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How to Apply Self-Tanner Like a Pro, According to Experts

Say hello to a streak-free summer!


by Jessica Toscano and Reem Khaleel May 4, 2023

Person applying product to body
Mikhail Nilov

Hey, you! Before you dive in, we want you to know that all products featured in Intrigue are independently selected by our editorial team just for you. Yes, you're *that* special. ;) But also know that when you shop, we may earn commission from links on this page.

 

Applying self-tanner can be tricky. After all, there are tanning lotions, mists, drops, and more, each with its own set of instructions and precautions that hardly touch upon application dos and don’ts. Sure, you can always slather yourself in product and hope for the best (what’s that mitt for again?), but the last thing you want is to look patchy, streaky, or orange just in time to roll out the swimwear. And since sun worshiping and indoor tanning beds are no longer viable options (ICYDK, just one indoor tanning sesh before age 35 poses a 75% increased risk of developing life-threatening skin cancer), learning how to perfect your fake bake is your best bet! That is if premature wrinkles and leathery skin aren’t on your list of life goals.


If you’re ready to apply self-tanner like a pro, follow these expert-backed tips for a streak-free glow.


1. Find the best medium for you.


When you’re greeted by lotions, serums, mousses, mists, drops, and more, choosing the right self-tanner might seem overwhelming. Thankfully, St. Tropez skin finishing expert Sophie Evans, assures there is no one medium that’s better or worse than the other. “It’s all about preference and what time of the day you are applying,” she says.


Lotions and serums can be applied super-fast, so they’re great to use if you’re running short on time. They also tend to be the most hydrating as well as soothing and are ideal for colder months when dry skin is most prevalent, or if you normally have dry or sensitive skin. Alternatively, mousses and sprays are the most lightweight and perfect for hot climates, especially if you want to ditch stickiness and color transfer. They are best for normal, combination, and oily skin types, says Evans.


The only sure way to know which medium is right for you is by testing different products, says Marie Baker, FNP-C, president and medical director of DermaCrush Medical Aesthetics. “See which one you prefer for your skin tone and ease of application,” she says. “The best self-tanners have a smooth and streak-free finish with great color and texture.”


2. Opt. for hydrating formulas.


With ingredients like hyaluronic acid, coconut oil, and glycerin, formulas now are more hydrating than ever, which is, according to Evans, one of the keys to maintaining a flawless faux tan. Self-tans fade when dead skin cells shed, she explains. So, when the skin’s really dry and dehydrated, these cells shed more quickly.


Applying self-tanner to skin that’s freshly exfoliated and moisturized will make your tan look flawless, last longer, and fade more evenly. That’s why it’s important to make a purchase that’s clinically proven to hydrate skin, like St. Tropez’s Classic Bronzing Mousse, which Evans says keeps skin moisturized for 24 hours. “When self-tanners have hydrating ingredients such as niacinamide, vitamin E, and/or hyaluronic acid, [they] produce an even tan [with reduced redness],” adds Baker.


You also want to search for brands who are open about the process in which they derive DHA, which can be extracted naturally from beets or sugarcane, or chemically with formaldehyde. The latter speeds up the process but makes the DHA lower quality and drying to the skin, says Evans. Before purchasing, review the brand’s label or website for verbiage that says its DHA was naturally derived.


3. Exfoliate first.


Before you apply self-tanner, it’s important to prep your skin, so that your tan not only applies and fades evenly but is long-lasting. To do this, Evans recommends an exfoliator that’s non-oily (oils can affect the outcome of your application, she explains) to slough off dead skin as well as remove any lingering lotion, deodorant, and self-tanner — all of which can affect the color of your fresh tan.


“It’s important to exfoliate before applying self-tanner, but not over-exfoliate to the point where your skin becomes extremely dry,” says Baker. To maintain the skin’s barrier, try a chemical exfoliator[1] like European Wax Center Face and Body Exfoliating Gel ($40), which uses alpha hydroxy acids to offer gentle exfoliation sans residue. After you’re done exfoliating, Baker also suggests applying lotion to your hands (up to the wrist), your feet (up to and including the ankles), and your elbows and knees. “[This process] will keep [self-tanning products] from accumulating in these areas, making them patchy and dark,” she says.


If you plan to shave, you’ll also want to do it during prep time and before moisturizing since shaving lightly removes the top layer of skin. Conversely, if you wax or use depilatories, it’s best to hold off on self-tanning for at least 24 hours post-hair removal; otherwise, your color can become spotty and uneven, says Evans.

 

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4. Moisturize regularly.


