The 8 Very Best Self-Tanners
Photo-Illustration: The Strategist; Photos: Retailers
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Self-tanning is a weekly ritual for me. I’m fair skinned and want to avoid UV damage, so I look to self-tanners as the key to subtly sun-kissed skin that makes me look like I’m fresh back from a vacation (even in the dead of winter). And since I’ve been fake tanning since I was a teen, I’ve experienced firsthand the changes in self-tanner formulations — from smelly, orange foam to weightless, non-offensive formulas — and let me tell you, they’ve come a long way.

Here, I’ve gathered the best of the best self-tanning products. Many are my absolute favorites, which I’ve tested over years of bronzing (including one that doesn’t have that dreaded biscuit-y smell some have). Others are recommended by self-tanning and skin-care specialists who helped me find the best products for every skin type and skin tone — and who also weighed in on how to avoid any disasters with your application.

Just note: No matter which product you use, start slow and steady. The trick to a natural-looking self-tan is choosing a formula that’s not just in the right shade but has undertones that complement your skin color. Whether it’s a mousse, a foam, or a water, the formula shouldn’t feel so sticky that you squirm during application. Instead, it should feel nice and hydrating on your skin, meaning it glides on and can easily be exfoliated off. (And if you’re looking for more of the best skin-care products and tips, read my guides to pimple patches and the best products for redness.)

What we’re looking for

Color range

To avoid a fake tan that looks, well, fake, you need to pick the shade of self-tanner that’s right for your skin tone. How dark a self-tan will get depends on the product’s dihydroxyacetone (DHA, the only FDA-approved ingredient for self-tanning) concentration. The more DHA, the darker the formula. That said, a darker product shade doesn’t necessarily mean it will produce deeper results on all skin types; most of your tan’s color is dependent upon your natural skin tone and the way it interacts with DHA. For those with fairer complexions, “Your skin will only be able to absorb a certain percentage of DHA — which is the darkness of tan,” says Holly Furlong, a tan specialist from Liverpool. “Pale people may think they need an extra-dark tan, but as the DHA percentage is too high, your skin won’t absorb it.” Instead, if you’re of a lighter skin tone, you’re better off building up your tan with layers of lighter-toned products. As someone with lighter skin, I avoid extra-dark formulas for this reason. If you have darker skin, you’ll want to choose a deeper tan shade, as self-tanner taxonomy is based on pale skin tones. Sabrina Johnson, a spray-tan stylist based in Los Angeles, recommends that darker-skinned clients leave the tan on for longer or apply the product twice. (The depth of the color will also depend on how long you leave it on — but more on that below.)

Undertones

Self tanners also have base shades, which affect the way it shows up on the skin. According to Johnson, this color only lasts for about two days before fading, but if you’re planning to self-tan before an event or photoshoot, it’s definitely something to keep in mind. There are four bases: red, brown, violet, and green. According to Harrington, those with warmer skin tones should stick to violet-based tanners, while those with a cool-toned or olive complexion should opt for a green-based tan. Red, she says, is great for deeper complexions, while brown is pretty universal and should work for just about anyone. If you’re worried about which one will work best for your skin tone, all of our experts recommend doing a patch test to make sure the color will look good all over. Different brands tend to formulate with different undertones, so we’ve noted when that information is available.

Format

Spray tans come in mousses, liquids, waters, and lotions — it ultimately comes down to preference. Lotions tend to be reserved for more gradual tanners, while mousses and liquid formulations are what come to mind when one thinks about self-tanner.

Development time

Some tans take a while to develop (four hours or longer), while other formulas — typically referred to as “express” tans — develop in less than two hours before needing to be rinsed off. The longer you leave the formula on, the darker you get.

Best self-tanner overall
Bondi Sands Self Tanning Foam

Color range: Three shades | Undertones: Green/neutral | Format: Foam | Development time: 1-6 hours

I started using Bondi Sands tan about five years ago — and I’ve never considered switching since. As a brand, Bondi Sands is widely available, fairly affordable, and has a wide range of shades. But its self-tanning foam in particular ticks every box I look for in a self-tanner. It dries quickly, so you can pop your pajamas back on and get into bed within five minutes of applying a layer. It has a subtle coconut smell (I know a lot of people dislike the fake-tan smell, but it’s pretty much unavoidable, and as far as scents go, this has been one of my favorites). And, importantly, Bondi Sands Self Tanning Foam is a non-drying formula, which I recommend for two reasons: (1) It’s kind to your skin and any dry areas you may have; (2) it doesn’t fade off in unsightly patches but rather more neatly and uniformly. 

