Summer is here, and I don’t know about you, but I am the very definition of pasty. Many of us dream of a golden tan that radiates health and well-being. Unfortunately, a true golden tan is anything but healthy, since what it really represents is sun damage. To get that amazing tan, without the health risks of sun exposure (or tanning bed exposure, for that matter), sunless tanning with self tanners might be the only option!

Fake Tanning Guide: Best Self Tanners for Your Skin Tone

In this article, I’ll go through all the possible options, tips, tricks and guidelines for an amazing tan achieved with self tanners, and I’ll also demystify some of the secrets of self tanners. Read all the way to the end to find out which are the best self tanners on the market for every skin tone, as well as for the face!

Fake Tanning Guide: Contents

Do Self-Tanning Lotions Work?
Are Self Tanners Safe?
Why Is Sunless Fake Tanning Better?
Types of Self Tanners
How Long Does It Take for a Fake Tan to Develop?
How Long Does a Sunless Tan Last?
How to Apply Self Tanner?
How to Get a Natural Looking Self Tan on Your Face?
How to Contour with Self Tanner?
Fake Tanning Tips for a Flawless Sunless Tan
Why Do Some Self Tans End Up Looking Orange?
What Is a Gradual Self Tan?
What Is a Tan Towel?
How Long Do You Have to Wait to Shower After Fake Tanning?
Can You Swim After Using a Self Tanner?
Can You Shave After Fake Tanning?
Best Self Tanners for Skin Tones
Best Self Tanners for Face

Do Self-Tanning Lotions Work?

They certainly do! While you do have to be careful, and use them exactly according to the guidelines (I’ll go through them, don’t worry), once applied self-tanning lotions give a beautiful, natural looking tan.

Of course, you have to choose an excellent self tanner, but have no fear, I have a lot of amazing suggestions for some of the best self-tanning lotions, sprays, and towelettes.

How Do Sunless Tanning Lotions Work?

Self tanners contain an ingredient called dihydroxyacetone, or DHA. When DHA comes into contact with our stratum corneum (the very top layer of our skin, which is made entirely of dead skin cells), it reacts with the keratin in it (a protein component), and turns that top layer of skin into a natural golden brown tone.

Since this is a chemical process that depends on the body’s unique chemical composition, different people can end up with different tan shades, even if they have a similar initial skin tone.

Is Using Self Tanners Completely Safe?

While dihydroxyacetone is safe for the most part (and it is certainly safer than the dose of UVA and UVB damage a tan normally requires), there are some safety concerns to keep in mind. DHA has been found to increase the skin’s susceptibility to sun damage, so if you intend to show off your gorgeous new tan on the beach, remember to apply sunscreen very carefully.

There are some additional concerns about some DHA potentially penetrating deeper than just the skin, and entering the body. There is no research showing specific harm that can result from this, but you still might want to be careful and not overuse self-tanning lotions. Any risks that self tanners may pose are still incomparable to the damage the sun can cause.

As with any cosmetic product, some people may experience allergies. Before you cover yourself in self tanner from head to toe for the first time, do a patch test on a small and sensitive part of your body, like your forearm or bicep. Leave the self tanner on for a few hours, and if you don’t experience a negative reaction by the following day, you are safe to apply it all over your body.

Do this every time you buy a fake tanning product that you have not used before.

Why Is Sunless Fake Tanning Better?

The phrase “healthy tan” is a myth. Our skin produces melanin as a defense mechanism; any darkening of our skin is a sign of damage.

The kind of sun exposure necessary to trigger darkening of the skin can also seriously damage the skin in the long term. Your skin may not burn, but the free radical damage caused to the skin will contribute to premature aging and hyperpigmentation (that’s right, wrinkles and sunspots), not to mention it can seriously increase your chances of all kinds of skin cancer.

What About the Smell?

It’s true, sunless tanners don’t smell great. It’s simply the natural scent of the DHA. However, some companies have done an excellent job masking the awful smell. Read my reviews of the best self tanners, and you’ll see that most of these options will leave you smelling lovely.

Different Types of Self Tanners

Self tanners come in a few different forms, and choosing the right one is a simple matter of taste. Once I explain the differences between different kinds of self tanners, you can decide for yourself which formula is best for you!

Self-Tanning Lotions

These are the most common self tanners! These creams are quite traditional and self-explanatory. You simply rub the lotion into your skin, and allow it to do its magic.

Self-tanning lotions are usually quite good for beginners, and do not have a learning curve, although they do have the potential to get messy. They can be very moisturizing to the skin, which definitely helps keep a fake tan looking gorgeous.

