beyond its natural lightest shade. This post isn’t about the pursuit of lighter skin for the sake of lighter skin. It’s more about evening things out if you’ve been more consistent with face sunscreen than body sunscreen, if you’ve got tan lines you want to fade, or if you’re different colors all over your body (like me!) and would rather be less of a patchwork.

Though you know what? If you do just want to achieve a lighter complexion because you would feel happier with your appearance if you did, then who am I to say “don’t”? At the end of the day, it’s your face, your body, your taste, your choice. I’m not here to tell you how to feel about your skin tone. I’m here to help you achieve your skin goals safely. So let’s talk about how!

Fading a Tan, Step 1: UV Protection

If you want to lighten up a tan, you absolutely need sunscreen, and you need to apply it generously every day, rain or shine. Without proper sun protection, nothing else you do to fade your tan will matter. Sunscreen is so vital that if you were unable to do anything except apply sunscreen religiously, your tan would eventually fade away!

Don’t just grab some Coppertone the next time you’re at Target, though. You probably have enough other unplanned purchases in your cart there already (or am I the only one who can’t go there for a bottle of Advil without coming out $150 poorer?) Most domestically made sunscreens won’t cut it, and you won’t be able to identify the ones that do. UVA protection is critical to preventing tanning and enabling an existing tan to fade, and US sunscreen labels don’t give enough information to determine how much UVA protection a given product can provide. US sunscreen labels denote UVA protection only by the presence or absence of the “broad spectrum” designation. This gives almost no information on how much UVA protection the product provides. SPF, which indicates UVB protection, is not the whole story. To lighten a tan, you need protection against both UVA and UVB.

Sunscreen to fade a tan

I’ve had that same bottle of Eucerin SPF 15 body lotion for over a year. It’s a last resort.

Japanese and Korean sunscreen labeling regulations are much more helpful. They use the PA scale, where PA+ is the weakest and PA++++ the highest. Since Korean regulations only allow for labeling up to PA+++ (even if the sunscreen actually has PA++++-equivalent protection), you’ll only find PA++++ available in Japanese sunscreens for now. At least for your face, find a PA++++ Japanese sunscreen you like, and don’t look back. And stock up. I buy my sunscreens in multiples: packs of 2* usually but packs of 4* whenever I find them!

Recommendations

How to Fade a Tan, Step 2: Progressive Exfoliation!

Once you’ve figured out your sunscreen, you can start to work on actively lightening up that face or body tan. Here’s where exfoliation comes in. Having been exposed to UV radiation for longer, the uppermost layers of your skin contain more excess melanin than the fresher and less sun-damaged layers beneath. Exfoliating away those tanned upper layers while protecting your skin from new UV damage will eventually reveal your original, lighter skin tone.

Korean exfoliators for fading a tan

Italy towels are pain. Pain that leaves skin fresh and baby soft. It’s like giving birth and then being the baby.

For lightening a tan, I find chemical exfoliants much more effective than physical ones. Scrubs and exfoliating mitts like the Italy towel in the picture above are a nice supplement if used in moderation, but they’re much more labor-intensive and, at least for me, don’t seem to exfoliate as evenly or as deeply as my skin needs in order to shed the tanned layers. In my experience, chemical exfoliation brightens up and evens out skin tone much faster. AHAs are the exfoliants you’ll want to look for, since fading a tan requires steady shedding of the tanned (damaged) upper layers of skin.

Use the AHA product you choose as often as your skin can tolerate it, but work up slowly to frequent use and watch out for signs of overexfoliation (especially if you’re already using another active, such as a retinoid). The skin on our faces and necks is particularly easy to overexfoliate, but our body skin can suffer from going overboard, too. Watch out for redness, rough or scaly texture, flakiness, increased dryness and/or sensitivity, and unusual oiliness. It’s better to go slow than to overdo it.