As I mentioned earlier, Bondi Sands offers an impressive range of shades, so it can work well with many skin tones — another reason why I’m crowning this one our best self-tanner overall. “Its products tend to be really dark, so they work for dark skin,” says Johnson, who notes that the brand’s self-tanner colors skew green or neutral, which helps with looking natural on many shades of skin. Spray-tan stylist Cait Cassagne of Studio C8 is also a fan. “The color has beautiful undertones,” she says. I started using it in a medium shade, eventually progressing to dark — and over that time can say my tan has always looked natural, and that I’ve even had people ask where I’ve been on vacation for such a glow.

$26 AT AMAZON
$24 AT ULTA BEAUTY
Best less-expensive self-tanner

L’Oréal Paris Sublime Bronze Water Mousse

Very Good Deal

Color range: One shade | Format: Mousse | Development time: 4–8 hours

For slightly less, you can buy this self-tanning mousse from L’Oréal, which we’ve previously recommended for camouflaging cellulite. It only comes in one shade — medium — but those with darker skin tones can apply a few layers to build up a more bronzed look, which allows you to customize precisely how dark you want your tan to go. One particularly handy thing about this mousse is that it works in as little as four hours, meaning that you can apply layers of it quickly over the course of, say, an afternoon, and still be bronzed by the evening. Note: This tan is not the best for beginners, though — it doesn’t leave a guide color, meaning a pigment that immediately shows up on skin when you apply it but that isn’t the ultimate tan shade, so there’s no way of telling where you’ve set it until your tan develops. (That said, no guide color means the tan is far less likely to leave smudges or streaks on your sheets.)

$9 AT AMAZON
$15 AT WALMART
Best self-tanning mousse
St. Tropez Self-Tan Luxe Whipped Crème Mousse

Color range: One shade | Undertones: Green | Format: Cream mousse | Development time: 8 hours

If your skin is on the drier side, you’ll probably want to choose a mousse formula, which is generally more hydrating than a foam. I was particularly impressed by this mousse, which includes a bevy of skin-care ingredients particularly suited to dry skin, including niacinamide, vitamin E, echinacea, and hyaluronic acid. And while it’s only available in one shade, it’s rich and deep, so it works on a range of skin tones.

Writer Meredith Lynch, who is also a committed self-tanner user, says that nothing compares to the St. Tropez whipped mousse. “It dries fairly quickly and the scent isn’t overpowering. I’ve accepted that most self-tanners don’t smell like Le Labo, but this one is better than most.” Lynch also likes that it has a color guide, which she says is helpful for keeping track of where you’ve already applied tanner.

$41 AT AMAZON
$48 AT SEPHORA
Best quick-developing self-tanner
St. Tropez Self Tan Express Bronzing Mousse

Color range: One shade | Undertones: Green | Format: Foam | Development time: 1-4 hours

I’m going to be completely honest and say that I discovered this self-tanner through Kim Kardashian’s now-defunct KKW beauty blog, where she shared that it’s the product she uses between spray-tan sessions. It’s an express tan, which means that instead of developing in the usual six-to-eight hours, it starts developing in as little as one hour, and continues for a maximum of four.

When I’ve used this one and just wanted a subtle glow, I’ve left it on for just an hour, and when I’ve wanted a richer, fresh-from-vacation tan, I’ve left it on for four hours and been pleased with the results. Those with darker skin tones won’t notice much after an hour or two, but at the end of the four hours, a nice, rich, warm tone develops. It’s also a no-transfer formula: Not only does this mean it won’t stain your clothes, but it also means it won’t feel sticky when it’s applied. Just note: St. Tropez claims there’s no fake-tan smell, but I’ve smelled this stuff myself, and there is definitely a scent (it’s not too pungent, though).

$46 AT AMAZON
$46 AT DERMSTORE
Best less-expensive quick-developing self-tanner

B.tan I Want The Darkest Tan Possible

Very Good Deal

Color range: Five shades | Undertones: Green/neutral | Format: Mousse | Development time: 1–4 hours

This express tan from B.tan is a solid drugstore option. Like the St. Tropez above, this one develops in as little as one hour, and since B.tan offers it in a wide range of shades, it’s especially good for those with fairer or darker skin tones who want a deeper tan fast. Johnson tells me she likes this formula because it doesn’t make her skin feel dry and it offers a super-dark tan — and similar to Bondi tanners, this one has green-neutral undertones, which means it especially complements those with cool-toned or olive complexions.

$10 AT AMAZON
$13 AT SALLY BEAUTY
Best self-tanner for sensitive skin
Bondi Sands Self Tan Foaming Water

Color range: Three shades | Undertones: Colorless | Format: Foaming water | Development time: 6 hours

You may think having sensitive skin precludes you from fake tanning — but the good news is, it doesn’t. Bondi Sands actually has a whole line dedicated to sensitive skin formulas called Pure, which combines their tanning formula with hydrating ingredients like vitamin C, vitamin E, and hyaluronic acid. It’s also fragrance free (which you probably already look for in most products if your skin is easily irritated.)