Self-Tanning Mousses

Self-tanning mousses are not very different from self-tanning lotions, but they have a really lovely texture. Airy and creamy, they are very easy to rub into the skin. Like lotions, they are a great choice for beginners and experts alike.

Liquid Self Tanners

Liquid self tanners are a mixed bag. They dry very quickly, which can be good or bad depending on how long it takes you to apply them. For some, they might dry before there’s been a chance to adequately rub them in, but for others, this certainly cuts down on your wait time.

Unlike self-tanning lotions and mousses, they are not nearly as moisturizing, and are much better for those who don’t have dry skin.

Self-Tanning Sprays

Self-tanning sprays are a little harder to use, but they have some serious benefits. If you can get a friend to help, they might be well worth the effort.

Their formula usually dries faster, and once you get over the learning curve, their application is much faster because they don’t require nearly as much rubbing in (if any). Since the spray can get everywhere, it is better to apply it either in a totally enclosed shower that you can rinse clean right after, or to apply it outdoors.

Types of Self Tanners: How to Use Self Tanners for Sunless Tanning

Self-Tanning Towels

I have a little bit more information on self-tanning towelettes down below, but long story short: self-tanning towels are disposable towels soaked in a self-tanning liquid. They are very easy to use, but perhaps a little bit wasteful.

How Long Does It Take for a Fake Tan to Develop?

This depends on the brand, but usually once your self tanner has been applied, it will take around 3 hours until your sunless tan has completely developed.

How Long Does a Sunless Tan Last?

A sunless tan usually lasts between 3 to 4 days. To keep your tan going strong, simply re-apply the tanning lotion on the 4th day. I do have suggestions for self-tanning lotions that give you a longer lasting tan.

10 Steps to a Perfect All Over Fake Tan That Lasts

1. Exfoliate! Whether you choose a DIY olive oil and sugar scrub, or a store-bought scrub like the lovely and sweet smelling Soap & Glory Breakfast Scrub (available at Ulta), what’s important is there isn’t any bit of excess dead skin left on your body. Pay close attention to extra dry areas like your knees and elbows.

2. After rinsing away all of the exfoliant, wash your body with a body wash to remove any of the oil, and then dry yourself off completely. Don’t allow even a trace of moisture to remain on your skin, or else your self tanner will not sink into your skin evenly, and may end up looking streaky.

3. Since self tanner reacts to dry, dead skin, the skin on extra dry areas like elbows and knees can turn out too dark. To mitigate this, apply moisturizer only to those areas, as well as your hands, backs of your heel, and any other areas that might be extra dark. It’s best to use an oil-free lotion, like the CeraVe Moisturizing Cream, which you can get at Ulta.

4. Put on a pair of latex gloves, or a self tanner application mitt. Applying self-tanning lotion with your bare hands will stain your palms.

5. Begin to apply the self tanner from the bottom up, using a generous amount of product. Start by applying it to your feet, and work your way up towards your legs. Use small circular motions, and always work upwards.

6. Once you’ve finished applying self tanner to all large body parts, remove your gloves, and blend a smaller amount of self tanning lotion into your hands.

7. Before the self tanner has enough time to totally dry, give yourself a once over to catch mistakes. Apply more self tanner to areas that seem streaky, and remove unwanted spots of self tanner with a bit of lemon juice on a Q-tip.

8. Now it’s simply time to wait. 10 minutes seems to be the perfect amount of time for your sunless self tanner to really dry. Another few hours (depending on the brand, it might take as little as 2 or as long as 8 hours), and your tan will be fully developed and gorgeously bronze.

9. To keep your tan lasting long and looking gorgeous, moisturize your skin every day. This will help to extend the life of your self tan.

10. Once it is time to refresh your self tan, simply begin this same routine all over again, starting with exfoliation. Exfoliation will help to even out your skin, and get rid of the old self tanner.

How to Apply a Self Tanner for a Perfect Fake Tanning

Best Way to Get a Natural Looking Self Tan on Your Face

Fake tanning the body is pretty simple, but any mistakes when self tanning the face can be critical. While there are many similarities in the process, there are also some differences.

1. Begin by exfoliating your skin with a gentle, oil free scrub. The Fresh Umbrian Clay Mattifying Face Exfoliant from Sephora is an excellent choice if you have oily skin, since it’ll also soak up any excess oil that might get in the way of the self-tanning lotion taking hold. If you have dry skin, Origins Modern Friction Nature’s Gentle Dermabrasion, also from Sephora, should do the trick.

2. If your skin is on the dry side, apply a light, oil-free moisturizer like the Clinique Dramatically Different Moisturizing Gel from Ulta all over your face. If your skin is combination, apply it only to the dry parts like around the nose, above the lip, and under the eyes. You may skip this step altogether if you have very oily skin and no patches of dead skin.