Recommendations

  • COSRX AHA 7 Whitehead Power Liquid was my go-to AHA ever since I first reviewed it. It’s gentle enough for most faces but effective enough that  since I started using it on my arms and legs last month, every single razor bump and chicken prickle I used to have has disappeared. So have the tan lines I’ve lived with since last summer. My arms and legs have never been softer, smoother, or more even-toned. (Jolse | Wishtrend| Amazon*Memebox*)
  • Mizon 8% AHA Peeling Serum is the other well known Korean AHA product in my cabinet. Slightly stronger than COSRX’s AHA liquid thanks to more glycolic acid and a lower pH, it also smells slightly less dreadful. I find it a bit drying for face, but my homegirl and fellow Snailcaster Snow found it effective and keeps it in her skincare wardrobe. This product performs exceptionally well on arms and legs. (Amazon*)
  • Paula’s Choice isn’t an Asian brand, but since the AB world doesn’t offer all that many choices in terms of effective chemical exfoliators, I feel I need to mention them. In my opinion, the brand’s most reliable product are its AHAs and BHAs*. Paula’s Choice also offers the Resist Skin Revealing Body Lotion with 10% AHA*, which combines exfoliation with moisturization. If you haven’t purchased from the Paula’s Choice website before, you can use my referral link* to get $10 off. The Paula’s Choice AHA is also available on Amazon*.
  • AmLactin Alpha Hydroxy Therapy Moisturizing Body Lotion gave me some moderate tan-fading results when I used it for a few months last year. (And then I neglected body sunscreen for a while and got that tan right back, but I don’t want to talk about that anymore. (Amazon*)
  • Italy towels and other scrubbing towels and mitts, used occasionally, can help accelerate the tan-lightening process. Jolse often hands them out as samples with customer orders, and there are a variety on Amazon*.

How to Fade a Tan, Step 3: Melanin Inhibition

Sunscreen and AHAs are the heavy hitters of a serious tan-fading regimen, but they don’t have to be your only tools in the fight against eagleface and awkwardly placed tan lines. When it comes to lightening skin tone, ingredients that inhibit the production of melanin can speed the process along. These ingredients are very common in K-beauty and Asian products in general. Some, like niacinamide, appear in many Western products as well. Here’s a list of melanin-inhibiting ingredients and examples of products I’ve used that contain them. Look for these substances as high as possible in the ingredients lists of the products you’re considering and use them regularly.

Skin lightening body moisturizers

I once sought out and stacked niacinamide in my routine the way I now seek out and stack snails, ginseng, honey, and propolis. That is to say, excessively.

  • L-ascorbic acid (LAA) vitamin C, found in the highest optimal concentrations in products such as O.S.T. C20 Vitamin C Serum  (Jolse | Wishtrend*) and O.S.T. Pure Vitamin C21.5 Advanced Serum (Wishtrend*). I have seen rapid spot lightening and overall skin brightening results from both these vitamin C serums.
  • Magnesium Ascorbyl Phosphate (MAP) vitamin C is a more stable and less pH-dependent form of vitamin C. I get MAP in my Curology anti-aging prescription (referral link*), but you can find it in OTC products, too.
  • Sodium Ascorbyl Phosphate (SAP) vitamin C appears in many anti-aging serums. Banila Co Miss Flower & Mr Honey Essence Oil has some. (Jolse | Amazon*)
  • Arbutin
  • Niacinamide is optimally effective at a concentration of 5% and combined with N-acetylglucosamine. My amazing friend Chel’s amazing creation Shark Sauce contains this blend at the right concentrations. (Holy Snails store). The Scinic and Shara Shara All In One Ampoules contain niacinamide and are nicely sized for use on the body. Olay Quench Ultra Moisture Lotion boasts niacinamide as its third ingredient! (Amazon*)
  • Kojic acid
  • Tranexamic acid, which I’ve noticed shows up much more often in Japanese and Taiwanese products than in Korean ones
  • Ginseng, my current obsession. I get my daily ginseng doses from a ton of different products because obsession. Some of my favorites are Etude House I Need You, Ginseng! sheet masks (RoseRoseShop | Jolse | Amazon*) and illi Total Aging Care Body Lotion (Jolse | Amazon*)

This isn’t a comprehensive list of proven melanin inhibitors by any means, but the ingredients listed are among the most widely used and easily accessible.

