Updated January 2022
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Buying guide for Best self-tanning lotions

A golden tan is the quintessential summertime accessory. Who doesn’t want to look like they just returned from a great vacation filled with sun, swimming, and sandcastles? Unfortunately, when that tan comes from lying out in the sun, you’ll eventually pay the price for that summer color in the form of wrinkles, age spots, leathery skin, and possibly even skin cancer. That’s where self-tanning lotions come in.

You don’t have to give up on tanning altogether. In fact, with a self-tanning lotion, you can keep that healthy glow not only over the summer but all year long. And with today’s products, your faux tan will look natural — no more orange, streaky skin as was common with yesterday’s self-tanners.

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Choose a self-tanning lotion that matches your skin tone. There are products for light through dark complexions.

Key considerations

How self-tanners work

Whatever the form of your self-tanner, the most common active ingredient is dihydroxyacetone (DHA). DHA is a colorless carbohydrate — a sugar, basically — that can be created synthetically or extracted from sugar beets or cane sugar. 

Once applied to the skin, DHA reacts with the amino acids in the cells at the surface of your skin. Over the next couple of hours, this reaction produces pigments called melanoidins, which appear brown on the skin surface. It also usually produces a characteristic “fake tan” smell, which is not the odor of the lotion itself but a byproduct of the chemical process between DHA and skin cells. Although most people find the odor a bit unpleasant, it generally dissipates after you shower.

Be aware that your faux tan won’t last nearly as long as its natural counterpart. As your outer skin cells naturally flake away, they take the color with them, so you’ll need to reapply the lotion every few days to maintain the tan.

Self-tanning products

There are quite a few different types of self-tanners available, including the following:

Self-tanning lotions are the most common form of self-tanner and have the widest range of colors. Lotions are easy to spread on your skin and provide smooth, even results if applied correctly. They can be used to slowly increase the color over several applications. Because lotions don’t dry too quickly, they’re perfect for those new to self-tanning. You have a little wiggle room to adjust the amount during application and thus are less likely to end up with streaky or uneven results.

Self-tanning sprays are fast, but it’s easy to end up with uneven results unless you have experience applying them or have a friend who can help you. It’s easy to slowly build up color with a spray too.

Self-tanning mousses are also good for building up color, but they dry quickly and thus can appear blotchy or streaky if you don’t have your application technique perfected.

Self-tanning moisturizers build up color very slowly over repeated applications, so they’re a great choice if you just want a soft glow on your face, for example.

Self-tanning towelettes are infused with a tanning solution, making them super easy to use for a quick touch of color on vacation or at any time. They’re also useful for darkening those annoying strap lines that accompany a natural tan.

Bronzers are not actually self-tanners. These products are basically makeup that gives you an immediate glow of color wherever you want it, including face, arms, legs, and neck.

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Did You Know?
A self-tanner gives you a healthy golden glow without the skin damage you can get from the sun’s UV rays.
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Features

Choosing a self-tanner isn’t rocket science, but there are a few things to consider when making your selection.

Ingredients

Although they aren’t necessarily harmful, most drugstore self-tanning lotions contain a wide range of synthetic ingredients that you might not want to use on your skin. If you prefer a “greener” product, look for a self-tanner with natural inactive ingredients such as aloe vera, shea butter, coconut oil, and other skin-boosting ingredients that help improve your skin’s health along with its color.

Moisturizer

Most self-tanning lotions have a base that is somewhat moisturizing, but if you tend to have dry skin, look for a product that goes further. There are self-tanning lotions that provide nearly as much pampering moisture as your regular body lotion or facial moisturizer, so go ahead and ward off those dry spots.

On the other hand, if you have oily skin, you might prefer a product without oils or heavy moisturizers that can increase your shine or promote breakouts. Look for oil-free, noncomedogenic self-tanners, especially if you plan to use the lotion on your face.

Tint

Most self-tanning lotions go on white or clear, which can make it tough to tell where you’ve applied the lotion and where you haven’t. That’s why there are some products with a slight tint that helps you apply the lotion more evenly. The tint disappears as the product dries and won’t affect your skin color.

Shimmer

Healthy tanned skin has a slight glow that is very flattering. Self-tanners with a bit of added shimmer recreate this effect and are especially good for use on the legs and arms.

Drying time

It typically takes several minutes for a self-tanning lotion to dry, but there are some products that dry very quickly. Look for this feature if you want a product you can use for quick applications while traveling or at the gym.

Scent

Most self-tanning lotions have added fragrance, which helps to disguise the distinctive odor of the faux tanning process. If you are sensitive to fragrances, however, look for an unscented product or one with only a slight natural fragrance.