3. You can now apply your self tanner. For a natural look, start applying from the apples of the cheeks, where the sun would naturally hit your face. Gently work your way outwards towards the temples, and down into the cheeks.

Repeat this step starting at the center of the forehead, and working your way down towards the nose, and again at the chin, and into the jaw line. Be careful applying self tanner to the upper lip area and the nose, because they tend to pick up more color than other areas of the face.

4. Make sure to blend the self tanner well, both down towards your neck and up into your hairline.

5. Give yourself a final look once over. If you’ve made any mistakes, clean them up quickly with a bit of baby oil. While lemon juice is more effective, it is too acidic for the face.

6. Allow 10 minutes for the self tanner to completely dry, and you are ready to go.

How to Contour with Self Tanner

Another cool thing about self tanner is that if you apply it correctly, you can end up with a contour that will last a few days and won’t require any makeup. Of course, if you apply makeup on top of the contour, you’ll lose all of your hard work, so this is for times when you are not wearing makeup, and still want that extra definition.

1. Begin like with any self-tanning lotion application, by exfoliating your face and moisturizing dry areas with an oil-free moisturizer.

2. Since you need more control, use a makeup sponge or a synthetic makeup brush to apply your fake tan.

3. Much like you would apply a contour powder, dip your brush or sponge into a tiny bit of self-tanning lotion, and blend it into your skin.

4. Start by contouring the hollows of your cheekbones, beginning near the ear and working down towards just below the apple of the cheek. Blend well, and correct any mistakes with a cotton bud dipped in baby oil, before the self-tanning lotion has too much time to set.

5. Next contour the forehead, using similar motions, blending well, and fixing any mistakes. Concentrate on the temples and close to the hairline, leaving the center of the forehead bare.

6. You may also contour your nose, by using a small, synthetic eyeshadow brush. Simply apply a thin line of tanning lotion along the sides of your nose. The closer you draw the lines, the slimmer your nose will appear.

7. You may also apply self tanner right below the jaw, to create a sharper jawline and to create a stark separation between the neck and the face.

8. Allow 10 minutes for the self tanner to dry.

Extra Tips and Tricks for Fake Tanning

• Apply tape to the bottom of your feet, which have a thicker layer of dead skin than the rest of the body, to prevent them from becoming stained.

• Shape your hand like a claw when applying self tanner to your hands. This way it will get into the creases of your fingers and knuckles, and look extra even and real.

• Wear a latex glove when applying self tanner, to avoid having the product stain your palm too dark.

• You can also try one of those special tan applicator mitts from Sephora.

• Speaking of those mitts, you can fit the mitt over a back brush, secure it with a rubber band, and use it to apply the self tanner over your back – sure beats having to ask a friend to help.

• While you definitely want to let the self-tanning lotion sit for as long as possible, to make sure it fully dries, a handy blow dryer can help speed up the process.

• Always wear a sunscreen when going outdoors, because self tanner will make your skin much more sensitive!

• You can also use a self tanner to contour the body. To create a slimming effect, you can either use two shades of self tanner – a lighter tan as a base, and then a darker self tanning lotion to contour. Keep the center of your body (belly, center of the thighs) lighter, and apply a darker self tanning lotion along the outside, emphasizing curves and giving your body an overall slimmer look.

• To contour the chest, darken your cleavage and slightly above the breasts, leaving the rest of the skin a lighter shade.

• If you are nervous about applying self tanner the first time around, it’s perfectly okay to experiment with a wash-off formula like the St. Tropez One Night Only Finishing Body Gloss from Sephora.

• Remember that both shaving and waxing exfoliate the skin, so always shave or wax before applying the self tanner. Any hair removal after self tanning will ruin your hard work.

• If you find self tanner tends to set into your pores (this is especially common on the legs), apply an astringent, like alcohol-free witch hazel, and allow it to dry. It will tighten your pores and prevent the self tanner from settling in there.

Fake Tanning Tips for a Perfect Sunless Tan

Why Do Some Self Tans End Up Looking Orange?

That orange fake tan look was a big problem in the early days of sunless tanning. Nowadays, most self tanners (including all of the ones on my list of the best self tanners) have been color corrected with a bit of green, to avoid that embarrassing mistake.

However, if you are very fair and use a much darker self tanner, or if your skin is very dry to improper prep (not exfoliating or not moisturizing regularly), you might still end up looking a little orange. Choose an appropriately colored self tanner, and always exfoliate and moisturize first.

What Is a Gradual Self Tan?

