We’re not going to lecture you about why getting a “real” tan from UV exposure is a terrible idea—wrinkles, age spots, large pores, skin cancer…(OK, maybe a little lecturing). But we will say that “fake” tans look more real than ever, especially if you follow the advice offered here by Sophie Evans, tanning expert for St. Tropez, and Alyson Hogg, founder and CEO of Vita Liberata, both companies offering self-tanning products.
Read on for how to find your ideal formula, prepare for success, and create a gorgeous (and did we mention slimming?) glow.
Choosing a Self-Tanner Formula
Self-tanner debuted in the late 1950s. There was Man-Tan aftershave that claimed to tan like the sun, which was followed by Miss Mantan foundation cream for the ladies—“for that young outdoor tan look” (um…?). Now tanning options abound, whether you want a quickie mist, a leisurely lotion, or a one-night-stand tan. There are a few niche tanners (serums, primers, oils), but the ones below are the formats you’ll see the most.
Before we dive in, a few words on shade selection: For the most believable-looking tan, you don’t want to stray too far—at least at first—from your natural skin color; otherwise, any mistake you make will be in striking contrast to your skin. If you’re fair-skinned, start with a self-tanner designed to give a gradual build, or “glow,” over the course of a few days. When you reach your desired depth, you can move up to a true self-tanner. For medium skin tones, use a medium-depth self-tanner before trying a “deep dark” shade. And for dark skin tones, use either a gradual-build or medium-depth self-tanner to achieve beautifully even and glowing skin.
Also, don’t be afraid that you’re going to turn old-school orange. Self-tanners have improved to give a more natural look. A lower concentration of dihydroxyacetone (DHA), the active ingredient in self-tanners, may be one reason you’ll look less like a Cheeto.
Finding a self-tanner for you
Choose from any one of the types of self-tanners below to fulfill your sun-kissed color needs.
Bronzers are not the same thing as self-tanners; the color shows up instantly and washes off rather than wears off. But they’re just the right thing, says Evans, “if you are in a hurry and want full color now!”
Try: Sally Hansen Airbrush Legs, $13, ulta.com; James Read Wash Off Tan for Body, $18, net-a-porter.com
Good news, guys: “Gels are great if you have a lot of body hair,” says Evans, because it can slip past the hairs to make contact with the skin. They’re also a good choice if you’re prone to breakouts on your face or body.
Try: L’Oréal Paris Sublime Bronze Self-Tanning Gelée, $11, lorealparisusa.com; Clarins Gelée Self-Tanning Instant Gel, $40, clarinsusa.com
Lotions take the longest to dry, 15 to 20 minutes, but they’re the most hydrating to your skin. Lotion is also the format for most gradual self-tanners, which deposit less color but are used daily to build to a deeper shade. Gradual tanners are also the easiest to correct: Because you’re layering color, any little mistake you make one day will likely be covered up the next.
Try: Jergens Natural Glow Wet Skin Moisturizer, $8.50, drugstores and mass retailers—a gradual self-tanner that, unlike everything else in this article, you apply directly to still-dripping skin when you turn off the shower; Josie Maran Whipped Argan Oil Self-Tanning Body Butter, $42, josiemaran.com
A pump or aerosol spray is most similar to a professional spray tan and the least time-consuming method: You can lightly coat your skin—even your own back—with a concentrated layer of tanner that dries in just a minute or two.
Try: St. Tropez Self Tan Purity Bronzing Water Face Mist, $30, ulta.com; Supergoop Healthy Glow Sunless Tan, $38, supergoop.com, which has SPF 40, so you can protect your skin from sun damage while you “lie out” and get a “tan!”
The fluffy stuff has become the go-to formulation in self-tanners because it has super spreadability but also dries quickly, in about five minutes.
Try: Merle Norman Self-Tanning Bronzing Foam, $24 (price varies by Merle Norman store) for locations, merlenorman.com; Vita Liberata Invisi Foaming Tan Water, $39, vitaliberata.com
Individual towelettes offer the ultimate gal-on-the-go tan. No tools necessary: Just unfold the wipe and give your body a quick once-over with small, circular motions; the super-lightweight formula dries almost instantly. (Don’t forget to wash your hands with soap when you’re done!) Plus, they’re terrific for traveling—toss a few in your suitcase or carry-on, and you don’t have to worry about spillage or the TSA.
