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.
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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.
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!
- Biore UV Aqua Rich Watery Essence SPF 50+ PA++++ remains my holy grail and everyday staple sunscreen a year after I first started using it. (Amazon*)
- Biore UV Aqua Rich Watery Gel SPF 50+ PA++++* is extremely similar to the Watery Essence but comes in a larger bottle, 90ml to the Watery Essence’s 50. (Amazon*)
- I’ve also got several other PA++++ Japanese sunscreens (and one PA+++ body sunscreen) in my arsenal. Here’s a rundown of my full sunscreen wardrobe, with mini-reviews and purchasing links.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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*)
- 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?