Self-tanner is the only beauty product I know of that has the power to both change your life for the better or (tragically) for the worse. The best self-tanners can leave you with an instant golden glow that's better (not to mention healthier) than a week spent lying on the beach. But apply your self-tanner incorrectly, or use a bad product, and you'll end up with orange, streaky skin that has you hiding in your apartment taking four showers a day until it fades.
To avoid any self-tanner mishaps, make sure you do your research first by reading through reviews and completely following the product's instructions. Because most self-tanners use the active ingredient DHA to develop color, it's not practical to look through the ingredients list the same way you would your face serum or moisturizer.
But there are a few general rules. Over the years, I've learned that mousse formulas often mean a better tan because they spread easier than a lotion or spray. With a mousse, though, you always want to using a tanning mitt to ensure an even tan; mitts are also great because they cover more surface area than your hands.
For a more subtle or buildable tan, you might want to try a gradual tanner. They're so great because the color develops over time, meaning any mistakes are less noticeable and easier to correct.
It's also important to shave and exfoliate your skin 24 hours (or less) before you tan to make sure your skin is as smooth as possible, so you don't end up patchy. You should also apply some regular body lotion to your hands, elbows, knees, ankles and feet just before you tan because those areas pick up more color than the rest of your body.
Whether you want an instant glow that washes right off, or a deeper tan that will last all week, these are the best self-tanners to try.
1. The Best Self-Tanner Of All Time
I've hardly spent a day without self-tanner over the past five years, and while I'll test a new product out every now and then, I always come back to this St. Tropez Dark Bronzing Mousse. The dark formula is key here (even if you're ghostly pale like me) because it truly gives you a bronzed tan without that slightly orange color self-tanners can turn you. The mousse formula makes it essentially impossible to screw up because it allows you to cover skin more easily and evenly than a lotion or spray. It also shows up with the guide color as you're applying, so you can see if you're missing any spots. Just be sure to use the St. Tropez Applicator Mitt with it to reduce the risk of streaks and so you don't stain the palms of your hands.
2. The Best Drugstore Self-Tanner For A Gradual Glow
For a more subtle tan, the Jergens Natural Glow +Firming Daily Moisturizer gets rave reviews. Designed to take the place of your daily body moisturizer, Jergens lets you tan without adding an extra step to your routine. The +Firming Daily Moisturizer contains a blend of collagen, elastin, and polymers to firm skin over time, and moisturizing ingredients like glycerin and dimethicone to keep skin smooth. It's also a great way to top off your other self-tanning products if you want to make your glow last as long as possible. Get it in fair to medium or medium to tan.
"This is the best tanning product out there," writes one Amazon user who notes color appears after two uses. "[It] smells great and goes on easy. Plus, it makes your skin super soft. This does not leave you looking orange or fake tanned, it really is a natural glow."
3. The Best Self-Tanner According To Amazon Users
Over 1,400 Amazon reviewers give this bronzing mousse five stars for its easy application and natural color. Skinerals Californian Sunless Bronzer is also formulated without artificial chemicals or synthetic fragrances. Instead, the brand uses plant-based oils and extracts like aloe, acai berry, and green tea to provide moisturizing and antioxidant benefits to the skin while imparting color with DHA (which can also be naturally derived from plants). It also comes in an extra-dark shade.
"After following all instructions for application, within the first hour I could see a[n] even, natural bronze color developing," writes one Amazon reviewer. "You end up with a nice California glow," they add, noting, "I bought the mitt as recommended, [and] I highly recommend doing that as application is so easy."
4. Best Self-Tanning Serum For Your Face
While most self-tanners say they're perfectly suitable to be used on your face, I'm always a little wary that they'll cause my acne-prone skin to freak out or show up too dark. COOLA Sunless Tan Anti-Aging Face Serum eliminates both of those concerns by developing a fake tan specifically for your face. In addition to giving you a natural glow, the serum contains ingredients like hyaluronic acid, algae, and plant stem cells to hydrate and smooth the skin.
One Amazon reviewer who calls this the "best sunless tanner for the face" writes, "super natural color, and it actually smells good. I also love the texture of the serum … it's not sticky or tacky at all, [but] it dries quickly and moisturizes." Another fan of the product confirms, "I love the fact that I did not break out from this product."
5. The Best Instant Self-Tanner That Washes Right Off
Sometimes you find yourself needing a tan in a pinch, but you're not necessarily looking for something that will last a whole week. For a last-minute tanning fix, Vita Liberata Body Blur works more like makeup for your body. The formula includes hydrating ingredients like shea butter and glycerin, but you don't need to apply as much as a typical lotion for color to develop. It's also a great way to ease yourself into self-tanner if you're worried about being left with streaky color, because it washes right off. It's available in two shades: cafe creme (fair) and latte (medium).
6. A Self-Tanner Perfect For Traveling
It's not always practical to travel with your self-tanner because the liquid-filled bottles rarely meet TSA standards (plus, think of the damage a spill in your suitcase would cause). The Tan Towel Body Tan Towelettes let you achieve a glow on-the-go with a clear self-tanning formula infused in each individually packaged towelette. Plus, you can use them on both your face and body. Though this specific formula is made for light to medium skin tones, they also have a version for medium to dark skin.
"Ridiculously easy to use," writes one Amazon user who notes the towelettes aren't messy and don't cause stains. "I have extremely pale skin that doesn't respond well to many tanning products, [but] this gives that bronzy sun goddess vibe with just one application."
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