3.1 Understanding your canvas | the skin

Did you know that the skin is actually the largest organ of the body? In fact, our skin equates to about 16% of our total body weight! It can be a bit weird to think about our skin as an organ, because usually when we think of organs, we think of our internal organs such as lungs, heart, and brain. Our skin has a really important role to play as it serves as a protective, waterproof layer to protect our internal organs and also helps us to regulate temperatures, permits sensations (like touch, heat and cold) and helps with our immune defence. Given your role as a spray tanning technician is to work with so many different skin types, having a solid understanding of all things skin-related is a must!

Layers of the skin

The skin across different parts of our body changes; some surfaces can have thin layers, thick layers and another part can be hairy. Regardless of which part of the body, our skin is divided into three layers called the epidermis, the dermis and the subcutis. The table below outlines each layer in more detail:

Skin layerOverviewMain roles
EpidermisThe epidermis is the outermost layer of skin and provides a waterproof barrier. The epidermis is subdivided into five layers: Stratum corneumStratum lucidumStratum granulosumStratum spinosumStratum germinativum (basal layer) Makes new skin cellsCreates our skin toneProtects the body
DermisThe dermis is the second layer and is beneath the epidermis. The dermis contains tough connective tissue, hair follicles, and sweat glands. The dermis is further split into two layers: Papillary regionReticular regionMakes sweat and oilProvides sensations and blood to the skinGrows hair
Subcutis (subcutaneous or hypodermis)The subcutis is a deeper subcutaneous tissue (hypodermis) that is not technically skin as it is made of fat and connective tissue.Attaches dermis to the bodyControls body temperatureStores fatCushions the internal organs against shocksSeparates the skin from underlying muscles

To put this into perspective, the graphic below shows each of the three skin layers on the right, and on the left, you can see the five layers of the epidermis:

When you are working with spray tans, you are working predominantly with the client’s epidermis – the outermost layer. For your own understanding, the table below outlines each layer of the epidermis in more detail:

Epidermis layerOverview
Stratum corneumThe stratum corneum is also known as the surface/horny layer and is the outermost layer of the epidermis. This layer is made up of many microscopic parts, including the microbiome, the acid mantle, the lipid barrier, and layers of dead skin cells. This layer is made up of 10 to 30 thin layers which continually shed dead skin cells. Complete cell turnover occurs every 28 to 30 days in young adults, while the same process takes 45 to 50 days in elderly adults. It is this layer that is affected by spray tanning products.
Stratum lucidumStratum Lucidum is a translucent layer and lies directly underneath the corneum but not present all the time. This layer is found only on the palms of the hands, fingertips, and the soles of the feet.
Stratum granulosumStratum Granulosum is also known as the granular layer and lies underneath the lucidum. Skin cells break down in this layer, and keratin is impregnated into the cells. There is a process known as ‘keratinisation’ whereby cells begin to lose their structure and eventually dies.
Stratum spinosumStratum Spinosum is also known as the prickle cell layer or squamous cell layer and lies under the Granulosum. This layer rapidly divides as keratin is pushed into them, making their cells tough and waterproof. This is the thickest layer of the epidermis. This layer gives the skin strength as well as flexibility.
Stratum germinativum (basal layer)Stratum Germinativum, also known as the basal layer, is the innermost layer of the epidermis. This is where the skins most important cells, called keratinocytes, are formed before moving up to the surface of the epidermis. This is a living layer that receives its blood supply from the dermis. It produces new cells which reproduce by mitosis (each cell divides into two), which are pushed up through the overlying layers of the epidermis where they eventually lose their nuclei and die, which aids in continually repairing the skin. Melanocytes (pigment-producing cells) are found in this layer, and they are responsible for our skin colour and help protect us from UV.

If you would like to learn more about the layers of the skin and layers of the epidermis, you may like to access the resources linked:

Sunless tanning

So, how do all these layers of skin relate to your role as a spray tanning technician? The skin you will be working with is the epidermis, and in fact, the majority of cosmetic products applied to the skin will never reach the dermis layer!

To take it a step further, the spray tanning process involves the stratum corneum layer of the epidermis. As you have learned, the stratum corneum continually sheds dead skin cells, which is why it is critical clients exfoliate prior to the service to ensure that the tanning solution is applied to the newest skin. If the DHA reacts with dead skin cells which are ready for shedding, this will compromise the colour of the tan and will likely end up patchy and/pr streaky. On the flipside of this, because the tanning solution is applied to the stratum corneum, even if it is the best looking tan in the world, it will gradually fade as the dead cells shed. The only way to maintain a healthy-looking glow between applications is to ensure top quality sunless products are being reapplied regularly to top up on colour.

Additionally, the overall depth and intensity of tan achieved will also depend on the clients own natural melanin content and thickness of the skins stratum corneum. Where the stratum corneum is thicker (i.e. knees and elbows), the tan will be more intense, and where it is thinner (i.e. face and tops of the feet), the tan is less intense.