Now that you’re armed with sunscreen and exfoliants and supported by melanin-inhibiting supporting players, you’re all set to fade a tan and lighten your skin back to its original shade. Just remember that the process takes time. When I first started taking serious care of my skin, I was quite tanned. I’m guessing my MAC shade back then would have been NC25 or even NC30, and before that, I’d gotten even more tan at various points. I could get tan lines in one day that wouldn’t go away for years (true story!). I’m at about NC15 now.

If you start feeling discouraged or impatient, remember that taking steps to safely fade your tan brings extra skin benefits. If you’re acne-prone, any spots you get after breaking out will probably be lighter and vanish faster than they used to. Your skin will age more slowly, since your sunscreen prevents the UV damage that accelerates skin aging. If you want to push wrinkles, sagging, and age spots back a few years, working on (getting rid of) your tan is one of the most powerful things you can do. You may even find yourself using less and less base makeup. I’m down to just dabbing a bit of BB cream or cushion around my nostrils and on my chin now: my skin is so even everywhere else that there’s no point covering it up!

What are some reasons you might want to fade a tan?

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23 responses to “How to (Safely) Fade a Tan (If That’s What You Want to Do)

  1. Great post! I nearly always have a bit of a patchwork going on (hello, driving arm!), and I’ve recently noticed that the back of my neck and shoulders are noticibly darker than my face.
    Fading a tan shouldn’t be about any colourist idealology, for me it’s about 1) making sure my skins around the same shade everywhere, and 2) preventing melanoma by using sunscreen and being more aware that a sun-induced tan is not healthy!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very helpful! I can confirm it’s taking a lot of time… Used to have really nice skin but got nasty melasma and I’ve been fighting it for over 1.5 yrs now… Do you think it’s OK to be using everything at the same time (vit C, niacinamide – obviously not together) and so on? Including arbutin and being devoted to acids. My skin is something around NC 10-15 but melasma patches still around 25 😦 Keep doing great job with your posts!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What if we referred to it as “removing a physical manifestation of photoaging” instead of “skin-lightening?” I like “fading a tan” because it implies removal of something externally generated, rather than dissatisfaction with your natural color.

    I’ve actually been thinking of using my First Aid Beauty facial radiace pads on my legs because I get spots on them and they leave mad PIH. My legs rarely see the sun, so no real tan to remove.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I would want to fade a tan because while I usually just burn, occasionally if my skin does tan it does so unevenly. Like um… If you missed spots with sunscreen? Yeah my skin did that as a kid with zero sunscreen. Also my “tan” is just more yellow toned skin and not much darker so people ask what is wrong with me…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. My legs are unfortunately two shades darker than my face. I am actually a bit ombre, my face is the lightest (probably because it receives the most tender loving care lol), my arms are one shade darker, and my legs are two shades darker. I’m talking MAC shades here. So yea it looks patchy and not so nice especially when I am wearing shorts or skirts. For some reason my legs burn faster than the rest of my body no matter how much sunscreen I slather on it. ARGHHH! Plus, my legs are, in itself, a patchwork of old mosquito bites, legs wounds, scabs, and a big, dark, and scaly mat burn (from being dragged in Judo). So yea, thank you for this. I shall be trying this out.

    Which of the scinic ampoules do you find most effective in fading a tan?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ooh, hit that pesky Send button too soon! Anyway, thicker skin on legs, leading to a tan/sun damage having more layers to it, etc.

      The Shara Shara ampoules have a faster fading effect than Scinic, and I don’t think it particularly matters which flavor!