Bondi’s foaming water — which is part of the Pure range — comes in three shades, and only takes six hours to develop. Johnson, who has sensitive skin, told me that her skin has felt irritable after using other fake tans but that with this formula she “didn’t feel itchy at all.” The only potential downsides to this one are that there’s no guide-color to keep track of where you’ve applied, and the water-consistency means the tan is on the runnier side of the tans on this list. Beginners may have to do a few trial and error layers before mastering how to apply this tan correctly.

$27 AT AMAZON
$27 AT ULTA BEAUTY
Best self-tanner lotion for face
Tan-Luxe The Gradual Illuminating Tanning Lotion

Color range: One shade | Undertones: Colorless | Format: Lotion

Any of the self-tanners on this list can be used on your face (just be sure to do a patch test first, and take extra care to blend to avoid unsightly streaks). But if you’re prone to breakouts, or just have extra sensitive skin on your face, I’d recommend something specific, like this gradual formula.

Tan-Luxe’s The Gradual tans skin over time, so the results aren’t instant or dramatic. This can be a good thing if you’re just starting out or looking for a subtler glow. It’s also “basically skin care with tanner in it,” according to Johnson, who cites the lotion’s moisturizing ingredients including raspberry-seed oil, vitamin E, and aloe vera. It also has an oil-cream consistency, so it’s deeply moisturizing and hydrating and won’t feel dry on the skin. Our resident beauty columnist Rio Viera-Newton is a fan, too. “Whether you’re new to self-tanning or are just looking for the most natural-looking tan possible, this is perfect,” she says. In one to two hours, you’ll start to see tanner, glowy-er skin that’ll last for around two days.

$34 AT AMAZON
$27 AT SEPHORA
with code: YAYSAVE
Best self-tanner drops for face
St. Moriz Advanced Self Tanning Drops

For my face, I prefer self-tanner drops over a lotion because I’m acne-prone — so adding new products into my routine is risky — and drops work alongside your already-existing skin-care routine. All you need to do is add them to your usual moisturizer, mix well, and then apply the mixture carefully to your face and neck for a gradual glow.

I’ve been using these St. Moriz drops for over four years now and love them. They only come in one shade, but the depth of the color they give is entirely customizable: the more drops, the darker the tan. I’ll apply four of these drops to my face twice per week, and it takes me at least three months to get through the little bottle — they’re potent, and they work quickly. It does take time to perfect application, though. As I mentioned, you have to rub them in slowly and thoroughly, and the drops are clear, so there’s no way of keeping track of where you’ve applied them. But patience with these pays off: The tan they leave is simply unbeatable, and I go makeup-free on most days thanks to my sun-kissed glow.

$19 AT AMAZON
$19 AT TARGET

Self Tanning For Beginners: Your 2024 Guide To A Flawless Fake Tan

Welcome to the glamorous world of self-tanning, where achieving a sun-kissed glow is simpler than you might think! This guide is tailored especially for beginners, but even seasoned tanners might find a few helpful tips.

At Tan Junkie, we understand the importance of a flawless tan, and we’re here to share all the insider secrets. We’ll debunk myths, provide expert advice, and give you all the tools you need to master the art of self-tanning. So grab your tanning mitt! And let’s embark on a journey to a perfect, streak-free tan!

ready to prep for home self tanning?

Prepping Your Canvas: The First Step to a Flawless Fake Tan
The key to a perfect fake tan is all in the preparation. Consider your skin as a canvas – the smoother it is, the better your tan will look. Here’s how to prep your skin like a pro:

Exfoliate Thoroughly: Shed those dead skin cells before you tan. Use a loofah, dry brush, or a gentle exfoliating scrub, paying extra attention to rougher areas like knees, elbows, and ankles. Exfoliating these areas will ensure an even application and help you avoid those dreaded streaks.
Moisturise: Hydrate your skin with a quality body oil or lotion after exfoliating. This step creates a smooth base for your tan, which is crucial for an even application. Focus on dry areas but avoid over-moisturising, which can lead to patchiness.
Consider Shaving: If you’ll shave, do it a day before tanning. Shaving just before can open pores and lead to a spotty tan effect.
Clean Slate: Ensure your skin is free from makeup, deodorant, or perfume before self-tanning. These can act as barriers and cause your tan to apply patchily.
Follow these steps to perfectly prep your skin, ensuring a stunning, natural-looking tan.

