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Self-Tanning Products: Which To Buy and How to Apply

Updated on March 18, 2015
DonnaCosmato profile image

Donna is a retired Certified Image Consultant with experience in women's fashions and cosmetics. She loves sharing insider fashion tips.

Get ready for more revealing summer fashions by using self-tanning products to give your skin a healthy glow.
Get ready for more revealing summer fashions by using self-tanning products to give your skin a healthy glow. | Source

Before you hit the beaches or the indoor tanning beds this year, consider trying self-tanning products. Why, you might ask?

  1. They are typically less expensive than mega sessions at the tanning salon.
  2. They usually do not damage the skin (and depending on the ingredients they might nourish it).
  3. In most cases, they will not cause any burning or increase your risks of health issues such as skin cancer or premature aging.

What’s not to like about that?

Self-Tanning Sprays

What is the appeal of spray on self-tanners? For starters, fake tans in a can are easy to apply; they cover the skin more evenly, and dry quicker. In addition, most spray tanners do not have an unpleasant odor.

Even a novice can apply a glowing airbrushed tan in just minutes. The plus of spray tanners is because you are not rubbing the product directly on the skin, there is less chance of streaking or patches of uneven coloration. Three to try are:

  • Hawaiian Tropic Island Radiance Self Tanner
  • Neutrogena MicroMist ® Airbrush Sunless Tanner
  • Sephora Sevin Nyne Tanning Mist

How Do You Tan?

What's Your Favorite Method of Getting a Gorgeous Dark Brown Tan?

See results

Sunless Tanning Lotions

Self-tanning lotions have been available for years but have not always enjoyed a good reputation. Many formulas are thin and runny, and some may cause patches of skin (especially on the heels, elbows, and kneecaps) to turn orange if not applied properly. In addition, these products are designed to darken the skin gradually and must be reapplied daily to “build” a tan.

On the plus side, you are in complete control of the shade of your fake tan when you use a lotion. If you want a darker shade, just apply more. Most lotions are streak-free and dry fast and while actual times will vary from product to product, generally the color begins to develop in about two to four hours.

Some brands to consider:

  • Hawaiian Tropic T2 Max Indoor Tanning Lotion
  • Jergens Natural Glow Revitalizing Daily Moisturizer (also available in special formulation for the face)
  • L’Oreal Sublime Glow for the Body (available as a spray or lotion)
  • Neutrogena Build-a-Tan Gradual Sunless Lotion
  • Sephora Hampton Sun Sunless Tanning Lotion

Specialty Products

Consider buying a specially formulated product to give the face a sun kissed look such facial gels and creams that contain a self-tanning ingredient. Use these on the face and décolleté to protect your skin and produce a golden healthy glow.

Good facial products:

  • Clarins Liquid Bronze Self-Tanner for the Face
  • Shiseido Brilliant Bronze Tinted Self Tanning Cream

Another nice product to keep on hand is self-tanning towelettes. It’s hard to get a natural looking tan on the joints because the product collects in the body creases, and applying a thin coat to these areas requires some gentle handling. Single use towels impregnated with a sunless tanning product are a great way to apply a thin coat to these areas.Tan Towel Full Body Classic Towelettes are a good brand that works wonders.

How to Apply Self-tanning Lotion to Your Legs

Application Tips for Sunless Tanning Lotions

What you will need to apply your product:

  • Exfoliating scrub
  • Self-tanning product of your choice
  • Bath brush with sponge head
  • Sterile gloves
  • Several cosmetic sponges

Exfoliate the skin first using the body scrub of your choice, and then shave your legs. Shower or bathe to remove all traces of the exfoliating product. Pat the skin almost dry but leave it slightly damp as the tanning lotion will apply more smoothly on the damp skin. Don the gloves and proceed:

  1. Apply a little of the tanning product to a cosmetic sponge and apply to the body, starting at the legs and working up.
  2. Apply the product lightly and do the joints last. For instance, cover the entire bottom leg from foot to thigh, then use the remaining lotion on the sponge, and swipe as lightly as possible over the heels and kneecaps. Do not rub the lotion into the joints or the product may become too concentrated and streak or discolor.
  3. After you have applied the tanning lotion to the entire body, remove and discard the gloves. Use the sponge to apply the lotion lightly to your hands.
  4. Tip: If you can't apply the lotion to your back yourself and you don't have anyone to help you, apply some tanning lotion to the sponge head of a bath brush and use it to coat the back lightly with the lotion.
  5. Wait for the appropriate amount of time (depending on the package instructions that came with your self-tanner) and then put your clothes on.
  6. Remember that self-tanners are designed to work gradually so you will need to repeat this procedure daily until you reach the desired shade of tan.

Note: Prepare the face by using your normal exfoliating and cleansing products, but do not apply any moisturizing or supplemental products. These products may inhibit the self-tanning action of your facial tanning product. Remember to apply the product to the throat and ears for a natural look.

You may read recommendations that you coat the fingertips and nails with a petroleum jelly before applying sunless tanning products, but I personally disagree with that advice. Using gloves protects the nails and a manicure without exposing your hands to a petroleum-based product. The risk of using petroleum-based cosmetics is greater than the small cost of the gloves.

In addition, having to scrub the tanning product off your hands when you finish can cause splotching on the tops of the hands. In my experience, you'll get a smooth, even tan every time when you use the gloves and sponges to apply the lotion.

How to Apply Sunless Tanning Lotion to Your Face

Shopping Tips

One major disadvantage of sunless tanning products is the ingredient that makes them so effective – DHA or dihydroxyacetone – also makes them stinky. Because of that, you might want to do your homework before you make a final selection on your tanning products particularly if you are planning to shop online.

If you buy a product with an odor you just cannot stand, most major drugstore or retail chains will let you return or exchange the product, but if you have to package something up and ship it back to an online vendor, it could end up costing you more than it is worth in time and effort.

Insider Secrets

As a former salon technician who has airbrushed artificial tans on hundreds of clients, I can tell you from my experience that you will get the most consistent and natural-looking tan by using a spray-on tanner. However, these products tend to be pricer than lotions, and you may have to buy several cans so you can refresh your tan periodically and keep it look great all season long.

If price is an issue for you, it is more economical to buy the sunless tanning lotions, but you will be investing more time in the application process.

What Happens If You Don’t Like Your Self Tan?

The beauty of using self-tanning products is they wear off quickly, and you are not exposing your skin to excessive ultraviolet radiation.

If you do not like the results you get, or you think applying them is too labor and time intensive, you do have other options such as indoor or outdoor tanning or a combination of both.

Before tanning, remember to apply a sun protective product with a good SPF if you are tanning outdoors.

You will need to buy specially formulated tanning lotions for tanning beds for indoor tanning sessions. Before opting for either of these methods, however, you might want to ask yourself this question: Are tanning beds safe?


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