While most self tanners will develop within a few hours, some self tanners take a few days to show up, and require multiple applications to become really noteworthy.

Gradual self tans are an excellent choice for anyone who is really nervous about their self tan showing up too dark, and would rather slowly and carefully work their way up towards their tan. Gradual self tanners should be applied the same way as any other self-tanning product.

What Is a Tan Towel?

Self-tanning towels are single-use towelettes that save you the need to use a glove or mitt when applying self tanner. Imagine a larger than normal face wipe, but instead of being saturated with a cleansing liquid, it is saturated with a self-tanning liquid instead.

The self-tanning towelettes are made to perfectly distribute the self tanner without any streaking or blotchiness, so they are a perfect choice for beginners. Using one of these towelettes can be ultra convenient, because it reduces the mess, and allows you to quickly apply a self tanner.

I’ll have some recommendations coming up for the best self-tanning towelettes on the market!

How Long Do Tanning Towelettes Last?

Like with any other self tanner, tanning towelettes will give a lovely tan for up to 4 or 5 days. The self-tanning towels themselves are single use, so you will have to throw them away after each use.

Each towelette should cover your whole body, so in the greater scheme of things, while it is not a completely eco-friendly product, it is not terrible either.

How Long Do You Have to Wait to Shower After Fake Tanning?

While the tan should set after around 8 hours, the longer you wait to shower, the better. Giving it 12 to 24 hours before showering is ideal.

Some self tanners are made to be showered off sooner (or even right before a shower, like some gradual self tanners), so follow the directions on the product packaging.

Can I Still Swim Even If I’ve Used a Self Tanner?

Of course, you can swim! Isn’t the whole point of a self tan to show off your lovely, newly bronzed skin? Much like with showering, you should avoid water for about 12 hours, but afterwards, go and have fun!

If you’re swimming outdoors, make sure to pile on the sunscreen, and moisturize well since a long soak in water can dehydrate the skin.

Can You Shave After Fake Tanning?

The best time to shave is before self tanning. Since shaving exfoliates the skin, doing so after fake tanning might remove some of your hard work. Time things carefully, so that you don’t have to shave until right before your next self tanner application.

Choosing the Best Self Tanner for Your Skin Tone

It might seem obvious, but your average Snow White shouldn’t be using the same bronzer as a naturally olive-skinned beauty. For those with pale skin, the wrong self tanner might make you look blotchy or orange. For those with naturally medium to tan skin, a self tanner that is too light will simply not do much. That is why many brands have the same self tanning formula, but at different strengths.

Finding a self tanner for people of color is a little harder, since the chemical reaction often isn’t strong enough to make a difference. The deeper self tanner shades, like St. Tropez Dark available at Nordstrom, and L’Oreal Deep from Amazon, both can give a subtle darkening, and a more even skin tone.

Many people with darker skin, however, opt instead for wash-off products, like the NARS Monoi Glow I, from Sephora, which gives already dark skin a beautiful bronzy sheen.

Best Self Tanners For Light and Fair Skin

1. Kiehl’s Sun Free Self Tanning Formula

This easy-to-use self tanner soaks into the skin quickly, providing a light, bronzey glow without splotches or streaks. It is excellent both for the face and body, and it’s perfect for anyone on the paler side, looking for a natural looking tan.

The creamy formula is really beginner friendly! Unlike many other self-tanning lotions, this product smells incredible. The lotion is tinted, making the application easier overall. It is available at Nordstrom.

Best Self Tanners For Light and Fair Skin: Kiehl's Sun Free Self Tanning Formula

2. St. Tropez Self Tan Classic Bronzing Mousse

St. Tropez has been making self tanners for a long time, so it’s not surprising that this product is excellent. This self tanner lasts the longest, often lasting over a week. It applies easily without a mess, although this amazing product does come with a bit of a smell.

The classic color is perfect for anyone on the paler side, while those who already have naturally darker skin (or just want a serious dark tan), would prefer the dark shade. Both can be purchased at Ulta.

Best Self Tanners For Light and Fair Skin: St. Tropez Self Tan Classic Bronzing Mousse

3. Tarte Brazilliance Maracuja Self Tanner

This sweet scented self tanner is carefully engineered to avoid any of the pitfalls that occasionally turn what would otherwise be a good self tanner into an unpleasant experience. It is extra moisturizing, and gives a light, natural tan. It works beautifully on the body, but it also works on the face. You pick it up at Ulta, where it also comes with an applicator mitt.