Key phrase | Melanin: Melanin is a natural skin pigment found in hair, skin, and eye colour in both people and animals. Variation in colours depends on the type and amount of melanin they have.

A good way to think about the impact a client’s natural melanin will have on the spray tan outcome is to compare an olive skin client (more melanin) and a fair skin client (less melanin). The sort of coverage and colours you will need to select for each skin tone (melanin level) will obviously vary between someone who is very fair versus someone with a darker complexion. We will look more at colour matching later in this module.

Another important factor that will impact your spray tan applications is the pH levels of your client’s skin. Put simply, pH is a measurement figure expressing the acidity or alkalinity of a solution. You may have seen pH scales before:

As you can see on the scale above, a battery is very acidic, and solutions such as bleach are alkaline, with water being neutral. In terms of the pH level of our skin, it is said that the optimal level is between 4.5 and 5.5 for women. All of us have something known as the ‘acid mantle’ layer of the skin, and this essentially describes how acidic our skin is.

Key phrase | Acid Mantle: Your acid mantle is a balanced micro flora ecosystem made up of sebum (an oily, waxy substance produced by your body’s sebaceous glands), fatty acids, lactic acid, amino acids and sweat, which keeps out viruses, bacteria, and other harmful microbes. It’s essentially a thin, protective film that covers your skin and also slightly acidic with a pH between 4.5 and 5.5 (which is why it’s called the acid mantle).

Dermatologists suggest that oily skin will usually have a pH range from 4 to 5.2, with dry skin having a pH above 5.5. Now, you won’t be doing any dermatological tests to determine your client’s pH level, but it is important to know that a high alkaline level will cause the DHA to produce a colour that will be more ‘orange’ in appearance, whereas a slightly acidic level will reduce this colour problem creating a more ‘golden brown’ tone. The table below provides what to look out for if determining whether or not your acid mantle is too acidic or too alkaline:

Acid mantle might be too acidic because:Acid mantle might be too alkaline because:
– You rarely need to use moisturiser
– Your skin is reactive and sensitive to products
– Your skin is oily and prone to black heads, pimples and acne
– Your skin often feels irritated or red
– Your skin looks greasy
– You wake up with an oily face
– Your skin feels tight and dry after cleansing
-You need to apply moisturiser throughout the day because your skin gets too dry
– You sometimes get dry or rough patches or flaky bits on your skin
– Your skin looks dull and in the morning shows more lines and wrinkles
– Your skin rarely appears plump and dewy

As a general rule, clients who tend to get an orange tone when using sunless products will generally mean that their skin alkalinity is too high, which could be true for clients who have drier skin. If your clients tan did not process as dark as they would have liked or the tan faded too quickly, this could indicate a more acidic pH level. So, the key difference between clients with a more acidic pH level and those with a more alkaline pH level is that acidic clients very rarely get an orangey or golden result, and alkaline clients will not overprocess.

Our pH levels also change continually based on what we eat, how much sleep we get, our stress levels and the environment we live in. Other factors which can impact our skin pH include, but are not limited to:

  • Change in seasons, with different humidity levels and pollution
  • Ingredients in cosmetics, detergents, antibacterial soaps and gels
  • Sebum, skin moisture and sweat
  • Over exposure to the sun
  • Too frequent washing of your skin or skin care routine is too harsh

These days, many tan solution manufacturers will counteract alkalinity issues by adding dyes and skin staining ingredients to try and mask any pH related issues with a clients skin. However, rather than masking pH issues, they can also be combatted by you offering to prep the skin with pH balancing sprays prior to the service or through educating your clients about pH levels in the skin and what they can do to balance theirs.

When trying to determine a clients pH levels on face value, it is useful to think about the four common skin types: normal, oily, dry and combination. The table below outlines each of these in more detail:

Skin typeOverviewWhat to look for
NormalA normal skin type is where the skin is well balanced and healthy. This means that it is neither oily nor dry, and normal skin will usually have balanced sebum and good blood circulation.Fine poresGood blood circulationSoft and smooth textureNo blemishes No sensitivities
OilyAn oily skin type is where there are higher levels of sebum production. Clients with this skin type will likely have a glossy shine to the skin, visible pores and may be prone to acne breakouts.Enlarged and clearly visible pores Blackhead and white headsA glossy shineAcne
DryA dry skin type is where there is not enough sebum produced in contrast to the ‘normal’ skin type. Usually, dry skin will lack the lipids needed to retain moisture. This skin type can feel tight, rough, flaky and may look dull.Mild scaling or flakiness in patches A rough and blotchy appearance A feeling of tightness Possible itchinessSensitivities
CombinationAs the name suggests, a combination skin type is a mix of skin types. If your client has an oily T-zone but dry cheeks, this would indicate a combination skin type.An oily T-zone (forehead, chin and nose) Enlarged pores in this area, perhaps with some impuritiesNormal to dry cheeks

In addition to the four skin types above, there is a fifth skin type to be aware of, which is sensitive skin. This skin type will usually be prone to inflammation and reactions to certain products. Clients with sensitive skin may have strong reactions to chemicals, dyes and fragrances.