Mastering the Art of Tan Application: No Streaks, Glow!
Prepare your skin and dive into the main event – applying the tan. Here’s the right way to do it:

Choose Your Weapon: Decide between a tanning lotion or foam. Lotions are more forgiving and more handy to blend, ideal for beginners. Foams, while more pigmented, offer a deeper dark tan. It’s all about your comfort and desired outcome.
The Right Technique: Start from your shins and work up in circular motions. This method helps avoid streaks and ensures an even coverage. Be cautious around knees, elbows, ankles, and wrists – these areas are prone to absorbing more product, leading to darker patches.
Face Tanning (Optional): For a natural face tan, mix a bit of tanning lotion or tan drops with your regular face lotion. Apply it evenly, blending into the sides of your nose, ears, and hairline for a seamless finish.
Drying Time: Allow the tanner to dry for 5-10 minutes before getting dressed. Allow the tanner to dry properly to prevent smudging and ensure an even development of your tan.
Dress Smartly: Post-tanning, consider wearing a black satin pyjama set. It feels luxurious and helps protect your tan from water and fabric friction.
Follow these steps to achieve a beautifully even tan, free of tell-tale streaks or patches.

Maintain Your Tan Looking Fresh and Glowing
Maintaining your tan is just as important as the application. Here’s how to keep your glow going strong:

Regular Reapplication: To maintain your tan, reapply your tanning lotion or foam once weekly. Consistency is vital to keeping that bronzed look.
Daily Moisturising: Hydrate your skin daily with body oils or lotions to nourish it and ensure your tan fades evenly and naturally.
Gradual Tanners: Consider using a gradual tanning lotion as a part of your daily routine. It’s a great way to keep your tan topped up and fresh.
Avoiding Water Right After Tanning: Avoid water as much as possible immediately after tanning, as it can disrupt the development of your tan. If you must shower, make it quick and lukewarm.
By following these self-tan maintenance tips, your self-tan will last longer and fade gracefully, keeping you looking sun-kissed and fabulous for days.

self tanning questions

Your Self-Tanning Questions Answered!
Embarking on your self-tanning journey can bring up a lot of questions. Here are answers to some of the most common queries:

Are Self-Tanning Creams Safe to Use? Absolutely! Most self-tanning products use dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a non-toxic substance, to react with the dead cells on your skin’s surface, temporarily darkening its appearance. Always choose reputable brands and test for any skin sensitivities.
Can You Tan in an Indoor Tanning Bed with Self-Tanner On? Avoid using self-tanner before an indoor tanning bed session, as the products can interfere with each other and lead to uneven results. For a consistent tan, use one method at a time.
Best Self Tanner for Beginners in the UK Look for products labelled “for beginners” or “gradual tanning.” These usually offer a more subtle tan that develops slowly, making it easier to avoid mistakes. Brands like St. Tropez, Bondi Sands, and our self-tan range provide excellent options for self-tan beginners.
Does Self Tan Stop You Tanning in the Natural Sun? No, self-tan doesn’t provide any sun protection. You can still tan naturally in the sun, but it’s crucial to use sunscreen to protect your skin from harmful UV rays.
Is Self-Tan Good for Your Skin? Self-tanning is a safer alternative to sunbathing or tanning beds, as it doesn’t involve UV radiation, which can lead to skin damage. However, it’s essential to keep your skin hydrated and to use products suited to your skin type. I recommend doing a patch test.
When Should I Self-Tan Before an Event? Apply your self-tanner 1-2 days before your big event to allow sufficient time for it to develop fully and to correct any mishaps if necessary.
Self Tan: How Long Before Shower? Wait at least 6-8 hours before taking a shower after applying a self-tan to give it time to develop fully.
How to Get Fake Tan Off Hands? Use lemon juice and baking soda to exfoliate the skin gently. Another method, believe it or not, is whitening toothpaste or tan removal products; we have a fantastic instant self-tan remover available.
How to Remove Fake Tan Instantly? Instant removal can be challenging, but products specifically designed for tan removal, like tan erasers, can significantly speed up the process. We would recommend that you try Tan Junkies Self Tan eraser for that instant removal!
Your Journey to a Perfect Tan Starts Now!
So there you have it – your comprehensive guide to self-tanning for beginners. We’ve covered everything from skin preparation and application techniques to answering your most pressing self-tanning questions.

Remember, the key to a flawless fake tan lies in careful preparation, correct application, and regular maintenance. You can achieve that gorgeous, streak-free glow with these tips and tricks.

At Tan Junkie, we’re passionate about helping you look and feel your best. Whether you’re a first-timer or a seasoned pro, everyone deserves to enjoy the confidence that comes with a beautiful tan. So why wait? Dive into the world of home self-tanning and embrace your inner Tan Junkie!

Our Experts

• Cait Cassagne, spray-tan stylist
• Holly Furlong, spray-tan specialist
• Mally Harrington, spray-tan stylist
• Sabrina Johnson, spray-tan stylist
• Meredith Lynch, writer
• Rio Viera-Newton, aesthetician and Strategist beauty columnist

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