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  6. I would also recommend the Eucerin Professional Repair body lotion. It’s got urea and a high concentration of, I think, glucolic acid. It works wonders to exfoliate that dead skin right off (my feet are so smooth and I haven’t even done a damned thing but put on that lotion) but you have to be careful with your fingernails.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you so much for this post! I am really conscious of wearing sunscreen but haven’t yet addressed my (very) uneven skin tone, so this was a timely read 🙂 I’ve just ordered some Melano CC anti spot essence as I read it was more photostable than the serums, and am considering an AHA and something containing niacinamide. If only we could get Cerave PM cheaply in Aus…..sigh.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thank you for this post! I tan really easily which means I end up sporting a farmer’s tan 8 months out of the year and it’s not a good look. Lol. I hibernate in the winter and end up living like a vampire. However, once spring comes, I’m back to sporting a farmer’s tan. I’m not trying to be lighter than what my natural skin tone is, I just want my skin tone to be more even.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I like how you approach it as ‘fading a tan’ rather than the sloppy wording that triggers people in the west – ‘whitening your skin’ I prefered tan skin when I was younger because I’m already olive skinned and just thought it made me look more me. The main reason I switched over to be being pro tan-fading is I feel it is healthier and presents an ideal of beauty rooted in health. Whenever I’m not tan I realize I have a lot of skin problems going on that where masked by the dark brown before – spots, uneven tone, redness, rough patches, veins, pimples look more red and obvious. I like the idea of addressing these problems head-on rather than tanning over them. Basically a lot of things people do to take care of their skin prevents them tanning anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Thank you for being brave enough to post something intelligent about such a potentially taboo subject.
    Of course it’s not just about tanning or overall skin lightness, pregnancy can cause melasma and I tend to get dark patches from cuts and scrapes.
    9 months ago I burnt my arm on the oven (I’m a complete klutz) and the pigmentation it left behind is taking ages to heal. I was kinda like “well maybe if I scrub? Or aha? I dunno” so I kinda didn’t bother. Now you’ve reassured me I was on the right track I can work (gently) on this damn thing!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Regarding sunscreen, I’ve always wondered why they say to wait at least 15 minutes after application before sun exposure. There is a dermatologist based in southern California whom I like to follow on YouTube and she had actually replied to a comment in one of her recent videos stating that the reason they say to wait 15-30 minutes is actually arbitrary and only due to the fact that that is how the initial trials for sunscreen were done. She also stated that it is probably okay to apply sunscreen right before it is needed. I find that interesting. What are your thoughts on this? Her name is Dr. Sandra Lee.

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    • I’d have to watch the video (I’ll hunt it down), but off the top of my head, my understanding is that it’s only chemical sunscreens that need a bit of time (and not necessarily 15 minutes) in order to properly adhere to the skin and penetrate upper layers, creating the even film of filters that will protect from the sun. Physical sunscreens can indeed be put on right before exposure. It’s just a difference in the way the filters interact with skin. I’ve definitely gone just a few minutes between putting sunscreen on and going out, and not come to any harm.

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  12. I mean, I’m naturally a light-skinned brown person, I stay out of the sun for the most part, and I’ve only really burnt myself twice. But since I was about 13 I’ve had sun damage spots on the backs of my hands and the “age spot” jokes are starting to sting a bit now I’ve passed 30. I already use AHA and BHA, and also the Scinic honey ampoule, so I think I’ll start putting them on the backs of my hands. I have nothing to lose except the sunspots, right?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Exactly! Good luck–just make sure you’re really sunscreening your hands if you’re going to use AHA on them. Otherwise you could accelerate the sun damage there 😦

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  13. I’m getting married in a month, and my arms and chest have seen more sun than my face/neck/back, and I would rather even it out to be natural lighter skin tone than go in and get a fake tan and look an unnatural (but even) orange on my wedding day. Thank you for the tips! Fingers crossed my arms and chest match my face by the big day 🙂 haha

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  14. Pingback: Review: Neutrogena Beach Defense Broad Spectrum Sunscreen Lotion SPF 70 – Well Ignite·

  15. it’s so helpful. I will try but would it be a problem if I use Bha power liquid and volcanic masks once a week?

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  17. Bless this post. Due to the love of the outdoors, sun worship, and my early years of not giving a damn about sun protection. I have a serious farmers tan that is impossible for me to even out. I don’t have access to a nude beach. It looks ridiculous. Also have KP….{sigh}

    This guide is helpful in what to buy and how to go about doing it. I started using sunscreen last year, so I got one thing down. 😂. I use biore UV care free kids milk and mommy UV aqua milk.

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