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Sun-Safe Glow: Your Guide to Bronzing Products

Tan woman sitting on outdoor cement stairs.
Coy_Creek/Shutterstock

The appeal of a summer tan is undeniable. That sun-kissed glow makes you look radiant, and sparks envy in admirers, who’ll wonder where you went on vacation. But we all know the bad news about tans: they come with the unpleasant side effects of early aging and skin cancer risks.

Enter bronzers—the products that make you look sun-kissed without the sun. These products offer a safe way to get an enviable glow on your face and body. But if you don’t know how to apply them, you could end up with that “fake tan” look most people don’t want.

When applied correctly, though, bronzing products look great on everyone. Here’s what you need to know to get your sun-safe glow on this summer.

For Your Face

Even if you don’t apply bronzing products to your body, summer makeup often looks more finished with a dose of bronzer. But there’s a wide range of formulas to choose from, and each one requires a slightly different approach.

Powder

For many people, powder bronzer is an easy way to dip a toe in this makeup trend. With powders, the application is simple, and you can easily control how much color you apply.

There are two types of powders: pressed and loose. They work mostly the same way, but loose powders carry a bigger risk of spills and mess. If you plan to keep your bronzer in your bag, pressed powder is safer.

To apply traditional powder bronzer, pick up an angled bronzer brush. Apply color to the areas of your face where the sun hits it, like the top of the forehead and cheekbones, and the top of your nose and chin. Blend it thoroughly to keep it looking natural. For an even more natural look, use a softer, fluffier brush (like a kabuki) to apply the color lightly. You can also replace your blush with bronzer for a warm, subtle summer glow.

Powder does highlight dry skin, though, so if your skin tends to be dry even in the summer, you might want to pick one of the formulas below.

Cream

Cream bronzers are also easy to use—you can even apply them with your fingers if you don’t have a brush on hand.

Apply them the same way you would a powder bronzer—either as a blush replacement or to add color to the parts of your face most likely to tan. Cream formulas sometimes register as muddy on pale skin, so apply them sparingly if you have a lighter skin tone.

Cream and liquid formulas do tend to melt off faster in the hot sun, so consider your plans for the day when picking your bronzer. You can also layer powder over cream to give it more staying power.

Liquid

Finally, liquid bronzers are great for when you want a soft, all-over glow.

While you can also apply liquid formulas to specific areas of your face, they tend to be harder to control than creams or powders. But these formulas are great for giving you a general glow. Blend a few drops all over your face to add a touch of color.

To keep it subtle, you can also dilute liquid bronzer with your regular foundation. Always blend thoroughly—especially at your jawline—to keep it looking natural.

For Your Body

Tan woman sitting in the shade of a bridge with her phone.
Zadorozhna Natalia/Shutterstock

There are also bronzers for your body. They’re not the same as self-tanners, which provide lasting artificial color. Instead, bronzers only stay on until you wash them off, but they can still help you get the all-over glow you want. Here are some formulas to choose from.

Powder

A powder bronzer can work well on your body, too, and you can use the same one you used on your face. Using a big, fluffy brush, selectively apply it where the sun might hit, such as on your shoulders and décolletage.

Just keep in mind that any bronzer you apply to your body can rub off on your clothes. If you’re wearing light-colored clothing or something that easily stains, skip the body bronzer.

Liquid

Liquid is one of the most common formulas for body bronzers as it’s easier to apply to larger areas. You can rub liquid bronzer into your shins, shoulders, and any other exposed body part.

Your hands will blend liquid bronzer nicely, but wash them off afterward, so the color doesn’t transfer elsewhere. Alternatively, you can use a large brush to apply and blend.

Spray

Body bronzers are also available as sprays for fast, easy application. This option is great if you want to apply glow to large areas of your body, such as all over your legs. Many spray bronzers don’t need to be blended unless you accidentally apply it too heavily or unevenly.

Choosing the Right Bronzer for You

Once you’ve decided on the best formula and application method, you’ll find there’s still a wide range of products to choose from. Here’s how to narrow down the selection.

Which Shade Is Right?

The right bronzer shade for you is typically about two to three shades darker than your natural skin tone.

For people with very pale or dark skin, picking the right shade can pose a challenge. If you have pale skin, consider skipping actual bronzer products, which will probably be too dark. Instead, look for a foundation that’s a couple of shades darker than your skin tone.

If you have dark skin, consider picking a bronzer with extra shimmer or a warm, reddish tint. This can help the product show up well, even if it’s not much darker than your natural skin tone.

Shimmer or Matte?

Whether you choose shimmer or matte formulas is up to you.

Shimmer bronzers tend to stand out and make more of a statement, while mattes look softer and more natural. If you want something to apply all over your face, matte is usually the best choice, as shimmer can look extra-artificial. But if the shimmer is subtle, it can lend an appealing glow.

Most body bronzers have shimmer since matte formulas that work for your face are often too dull for the rest of your skin. The level of shimmer is totally up to you: the more there is, the more dramatic the effect will be.

Sheer or Full Coverage?

Each bronzer formula also includes sheer and full-coverage options. Sheer formulas offer more subtlety for a natural look, while opaque ones provide a more dramatic finish. If you choose an opaque product, make sure to start with a small amount, and gradually build up to the shade you want.


If you love the look of a summertime tan, we strongly recommend you choose bronzer instead of the sun. Even the laziest makeup-wearers can find a formula that’s quick and easy to apply so that you can get the glow without the risk. But don’t forget to wear sunscreen too—this guide will help you pick the right one.

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a Seattle-based writer and editor with a Master's in Writing Studies from Saint Joseph's University. Her work has appeared in publications like Racked, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and Rum Punch Press. She was awarded a 2017 Writing Between the Vines residency.  Read Full Bio »

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