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The Ultimate Guide to Self-Tanners

A bottle of Australian Glow One-Hour Express Self-Tan Mousse, a woman spraying COOLA Sunless Tanning Dry Mist on her arm, and a bottle of Tan-Luxe The Gradual.
Australian Glow/COOLA/Tan-Luxe

We all know by now that prolonged exposure to the sun and tanning beds can lead to premature aging or, even worse, skin cancer. Spray tans are okay, but they’re costly and not always readily available. If you prefer your skin to be bronze rather than pale, your best bet is to get a self-tanner.

Self-tanner is a product you can apply in the comfort of your own home. They’re safe, affordable, and really work. The only problem is applying a self-tanner can be a bit tricky. That’s why we’ve included some tips as well as our favorite self-tanning products, so you can keep that golden-bronze glow all year.

How to Apply Self-Tanner

A tan woman sitting on the beach next to a pink GAIYAH Self-Tanning Mitt.

As we mentioned, applying self-tanner can be a bit challenging at first. However, we’ll walk you through the process:

  1. Prep your skin. Do these five things before applying your self-tanner:
    • Take a shower.
    • Exfoliate to remove any dead skin that might make your tan appear flaky.
    • Shave so your skin is as smooth as possible.
    • Apply a bit of oil-free lotion to ensure the tanner won’t look patchy.
    • Allow your skin to completely dry before applying the tanner.
  2. Start at the bottom and work your way up. This will prevent leaving any weird marks when you bend over.
  3. Massage it into your skin in a circular motion. This will give you the most even, realistic-looking tan. Use a tanning mitt for the smoothest possible distribution and to protect your hands.
  4. Let it dry. You can’t dress immediately after using a self-tanner. Read the instructions and wait double the recommended amount of time just to be safe. Even then, it’s a good idea to dust yourself with some powder to prevent any of the product from transferring onto your clothes.
  5. Wait to shower. Avoid showering, working out, or any other activity that would cause you to sweat for at least a few hours after applying self-tanner. This will allow it to fully absorb and completely dry.

How to Remove Self-Tanner

Someone holding a bottle of St. Tropez Tan Remover next to an application mitt.
St. Tropez

If you notice any areas that are uneven, or if you just need to start over fresh, you can try these methods to remove self-tanner:

  • Exfoliate: If you notice any streaks, use a body scrub to exfoliate and fade them.
  • Jump in the pool: Chlorine will help break down and remove self-tanner.
  • Apply baby oil: Because dry skin holds more pigment, moisturizing it is a way to remove some color. Apply a thick coat of baby oil, wait about 15 minutes, and then shower it off.
  • Apply lemon juice: This won’t remove your tan completely, but it will fade it. It’s especially helpful if you’ve applied a little too much.
  • Apply a remover: When all else fails, yes, you can purchase a self-tanner remover. We recommend this Mousse from St. Tropez.

There are hundreds of self-tanners on the market. With so many different lotions, sprays, mousses, and gels to choose from, it can take quite a lot of time-consuming research to find the perfect one for you.

That’s why we did the research for you! Here are some of our favorite self-tanners.

Best Gradual: St. Tropez Gradual Tan Body Lotion

A large tube of St, Tropez Gradual Tan Body Lotion and a tan woman in a swimsuit at the beach.
St. Tropez

A gradual self-tanner is a great way to get a natural glow, because instead of making your skin go from pale to bronzed goddess in a matter of moments, your skin gradually darkens over a period of time.

St. Tropez Gradual Tan Tinted Everyday Body Lotion is an illuminating, hydrating body lotion that delivers a subtle color that darkens over time.

There’s no overpowering odor (it smells like summer in a bottle), and it’s also streak-free and incredibly easy to apply. This product will dry quickly with an even fade. You can reapply it daily, or even more often, depending on how quickly you want to darken.

Best Drugstore: L’Oréal Paris Sublime Bronze Water Mousse

The L'Oréal Sublime Bronze line.

L’Oreal Paris Sublime Bronze Water Mousse is a consistent favorite, and for good reasons: It works really well and comes in at a great price point. Because it’s a mousse, it’s incredibly lightweight and super hydrating (it’s made with coconut water and Vitamin E). It moisturizes your skin while making it appear more tan.

It delivers a very natural-looking glow, and melts into your skin quickly, drying fast with no streaks. I love that this one smells like coconuts. It’s also easy to layer: You can apply it up to three times over a 24 hour period, making the color more versatile.

Fastest: Australian Glow One-Hour Express Self-Tan Mousse

A bottle of Australian Glow One-Hour Express Self-Tan Mousse
Australian Glow

Sometimes, you need results immediately. If you’re in that sitch, pick up a bottle of Australian Glow’s One-Hour Express. Made with jojoba oil and vitamin E, this one is very hydrating and feels super smooth and lightweight when applied.

It’s very easy to use, and is made with organic ingredients for a natural-looking glow that’s free of any orange undertones. You only have to wait about two hours for it to dry, and then the color looks fantastic.

Best Mousse: Isle of Paradise Glow Clear Self-Tanning Mousse

Isle of Paradise Glow Clear Self-Tanning Mousse
Isle of Paradise

If you prefer mousse to lotion, many agree that Isle of Paradise’s Glow Clear is the best out there. This water-based mousse is easy to use and has color-correcting properties that will leave your skin looking perfect. It’s lightweight, hydrating, and creates fewer streaks.

More importantly, it delivers a natural looking bronze glow that feels good too: It’s made with moisturizing ingredients like coconut oil, chia seed oil, and avocado oil. With three different shades available, it’s easy to find something that works for your skin tone.