Best Self Tanners For Light and Fair Skin: Tarte Brazilliance Maracuja Self Tanner

4. Vita Liberata pHenomenal 2-3 Week Tan Lotion

This lotion is one of the best self tanners out there, because it is just so friggin’ long lasting. If it’s your first time trying a self tanner, stay away, because if you don’t like the results… you’re in trouble. The tan it gives is subtle and natural, and the fadeaway is kind. While the price might seem steep, the long-lasting tan more than justifies it. You can buy it at Sephora.

Best Self Tanners For Light and Fair Skin: Vita Liberata pHenomenal 2-3 Week Tan Lotion

Best Self Tanners For Medium and Tan Skin

1. L’Oreal Sublime Bronze Tinted Lotion in Deep

This shimmery lotion is a perfect self tanner for darker skin tones. It soaks in quickly, leaving behind a smooth, dark tan that can also be built up with daily use.

The formula has some mica in it, so it’ll give your skin a bit of a glow on top of the tan, which looks instantly beautiful, even before the skin finishes darkening. Pick up this beautiful self tanner at Ulta.

Best Self Tanners For Medium and Tan Skin: L’Oreal Sublime Bronze Tinted Lotion in Deep

2. Fake Bake Flawless Darker Self Tan Liquid & Professional Mitt

This is another self-tanning product that comes with a mitt. This liquid spreads into the skin very easily, and sinks in fast. The smell is exotically coconutty, and the final result is dark yet natural. This is not the longest lasting of self tanners, but it’s so easy to reapply that it is not a real issue. You can buy this self tanner at Ulta.

Best Self Tanners For Medium and Tan Skin: Fake Bake Flawless Darker Self Tan Liquid & Professional Mitt

3. St. Moriz Instant Self Tanning Mousse in Dark

This luxurious formula boasts an effortless application, and a green tint that guarantees a natural, non-orange tan. This self tanner is excellent, especially for its price range, with almost no scent, and an even, long-lasting tan. You can pick up this self-tanning mousse at Ulta.

Best Self Tanners For Medium and Tan Skin: St. Moriz Instant Self Tanning Mousse in Dark

4. Jergens Natural Glow Daily Moisturizer in Medium-Tan

A great gradual tan for darker skin is not easy to find, but this formula does it. Even better, it’s a two-in-one, because it moisturizes the skin in addition to darkening it, and it will not break the bank. A few applications in a row, followed by semi weekly maintenance could keep your skin glowing all summer long. You can buy this dark gradual self tanner from Ulta.

Best Self Tanners For Medium and Tan Skin: Jergens Natural Glow Daily Moisturizer in Medium-Tan

Best Self Tanners for the Face

1. Clarins Liquid Bronze Self Tanner

Liquid self tanner formulas are fantastic for the face, and this one from Clarins is a serious favorite. While the scent is a bit strong, it fades quickly, and is totally worth the natural bronze sheen it provides. This formula is buildable, and it can be very easily applied with a cotton pad, instead of with the hands or gloves. You can buy it from Nordstrom.

Best Self Tanners for the Face: Clarins Liquid Bronze Self Tanner

2. COOLA Sunless Tan Anti Aging Face Serum

A sunless tan can be organic, and in this case, it can also be an incredible skincare product. It is loaded with anti-aging and hydrating ingredients like vitamin C and hyaluronic acid, and it doesn’t have an icky self tanner scent. It sinks into the skin easily, and gives an even, buildable tan that does not streak. You can purchase this incredible self-tanning serum from Sephora.

Best Self Tanners for the Face: COOLA Sunless Tan Anti Aging Face Serum

3. Lancome Flash Bronzer Self Tanning Gel for Face

If breakouts are one of your concerns as far as self tanners go, this might be the perfect one to try. This light, gel formula seldom causes acne, but it still keeps the skin fresh and golden toned. It gives streak-free color, but it might require multiple applications if you’re hoping for a very dark tan. You can purchase this self-tanning gel at Nordstrom.

Best Self Tanners for the Face: Lancome Flash Bronzer Self Tanning Gel for Face

4. Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta Glow Pads

If you’ve been following my writing, you know that I adore chemical exfoliants, like glycolic and salicylic acid. We have also already established that exfoliation is super important for an even fake tan. That is why I think these self-tanning pads are so cool – they give a perfect tanned glow to the face, and they also keep dead skin from building up and getting in the way of that gorgeous tan.

This product comes in a wipe (20 wipes per box to be precise), so you know that it is super-easy to use. You can pick these up at Sephora.

Best Self Tanners for the Face: Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta Glow Pads

Are you a fan of self tanners? Do you have any of your suggestions or tricks for sunless tanning? Which is your holy grail self tanner? Let us know!

Photos via @lovelaughslipstick, @jennifer__chong, @tartecosmetics