Remember earlier when we said the key to a flawless faux tan is hydrated skin? That’s also what’s going to help extend your tan. Consider a lotion with DNA-repair enzymes, suggests Ronald Moy, MD, FAAD, a board-certified medical and cosmetic dermatologist in Beverly Hills and the founder of Cellular MD, a bio-advanced product line manufactured with clean ingredients to reduce skin cancer rates for those in medical need. Although it’s unclear why, it seems that the DNA repair enzymes — featured in Cellular MD’s Night Shield Lotion — could be linked with other pathways, such as the production of melanin, that darken the skin for longer periods of time, he says.


You’ll also want to moisturize your hands, elbows, knees, feet, and any other areas of severely dry skin before you first apply self-tanner, recommends Evans. These areas tend to darken about five to eight times more than larger areas of the body, so moisturizing beforehand can help dilute the self-tanner upon application.


5. Don’t forget sunscreen.


Sunless tanner is not sunscreen, says Dr. Moy. It does not protect the skin from sun damage, nor does it repair past sun damage. Be sure to apply a minimum of SPF 30, like Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Sunscreen, at least 15 minutes before sun exposure and about every 80 minutes thereafter to protect both your skin and your tan.


6. Touch-up as needed.


Some people, when touching up their tan, continuously apply fresh layers of self-tanner over their already existing tan, says Evans. This is known as dreaded self-tan build-up and can prevent your tan from fading evenly. Instead, use an exfoliating mitt to completely remove your faux color at least once every three weeks before applying a fresh layer of self-tanner. If you’re using a tanning lotion that requires a gradual build-up of color, most companies recommend exfoliating weekly to prevent patchiness and uneven tones.


If you plan to touch up with a new product, Baker warns against using it for the first time the day before a big event. “Try out the tanner with enough time to see how [you] like it, and adjust [products] if needed,” she says.


Here, the holy grails of self-tanners:


Isle of Paradise Self-Tanning Drops
Sephora

Thanks to these TikTok viral self-tanning drops, it’s super easy to add a dose of color to your moisturizer, sunscreen, or serum — whatever works best with your skin, schedule, and the weather. Pair with their body drops to reduce redness and hyperpigmentation for an all-over, even-looking tan that lasts up to five days.


Luna Bronze Eclipse Tanning Mousse
Luna Bronze

This lightweight natural and organic formula delivers the long-lasting, beach day bronze of your dreams and fades much like the real deal, too.


Bondi Sands Pure Self-Tanning Face Mist
Bondi Sands

Achieve your dream glow with this lightweight, fragrance-free face mist for sensitive skin sufferers seeking hydration sans pore-clogging ingredients.


Vichy Capital Idéal Soleil Moisturizing Self Tanner Milk
Amazon

Darken at your leisure with this gradual self-tanning lotion that’ll keep your skin nourished and smooth. Its feature of volcanic water has been clinically proven to strengthen your skin's barrier and protect it from environmental stressors like UV rays and pollution.


Blue Saint Face Self-Tanning Drops
Blue Saint

A few drops of this coconut-scented goodness deliver a plant-based golden tan as well as a healthy dose of skin probiotics to help reverse signs of sun damage and aging in just 15 minutes.


St. Tropez Self Tan Purity Bronzing Water Face Mist
Dermstore

Vitamin C and D boosters promote overall skin well-being in this translucent mist designed to give you a subtle glow in just four to eight hours.


Dolce Glow Endless Summer Vacation Box Set
Dolce Glow

This limited-edition collab between Miley Cyrus and Dolce Glow includes all of the pop star's favorite items that protect against UV exposure and leaves your skin with a sun-kissed, summer glow.


Loving Tan Medium Deluxe Face Tan
Loving Tan

Even your complexion with this weightless self-tanning cream infused with moisturizing aloe vera, green tea, pomegranate, and açai for an irresistible glow that looks natural.


Jergens Natural Glow Light Bronze Instant Sun Mousse
Jergens

Enjoy an instant tan that continues to darken hours post-application, peaks at 24 hours, and lasts for several days with this drugstore find that makes last-minute tans possible.


Coco & Eve Self Tan Travel Kit
Coco & Eve

Self-tan on the go with this travel kit featuring a fast-drying bronzing foam that smells like mango and guava and delivers a natural glow sans orange hues.


Beauty By Earth The Golden Hour Glow Fair To Medium Serum
Beauty By Earth

Use this face serum right before your favorite moisturizer or facial oil for a flawless tan that lasts up to five days.


 

1. Despite its alarming name, chemical exfoliators use safe-for-you acids (namely, alpha hydroxy acids and beta hydroxy acids) that loosen the bonds between cells to remove the top layer of dead skin along with dirt and natural oils.



 

Jessica Toscano is the founder of IntrigueMag, covering health and fitness, sex and relationships, and more.


Reem Khaleel is the Editorial Assistant at IntrigueMag and a writer from the Maldives who escapes into fictional worlds by writing her own YA rom-com novels. In addition to IntrigueMag, her writing has been featured on CBR.


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