Best Oil: Coola Gradual Tan Dry Body Oil

Two bottles of COOLA Sunless Tan Dry Oil Mist.

Even if you’re usually not a fan of dry body oil, you might make an exception for COOLA’s Gradual Tan Dry Mist. This incredible product is so easy to use: Simply spritz it all over your skin and wait for the magic to happen.

Made with argan oil and aloe vera, it doesn’t feel too oily, but is still very hydrating. It also smells great, is made with natural ingredients, and really does allow for even application. It makes it super easy to quickly build on color.

Best for Beginners: Jergens Natural Glow + Firming Daily Moisturizer

Three tubes of Jergens Natural Glow.

We could write about Jergens Natural Glow + Firming Daily Moisturizer all day. It feels more like a body lotion than a self-tanner, which makes it much less intimidating and overwhelming than some fancier self-tanners. It’s also super affordable and easy to find.

This is meant to build up a gradual, natural glow, but you’ll likely notice a difference in immediately. Your skin will look smoother, and more even and radiant.

Natural Glow offers a subtler effect. It doesn’t really have much of a smell, nor will it discolor your hands. It’s very beginner-friendly, and it can even reduce the appearance of cellulite.

Best for Beginners

Best All Natural: Beauty by Earth Self Tanner

A tube of Beauty By Earth Self tanner surrounded by green leaves.
Beauty By Earth

Beauty by Earth’s Self Tanner is an excellent natural option for those who are more aware of what’s in their skin care products. The formula is all-natural and cruelty-free. It gives you a lovely tan without any chemicals, and the ingredients are easy to read and include things like shea butter, organic coconut oil, and Japanese green tea, so you can feel good about using it.

Most importantly? It works really well and delivers a natural-looking tan that isn’t orange or streaky. Because of the all-natural ingredients, this one is ideal for sensitive skin.

Best All Natural

Best In-Shower: Jergens Natural Glow In-Shower Moisturizer

Two bottles of Jergens Natural Glow In-shower Lotion.

For those who can’t imagine spending a ton of extra time rubbing small amounts of self-tanner in circular motions all over their body, there’s Jergens Natural Glow In-Shower Moisturizer. It doesn’t get any easier than this! After showering, simply shake off any excess water, apply this to your wet skin, and then gently pat dry.

It absorbs into skin instantly and leaves it feeling more hydrated. It works best when you use it regularly, as the color builds every reapplication—if you use it only once, you likely won’t notice much difference. After a few applications, though, you’ll notice a natural, subtle change in color.

Best Balm: James Read Gradual Tan Melting Balm

James Read Tan Coconut Melting Tanning Balm
James Read

Our favorite thing about James Read’s Gradual Tan Balm is how good it smells: tropical and fruity, but not overwhelming. It also feels incredibly hydrating. It’s made with coconut oil, so it’s extremely moisturizing in a good way.

If you’re looking for dark, bold color, this probably isn’t for you. It creates a subtler glow that’s very natural-looking. If you want something simple, minimal, and hydrating, this balm’s for you.

Best with SPF: Australian Gold Instant Bronzer with SPF 30

A woman by a pool applying Australian Gold Instant Bronzer 30 SPF.
Australian Gold

The moment you probably really wish you were more tan is when you’re lying on the beach or by the pool. That’s when you want something like Australian Gold’s Instant Bronzer and Sunscreen.

With an SPF of 30, it protects your skin from harmful UV rays, while also making it appear instantly darker, with a subtle hint of shimmer that looks gorgeous in the sun. It also smells really good, and, because it’s a gel, it’s super easy to apply. It isn’t greasy, nor does it contain any oxybenzone.

Subtlest: Tan-Luxe Illuminating Gradual Tan Lotion

A bottle of Tan-Luxe The Gradual and the whole line.

The Tan-Luxe Illuminating Gradual Tan Lotion delivers subtle, natural color that looks so real, no one would ever assume it comes from a bottle. It goes on evenly with no blotchiness or streaks, and it smells really great without being overpowering.

It’s also illuminating, so it really makes skin appear glowy, and not just darker, which helps give it that more natural look.

Best Customizable: Tan-Luxe The Body

Nine bottles of Tan-Luxe The Body Illuminating Self-Tan Drops.

Self-tanner looks different on everyone depending on your skin tone, so something that works for someone else might be too orange, dark, or light for you. But with Tan-Luxe’s The Body Illuminating Self-Tan Drops, you can create your own custom color.

You just mix one to 12 drops, depending on how dark you want your glow to be, in your favorite body moisturizer, serum, or oil. You can then apply it just like any other self-tanner. It comes in Light/Medium or Medium/Dark. It’s also made with caffeine for a firming, radiant glow.

Best Customizable

Best Firming: COOLA Organic Sunless Tan Firming Lotion

A woman applying Coola sunless tanning firming lotion to her legs.

Coola Organic Sunless Tan Firming Lotion doesn’t only make your skin look glowy and bronze, it also makes it appear tighter and more smooth. Made with shea butter and caffeine, it tightens things up gently and also hydrates at the same time.

Of course, it also delivers a beautifully subtle bronze color that melts into skin and goes on evenly with zero streaks. With organic, natural, cruelty-free ingredients, you can feel good about using this one.

Jessica Booth Jessica Booth
Jessica Booth is a freelance writer for LifeSavvy. She has been working in the editorial world as a freelance writer for over two years and previously worked as an editor for over eight years.  Jessica writes about travel, beauty, wellness, health, food, home decor, and parenting, and has reviewed and tested out products for all of those verticals over the course of her career. Read Full Bio »
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