If you’re intimidated by full-on fake tans, same. The shade intensity, the commitment, the potential for splotches and streaks and accidental Oompa Loompa cosplay — it’s all just a bit much, especially for pale beginners (like me). A more approachable option: The best gradual self-tanners featured here, which impart a subtler, buildable, more natural-looking bronze than your typical fake tanners do. They’re also deeply moisturizing, courtesy of ingredients like shea butter, aloe, glycerin, and plant-derived oils, so you can apply them just as you would your usual body lotion.
For best results, though, you should still follow proper self-tan protocols: Shower, exfoliate with a body scrub (focusing especially on dry spots, like your knees, elbows, and ankles), and thoroughly dry off. Then, smooth on your self-tanner in circular motions to ensure even application. You can use mitts to avoid staining your hands, but since the color concentration with these products isn’t super intense, you should be fine if you wash your hands immediately. Your tan will develop over one to three applications, and the color usually sticks around for a few days. You can use these self-tanners on your face, too, as long as you know you’re not sensitive or allergic to any of the ingredients.
Scroll on to shop six of the best gradual self-tanners for a safe, glowy, not-scary-at-all bronze tint.
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1. The Best-Seller
This Bondi Sands tanning milk has well over 2,000 five-star ratings on Amazon, and many more around the internet. It basically ticks all the boxes of an ideal self-tanner: Reviewers say it develops into a beautiful, natural-looking golden tan — never orange or muddy — it doesn’t streak, and it won’t transfer onto your sheets or clothes. It’s packed with aloe, shea butter, and vitamin E to keep your skin moisturized for up to 24 hours, so lots of reviewers use this every other day, in lieu of their usual body lotion.
2. Best Organic Self-Tanner
This Beauty By Earth Self Tanner is the rare tanning lotion that contains mostly plant-based and/or organic ingredients — like aloe, shea butter, coconut oil, witch hazel, jojoba oil, and green tea extract, to name a few. More to love: It dries down quickly, doesn’t stain your sheets (the product comes out white, not brown), and it doesn’t wash off in the shower. Plus, that characteristic self-tanner smell is less noticeable than usual. The consistency is a little thick, so one reviewer recommended diluting it with olive oil or another body oil to help it blend more easily.
3. Best Self-Tanning Mousse
The foamy/moussey texture of this Coco & Eve self-tanner feels divinely lightweight, and makes for a smoother glide and more even application. (It’ll fade evenly, too.) But it’s just as hydrating, firming, and smoothing as the creams and lotions on this list, thanks to an impressive lineup of fruit extracts and amino acids in the formula. This looks subtle upon application, but it’ll develop over the following few hours into a deep, rich bronze that’ll last about a week and a half.
- Available shades: Medium, Dark, Ultra Dark
4. Best Drugstore Self-Tanner
Jergens makes a few self-tanners, but this 3-Day Self Tanner is the highest-rated on Amazon and a total drugstore classic. The color isn't quite as long-lasting as you'd get with the other bronzers on this list, but considering the drugstore price tag and natural, glowy hue, it’s still a solid contender. Plus, it starts working well before three days — you’ll actually see results immediately. Reviewers stress the importance of exfoliating beforehand with this one; otherwise, it may get splotchy.
- Available shades: Fair to Medium, Medium to Tan
5. Best Splurge
If you’re serious about your self-tan, get something from the iconic tanning brand St. Tropez. This one in particular is among the most well-loved on Amazon. It’s less self-tanner than it is tinted body lotion, so it provides a really subtle, natural glow — think tinted moisturizer versus foundation. As one Amazon reviewer put it: “If you’re looking for ‘just returned from Jamaica,’ this isn’t the product for you. If you’re looking for ‘just spent a day in my backyard pool and used sunscreen semi- responsibly’ then this IS for you.” Others report that a little goes a long way, so you’ll actually get a lot of mileage out of this $30 bottle.
6. Best Perfume-Free Self-Tanner
Vita Liberata is another luxury self-tanning brand and an influencer/beauty editor favorite, thanks to their natural-looking (read: not orange) shades and streak-free application. This gradual lotion imparts a radiant, buildable bronze, and the creamy gel texture is intensely hydrating — the brand promises that the marula oil-spiked formula will lock in moisture for up to 72 hours. This has “zero odor,” according to customers, and it’s free of added fragrances — a rare find for self-tanners.