If you are interested in learning more about skin types, access the resources linked:

Once you have a better understanding of the type of skin your client, you can then make some assumptions about the pH levels you are working with. If you remember from earlier, clients who have oily skin will usually be more acidic, and clients with dry skin will tend to be more alkaline! In addition to your client’s natural pH levels, you also need to consider the pH levels of your tanning solution. Any products with pH values above 7 should be avoided as they can cause undesirable reactions. Many spray tan solutions will have a pH between 4 to 6, with naturally formulated DHA tanning solutions usually having a pH value of 3 to 4.

As you advance in your career, there may be times where you will modify a solution to suit your client’s skin pH levels. Products with a higher concentration of DHA will be more acidic, and the lower the DHA, the less acidic they will be. However, when you are starting out, we recommend that you keep your DHA solution as is and then focus on balancing pH before the tan (pH balancing washes), during the tan (pH spray) and after the tan (aftercare moisturiser).

If you would like to learn more about pH levels and the skin, access the resources linked:

Natural sun tanning

A natural tan works when the skin is exposed to UVA and UVB rays from the sun. UVB radiation burns the upper layers of skin (the epidermis), causing sunburns, and it is the UVA rays that make you tan as these penetrate the lower layers of the epidermis. A good way to remember the difference between UVB and UVA is the UVB= Burning and UVA= Aging. Remember from earlier, melanin is your bodies way of protecting your skin from burning, so the tanned colour is the bodies reaction to UV rays.

Key phrase | Melanocytes: Melanocytes are specialised skin cells that produce the protective skin-darkening pigment melanin. Melanocytes produce two different pigments: eumelanin (brown) and phaeomelanin (yellow and red).

Those of us with fair skin have less melanin in our melanocytes compared to those with darker skin (more melanin). In facts, red heads happen to produce more phaeomelanin pigments (yellow and red) and fewer eumelanin pigments (brown), which is why they can rarely achieve a natural bronzed glow and get very sun burnt! People with albinism are born without melanin in their skin, hair or iris’s which is why they tend to have very pale skin, hair and eyes.

Long hours sunbaking to achieve a perfect natural tan can have serious long term consequences. Of course, the obvious consequence is skin cancer, but it can also impact our eyes, increase premature aging and can be really painful! Severe sunburn can lead to:

  • Skin redness and blistering
  • Pain and tingling
  • Swelling
  • Headache
  • Fever and chills
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Dehydration

So, why don’t we all stay out of the sun altogether? Without some exposure to the sun, we would all be terribly ill. One of the main benefits of sun exposure is the production of Vitamin D. When we are exposed to the sun, our bodies naturally generate Vitamin D in the skin in addition to whatever we absorb from the foods we eat. If we do not get sufficient Vitamin D, we have a greater risk of developing bone abnormalities such as osteoporosis, cancer, muscle weakness and depression.

Did you know: In 1986 the first SPF 15 was introduced; SPF 30 didn’t come around until the ’90s. Pale was popular once again when photoaging, skin damage, and premature wrinkles were linked to too much sun.

While we all need some sun to maintain overall health, it is just as important to ensure that we are not over exposed. This means that we need to slip on protective clothing, slop on sunscreen, slap on a hat, seek shade and slide on some sunnies!

Given the dangers of natural tanning, the sunless tanning industry will always be a profitable market. After all, why would you risk the pain and damage of baking all day when you can achieve the perfect glow safely in a few hours? It is important to educate your clients to ensure they understand that spray tanning does not work in the same way and does not involve any reaction with melanin. Furthermore, a sunless tan does not protect you from the sun in the way that a natural base tan can. Some clients may expect a spray tan to provide UV protection. However, unlike the melanin pigments, the DHA-derived polymers do not absorb a significant amount of UV light, and therefore, cannot protect against UVB radiation. For this reason, we should always ensure our clients know that a sunless tan does not contain SPF or sun protection.

However, the way a client’s skin tans naturally in the sun and the way a client’s skin will develop a sunless tan is closely aligned. Because they both work on the skin’s natural ability to form a tan and protective layer, in some instances, you may be able to predict a client’s final result based on how they tan naturally with UV exposure.

Did you know: Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world. This is due largely to our climate, the fact that many of us have fair skin that isn’t really suited to such harsh conditions, our proximity to the equator (high UV levels) and our social attitudes and love for the outdoors.

If you would like to learn more about the impacts of sunbaking and natural tans, access the resources linked:

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