You've been bad -- very, very bad. You knew better, but the sun-dappled days of high summer beckoned, and your weekends became a dermatologist's nightmare: hours of toasting by the neighborhood pool or roasting in the sand at Ocean City. Now, with fall coming, you're ready to atone for your skin sins -- and to figure out how to maintain that hard-earned bronze for as long as you can. Here's where to start:
EXFOLIATE. The secret to retaining that even, natural-looking tan? Smooth skin. As your sun-baked bod dries and peels, your tan will start to appear uneven and leathery. To avoid the lizard look, exfoliate at least once a week -- using a gentle body scrub -- so that dead skin can be removed uniformly, allowing fresh, plump cells to surface. A cheap, easy way to do it yourself: Mix natural oatmeal ( 1/3 cup) with sea salt (1 1/2 tablespoons), then add a few drops of almond oil and enough water to make a paste. Apply in circular movements, keeping the pressure light and avoiding sunburned areas. For a store-bought option, try Clinique's Sparkle Skin Body Exfoliator ($18.50, www.clinique.com); it contains refreshing menthol and grapefruit to promote dead skin elimination. In a pinch, a loofah mitt with a citrus-based body wash works well, too. For the face, gently rub skin with the fruity part of a fresh pineapple slice or with a cotton pad saturated with pineapple juice (let it set for a few minutes, then rinse). Pineapple's bromelain enzyme willdissolve the top layer of dead cells.
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HYDRATE. Scorched skin begs for moisture replenishment -- an essential step after exfoliation. To soothe and seal in moisture, add lavender, jojoba or olive oil to your favorite lotion (or, apply oil directly to the skin for an intensive treatment). Moisturizing after bathing, while the skin is still damp, increases absorption. Clarins's After Sun Moisturizer ($27, www.clarins.com) helps to hydrate and prolong a tan with key ingredients: Vitamin A, Vitamin E and aloe vera. Creams containing cocoa and shea butter are also effective yet inexpensive emollients. Palmer's Cocoa Butter Formula Concentrated Cream with Vitamin E ($3.80) and Desert Essence Hydrating Shea Butter Body Cream ($8.99) are two great options (both at www.drugstore.com).
ENHANCE. Sad as it may be, all the exfoliating and moisturizing in the world won't keep your tan from eventually disappearing. A self-tanning product can, however, help keep up appearances (next summer, you should try it alone instead of baking). Self-tanners contain DHA (dihydroxyacetone), which reacts with the outer layer of skin to produce a brownish color. For optimal results, exfoliate, shave or wax at least 24 hours before application; this preps the skin for maximum absorption while giving it time to recover from any irritation.
Dry patches soak up too much color, resulting in a splotchy finish, so decide which areas you want to tan and moisturize them about 20 minutes before application. Then, work the self-tanner into the skin evenly, and don't overdo the elbows and knees -- a telltale sign of fake tans, as these areas tend to absorb more chemical and end up looking darker and more orangey.
For novices, it's helpful to use a tinted self-tanner so you can see it while you apply. One good choice: Estee Lauder's Go Bronze Plus Tinted Self Tanner ($27, www.esteelauder.com). Beyond that, products abound, so in addition to price, consider such factors as what depth of color you're after (light, medium or dark), odor (some products smell a bit . . . unpleasant) and texture (some are easier to work into the skin than others). Neutrogena's Sunless Tanning Lotion, Medium ($8.95, www.drugstore.com) deepens a well-established tan, and Laura Mercier's Bronzing Gel is good for those who prefer the feel of a gel to a cream ($30, www.nordstrom.com). Make sure your skin is completely dry before you dress, to prevent the tanner from rubbing off and staining your clothes. And remember that even fake tans fade -- so be prepared to repeat the process. Diana L. Carswell