Using self-tanners can be like playing with fire. A subpar product can leave your skin streaky and splotchy instead of evenly bronzed by the sun. There is a huge discrepancy between the best self-tanning products and the rest of the lot—most of which can be written off as products
Many people also think that self-tanners are solely used by paler people to try to build a base layer in advance of swimsuit season. This is doubly incorrect. “Self-tanners are a sun-safe way to get a glow,” says Dr. Dennis Gross, whose own self-tanner pads for face and body are among our favorite at-home options. “They should not be used as a ‘base layer’ for UV exposure.” People of all skin tones can benefit from using self-tanners as a way to get this glow, and people with darker tones can also use them to even out their complexions. And regardless of the goal or the user’s skin tone, the best self-tanning products also incorporate skin-nourishing ingredients.
Read on for advice on using self-tanners, with input from Gross. We’ll also share Robb Report’s picks below for the best self-tanner products that you can try at home.
The Most Common Self-Tanner Mistakes
According to Gross, there are four mistakes to avoid to ensure a consistent and flattering application.
- Not exfoliating before applying self-tanner: You know how exfoliation removes dead skin cells and allows for the most youthful, healthy ones to show? You want to make sure you aren’t tanning those dead cells by accident, because their eventual departure might yield splotchy patches after the fact. For this, use a physical scrub or chemical exfoliant to smooth out skin texture. Dr. Gross suggests using chemical options (like AHAs such as lactic acid and glycolic acid, and BHA like salicylic acid) since these can generate a more even finish, and leaves less room for human error when it comes to scrubbing.
- Not moisturizing: In the same vein, you also need to nourish your skin to prevent dry patches. “Self-tanner will cling to any dry patches on the skin and create an uneven tan,” says Gross. “To avoid this, use an oil-free moisturizer on the face and body, paying special attention to areas prone to dryness like the knees, elbows, or ankles.”
- Not letting the tan develop: “You want to ensure your tanning product is fully dry before washing your hands and putting on loose, dark clothing,” says Gross. For this, wait about 20 minutes, he advises, and again another 6-8 hours before showering.
- Not using SPF: Remember, self-tanner is not for “building a base layer” that ultimately lessens your need for UV defense. On the contrary: You should be using SPF 30+ every day, whether using self-tanner or not. Those skin-damning rays don’t care whether or not you’ve got a healthy glow; they can still cause premature signs of aging and increase your risk of skin cancer. But this creates one “pro-self-tanner” argument, says Gross: “Dermatologists love sunless tanners, since you can achieve a sun-kissed glow without any of the negative effects of sun exposure.” So if you are looking for results without UV exposure, these might be your best bet yet—assuming you choose the right products and apply them properly.
What to Look for in Self-Tanners—and What to Avoid
Read Gross’s self-tanner product tips below, in order to know which types of self-tanner products will guarantee satisfying results—and which ones won’t.
Characteristics of a great self-tanning product
- Multitasking benefits: You already know that exfoliation and moisturizing are important steps that ensure good self-tanner results. But even better is a product that does it all: “If you can find a self-tanning product that exfoliates, hydrates and gives a beautiful glow all in one product, you save time and money,” Gross says.
- Anti-aging ingredients: A good product will guarantee an even, radiant glow. But a great product will go beyond this baseline: “The best self-tanners actually deliver long-term skin benefits,” says Gross. “Look for self-tanners that have vitamins and antioxidants.”
- Universal use: Self-tanners aren’t a one-size-suits-all product, especially when it comes to skin tone. “Be sure to look for reviews from consumers sharing your skin tone,” Gross says. “While some formulations might look great on one skin tone, it may appear orange on others. You want to look for a tanner that looks good on all skin types.” While this universal application makes for a great product across the board, there are also certain products that are exceptional on certain skin tones—and those don’t need to be avoided, so long as you match the profile of their demo audience.
Characteristics of a subpar self-tanning product
- UV-dependent products: Some self-tanners rely on UV rays in order to build results—kind of like tanning oils and lotions themselves. “This takes away all of the benefits of using a sunless self-tanner,” Gross explains. The idea should be achieving a goal without exposing skin to UV damage.
- Mineral oils: You should always use non-comedogenic products, and mineral oil will clog pores. This is a more imperative “no-go” for oily and acne-prone skin, says Gross.
- Artificial fragrances: Artificial fragrance or perfume in any product can irritate and dry the skin, especially in sensitive-skinned folks, says Gross. Some sunless tanners try to replicate the feeling of being at the beach—you know, something coconutty or pineapple or vanilla-tinged. And hey, obviously there’s a demand for this, so we won’t yuck anybody’s yum. But if you have sensitive skin in particular, then you should choose scentless options.
The Best Sunless Self-Tanner Products
Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Self-Tanner Glow Pads for Body and Face
No, this isn’t some paid promotion: We went right to the maker of our favorite self-tanner products for the expert tips in this article. That’s because Dr. Dennis Gross’s self-tanner pads check all the boxes: They break down dead skin cells, they nourish skin, intensify the glow with vitamin D, and they deliver an even glow across the body, with the lowest risk of streaking and splotchiness.
The Grey Self-Tanning Serum
Try mixing a couple of drops of this one into your morning moisturizer, and apply it evenly across the face for a brilliant and consistent glow. While it’s a terrific tanner, the serum itself is extremely good for skin health, too: It deeply nourishes, hydrates, soothes, and fortifies the skin against pollution and UV damage.
Buy Now on Saks Fifth Avenue: $70
Typology Self-Tanning Serum
This is the most straightforward self-tanner on the roster, which you can mix with your moisturizer to get a great foundational glow. It uses DHA (Dihydroxyacetone, a key ingredient across many self tanners) to develop the tan once it interacts with your skin’s amino acids, as well as carob pulp extract to extend the life of that radiance.
St. Tropez Classic Bronzing Mousse
Here’s the brand that does self-tanning best across the board; the name “St. Tropez” alone would suggest as much. Get their tan applicator mitt and apply a beautiful, even bronze layer to your body, with no spillover onto your palms.
Tan-Luxe Super Glow SPF 30 Self-Tan Face Serum
Another key player in the self-tanner game, Tan Luxe offers a range of products targeting specific skin tones and all types of needs under the self-tanning umbrella (like a self-tanner removal splash). This serum boosts your skin’s hydration with hyaluronic acid, and it shields against UV rays with an SPF 30 base.