Try: Sun Bum Self-Tanning Towelette, $16, trustthebum.com; Kate Somerville Somerville 360˚ Face and Body Self Tanning Towelettes, $48, katesomerville.com
How to Prepare to “Tan”
Yes, there’s a little work involved, but it’s totally worth it for even, gleaming skin.
1. Remove hair ahead of time.
“If you plan to wax or shave, do so 24 hours or more before your self-tanning session,” says Hogg. Any closer to go time and the tanner can settle into your hair follicles, creating teeny tiny dots.
2. Exfoliate everything.
Self-tanners darken your skin when the active ingredient, DHA, interacts with the amino acids present in the outermost layers of your skin. However, when there’s a buildup of skin cells—which happens most often on elbows, knees, and feet—the “tan” can be too intense. Either a chemical exfoliation, with an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA), or a mechanical exfoliation with a scrub will slough away those extra skin cells.
RELATED: Get Glowing Summer Skin
3. Skip the allover lotion.
Moisturizer will dilute the strength of the self-tanner and delay your tan’s arrival.
4. But do target certain spots!
Even with exfoliation, some body parts will always be drier than others, so the self-tanner deposits more color to these areas. “Apply moisturizer to elbows, knees, hands, and feet,” Evans says. “It will act as a barrier to ensure the tan comes out even.”
5. Wait for skin to dry.
You don’t want to be fresh out of the shower when you apply self-tanner; give your skin about ten post-towel-off minutes before you start the process.
Your Guide to Foolproof Tanner Application
On your mark. Get set. Glow!
Use enough product.
Always use enough product that it glides effortlessly over the skin. “When a person is scared to self-tan, they use a very small amount of product and try to tan a large area,” explains Evans. “But using too little product and over-rubbing is what causes streaks!”
A mitt is a must.
Many tanning products come with a mitt, but if not, it’s worth the investment. You slip your hand into the double-sized flocked fabric mitt, which smooths and blends the tanner as you apply it. The mitt is also great when you fear you may have applied too much tanner. Use the fresh side of the mitt to buff out any areas where you may have overdone it. Most important of all: A mitt keeps the self-tanner off your palms!
Do the face first...
The only place where hands trump mitt is on your face. Use your digits to smooth on the product. Take care that you don’t get the self-tanner in your eyes, nose, or mouth.
After applying tanner to your face, immediately wash your hands well with soap and water.
Then, head to your ankles.
Work your way up, using sweeping motions, up and over your knees and thighs to your torso. Arms, armpits, and the sides of your torso come next. “Save the feet and hands for last,” says Hogg, “using only what’s left on the mitt. Sweep the mitt gently over the back of your hands and then take a damp cloth or wipe to remove any excess product from between the fingers and on the knuckles for the most natural result.”
“A layer of self-tan will always make you look slightly more contoured and defined,” says Evans, but you can add a few contouring details to visually drop a few pounds! Create an allover base with a lighter self-tan. Then go back in with a darker tanning product and a foundation brush over “any part of the body you want to appear smaller,” says Hogg. Think: under your jaw, inner thighs, triceps muscles. When your tan has developed, you can add further definition by brushing shimmer powder onto the areas you want to highlight, such as shoulders, collarbone, and down the center of your shins.
Wait for it….
Your tan will take about six to eight hours for the color to fully develop. Until you’ve been tanning for about four hours, you don’t want to get wet—no sweat, no swimming, no splashing, no showering. (Basically, no action verbs that begin with S.) But you can carefully wash your hands—just don’t let the water run down your arm—palms only.
What to do if you screwed up:
Streaks and weird splotches happen to the best of us. Evans’s fix-it trick: Apply baby oil to the too-dark areas and leave on for ten minutes. Scrub the skin with a manual exfoliator, then buff the skin using a hot damp washcloth.
To remove a tan entirely, mix lemon juice and baking soda, saturate your skin with the mixture, and leave on for about five minutes. Remove it with an exfoliating cleansing wipe. Now you’re ready to tan again!