Color

As a general rule, it’s best to go with a tanning product that creates a glow only slightly darker than your own natural color; otherwise, you risk ending up with an unnatural and unflattering appearance. Most drugstore self-tanners assume that users are fairly light-skinned to start and only create an equally light tan. You can increase the depth of color by reapplying the product several days in a row, but if you have skin that’s naturally medium to dark, it’s much better to look for a brand that offers lotions for a range of skin tones. Some merely offer one product for “light” and one for “medium” skin tones, but there are other brands, particularly higher-end products, that have a range of tanners for light through dark complexions.

Self-tanners do not protect your skin from UV rays. You still need to wear sunscreen even if you use a self-tanning product.

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Pricing

There’s no need to break your budget for a self-tanning lotion. Your local drugstores, big-box stores, and online retailers all carry a huge range of products in every price range. 

Inexpensive: Generally, the popular drugstore brands cost less than $10 for a 6- or 8-ounce tube.

Mid-range: You’ll pay up to $25 for a product with organic ingredients, a wide range of colors, or from a higher-end brand.

Expensive: Expect to pay as much as $35 for high-end products with expensive skin-nourishing ingredients as well as self-tanning properties.

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Staff Tip
Always apply self-tanning lotion to exfoliated, clean, dry skin to avoid streaks or blotches.
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Tips

It takes preparation and a little practice to achieve the best results with a self-tanning lotion. If you rush, you’re likely to end up with streaky or uneven results. The following guidelines can help you get the glowing, even color that you crave.

  • Prepare your skin before using a self-tanning lotion. Shave, wax, or do any other hair removal treatment. Use an exfoliator over all the skin that will be tanned. A body scrub, loofah, or even washcloth will remove excess dead skin cells that otherwise might take up more DHA, thus turning darker than the rest of your skin. Pay extra attention to knees, elbows, and ankles, which all tend to have more dead skin than other areas.
  • Bathe and dry off. Unless you’re using a product intended for application in the shower, your skin needs to be completely dry before applying the self-tanning lotion.
  • Moisturize particularly dry skin. Spread a small amount of your regular moisturizer on any especially dry patches of skin and on knees, elbows, ankles, and around the nose.
  • Wear a mitt or gloves. For the most even results and to prevent orange palms, use a self-tanner mitt. If you don’t have one, cover your hands with disposable gloves.
  • Apply lotion carefully from the feet up. Use long, even strokes, apply a thin coat of lotion to all the skin you’d like to tan, applying enough to coat the skin but not so much that it clumps, runs, or drips. If you don’t have a helper, you’ll need to do some stretching and bending to reach your back. Apply lotion sparingly over knees, ankles, elbows, and wrists because these tend to turn darker than other areas. Smooth the lotion over your face, but keep it away from eyes, lips, and the insides of nostrils.
  • Use a washcloth to remove excess color. Once you’ve finished applying the lotion, wash your hands and then run a very slightly damp washcloth over your knees, ankles, and elbows to remove excess color.
  • Wait to get dressed, shower, or shave. Unless you’re using a quick-results lotion, wait at least 30 minutes for the color to develop before getting dressed. Don’t shower for at least 12 hours after applying self-tanning lotion. Showering too soon affects your results. Try not to shave any tanned areas for the next few days because this will also remove the color.
  • Maintain your tan. Moisturize all treated skin daily, and be prepared to repeat the entire process every few days or weeks depending on your skin’s condition and your tanning preferences.
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A chemical reaction between a sugar in the self-tanning lotion and your skin cells creates the “tanned” results.

FAQ

Q. Are self-tanning lotions safe?

A. As a general rule, using a self-tanner is far safer and friendlier to your skin than sunbathing in UV rays. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers DHA safe for topical application, but it’s important to keep the tanner out of your eyes, nose, and mouth, as well as away from your genital area. Keep in mind that a self-tanner in no way protects your skin from UV rays, so you still need to use sunscreen, and the darker your skin, the less vitamin D it can synthesize. 

Q. What about tanning pills?

A. You might have seen tanning pills advertised and wondered if achieving that healthy glow could be as easy as popping a pill. Unfortunately, these pills are not approved by the FDA, nor are they safe. If you experience any skin darkening at all, it’s going to be an unflattering shade of orange, not the golden brown you’d achieve by using a self-tanner or basking in the sun. 

Q. Why does my self-tanning lotion smell so bad?

A. It’s an unfortunate fact that self-tanning can smell bad. But don’t blame your product. The odor comes from the chemical reaction between the active ingredient (DHA) in the lotion and the amino acids in your skin cells. Most self-tanners have added fragrance to mask this odor, but you still might smell it for several hours after applying the lotion. Fortunately, the smell goes away after showering.

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