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Best self-tanner 2021

How do self-tanners work?

It’s no secret that excessive sun exposure can cause skin damage. It leads to wrinkles, premature aging and brown spots. At worst, it can even cause cancer. Of course, that doesn’t mean that you need to walk around with a pale complexion. If you want that beautiful sun-tanned look, you’ll be happy to know that you can avoid spending hours in the sun and risk the potential skin damage that comes along with it by using a self-tanner.

These days, self-tanners no longer produce that odd and overly orange skin color that their predecessors did. Instead, they give you a natural look that will trick even your most astute friends. Few prove this point better than Tan-Luxe Wonder Oil. It is easy to apply evenly and contains a blend of botanicals that nourishes your skin.

What to know before you buy a self-tanner

How do self-tanners work?

Self-tanners rely on dihydroxyacetone, which is a type of sugar. When you spread DHA on your skin, it reacts with the amino acids of dead cells in the uppermost layer of skin and creates a Maillard reaction that results in a tanned appearance. This is one reason new self-tanners can create a more natural look than old formulas. Instead of dying the skin, like was often the case before, tanners made with DHA cause your skin to darken naturally. This means the color can’t rub off on clothes and other fabrics.

The downside to this method is that your tan will gradually lighten as the outer layers of the epidermis are shed. Depending on your natural exfoliation process, this lightening may be noticeable after just a few days.

Do self-tanners offer SPF protection?

Self-tanners are not a replacement for quality sunscreen. Unlike sunscreens, which often have a sun protection factor between 15 and 50, self-tanners offer limited protection from UV radiation, usually in the neighborhood of SPF 3 or 4. This means that even if you have a nice bronze look from a self-tanner, you still need to use sunscreen if you will be spending time in the sun. Another option is to choose a self-tanner with an SPF rating that contains avobenzone or other protectants.

Features to look for in a quality self-tanner

Antioxidant ingredients

While using a self-tanner with DHA is safer than spending countless hours in the sun building up a tan, it is not without its risks. Though deemed safe by the FDA, some research shows DHA can generate free radicals in the skin, leading to cell damage. To counteract this, look for a self-tanner that contains antioxidants to help maintain your skin health.

DHA concentration

The higher the concentration of DHA in a self-tanner, the darker it will make your skin. However, there comes the point when too much DHA starts to produce an unnatural complexion. 3-5% DHA seems to be the sweet spot where self-tanner is effective and produces a natural-looking result. Products containing more DHA than that can create overly yellow skin tones.

Another reason to choose a self-tanner with a moderate concentration of DHA is the production of free radicals in the skin. Those with lower DHA levels will create less free radicals, so it is easier to counteract with additional antioxidant ingredients.

Ease of application

Self-tanners come in many forms, including wipes, sprays, lotions, mousses and gels. You can also find moisturizers with low concentrations of DHA for gradual bronzing. Some products are going to be easier or more appropriate to apply to certain parts of the body. For example, sprays are useful for hard-to-reach spots and quickly covering large areas of the body. 

Lotions offer more hands-on control and are usually tinted to see where you have already applied the tanner and what spots you may have missed. They also allow for precise application on your face.

How much can you expect to spend on a self-tanner

The cost of self-tanners varies wildly depending on the brand and the ingredients. On average, you can expect to pay $10-$40 for most self-tanners, though there are also many that fall outside of that range.

Self-tanner FAQ

When is the best time to apply a self-tanner?

A. For the best results, you should apply self-tanner at night, after exfoliating your skin but at least a couple of hours before bedtime. Also, make sure to wait at least a few hours after application before showering. 

Can I shave after applying a self-tanner?

A. It is best not to shave for at least 48 hours after using a self tanner. This is because shaving exfoliates away some of your dead skin cells, which can lighten your tan.

What is the best self tanner to buy?

Top self tanner

Tan-Luxe Wonder Oil

What you need to know: This easy-to-apply oil utilizes a blend of botanicals and omega oils to hydrate your skin. 

What you’ll love: It is vegan-friendly, made with naturally-derived DHA and is free of sulphates and phthalates. 

What you should consider: It takes a long time to dry after application.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon and Sephora

Top self tanner for the money

Supergoop Healthy Glow Sunless Tan

What you need to know: A combination sunscreen and self tanner, Supergoop Healthy Glow protects your skin while giving it that bronzed look.

What you’ll love: It contains moisturizing ingredients and added antioxidants to leave your skin healthier than before you applied it.

What you should consider: The scent is strong and could be off-putting to some.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon, Supergoop and Sephora

Worth checking out

St. Tropez Self Tan Classic Bronzing Mousse

What you need to know: This lightweight mousse builds up gradually, making it ideal for those new to using self tanners.

What you’ll love: It dries quickly and rarely causes irritation for those with sensitive skin.

What you should consider: It is tinted, which makes it easy to see if you have missed any spots but also means it can stain clothes.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon, Ulta and Sephora


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Brett Dvoretz writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.

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