The Ultimate Guide to Self-Tanning

Ditch Oompa Loompa vibes for good.

by Jessica Toscano Feb 24, 2021

Young woman tanning

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It’s around this time of year that summer begins to feel like it’s about a million months away, and many of us start to daydream about warm days and a healthy glow. If you want to look like you just came back from a month-long stay in the Caribbean without the dropping a ton of cash, hopping on a plane, and damaging your skin bit, good news is you have options. Sunless tanning products darken skin almost instantaneously and have seriously come a long way since self-tanning agent dihydroxyacetone (DHA) was first approved for external use in the late ’70s by the Food and Drug Administration.

If you’re ready to up your skin’s color saturation IRL, read on.

Seek formulas that are hydrating.

With ingredients like hyaluronic acid, coconut oil, and glycerin, formulas now are more hydrating than ever, which according to Sophie Evans, St. Tropez skin finishing expert, is one of the keys to maintaining a flawless faux tan. Self-tans fade when dead skin cells shed, she says. When the skin’s really dry and dehydrated, these cells shed quicker. Alternatively, if you apply self-tanner to skin that’s freshly exfoliated and has great moisture levels, your tan will look flawless, last longer, and also 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 moisturizes for 24 hours, she adds.

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, which speeds up the process but makes the DHA lower quality and drying to the skin, says Evans. Not to mention, it’s a known carcinogen. Before purchasing, review the brand’s label or website for verbiage that says its DHA was naturally-derived.

Find the medium best for you.

When you’re greeted by lotions, serums, mousses, sprays, and more, choosing the right self-tanner might seem overwhelming, but 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 light-weight 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.

Prepare your skin.

Before you apply self-tanner, it’s important to prep your skin, so that your tan not only applies and fades evenly, but lasts. 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.

If you plan to shave, this is also the best time since it's a form of exfoliation. 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.

Keep skin moisturized.

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 might 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.

Don’t forget sunscreen.

Sunless tanner is not sunscreen; therefore, it does not protect the skin from sun damage, nor does it repair past sun damage, says Dr. Moy. 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.

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, then reapply your formula as needed.

Here, the holy grails of self-tanners:

1. Blue Saint Face Self-Tanning Drops, $29

Blue Saint Face Self-Tanning Drops
Blue Saint

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

2. St. Tropez Self Tan Purity Bronzing Water Face Mist, $30

St. Tropez Self Tan Purity Bronzing Water Face Mist

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.

3. Luna Bronze Eclipse Tanning Mousse, $34

Luna Bronze Eclipse Tanning Mousse
Luna Bronze

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

4. Vichy Capital Idéal Soleil Moisturizing Self Tanner Milk, $20

Vichy Capital Idéal Soleil Moisturizing Self Tanner Milk

Darken at your leisure with this gradual self-tanning lotion that’ll keep your skin nourished and smooth throughout the remaining winter months. Not to mention, its feature of volcanic water has been clinically proven to strengthen your skin's barrier and ultimately, protect it from environmental stressors like UV rays and pollution.

5. Isle of Paradise Self-Tanning Drops, $29

Isle of Paradise Self-Tanning Drops

Thanks to these 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.


Jessica Toscano

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

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