Cheat Sheet: Which Self-Tanner Formula Is Best For You?

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Cheat Sheet: Which Self-Tanner Formula Is Best For You? featured image
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This article first appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of New Beauty. Click here to subscribe

Self-tanners can get a bad rap for being smelly and streaky, but modern formulas make it easier than ever to get a sun-kissed glow—no UV rays required.

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Gradual Lotion

What it is: Essentially body lotion with a lower level of DHA (the active ingredient that tans the skin) added into it, these formulas develop slowly on the skin and “are great for the cautious self-tanner,” says Amanda Harrington, founder of her eponymous self-tanning brand. Gradual tanning lotions are a favorite among all skin types, but especially those with dry skin because most also contain moisturizers like shea butter and coconut oil. You may need to reapply these formulas every couple days to maintain a consistent result

Who it’s best for: “The lotion base is great for new and avid tanners alike, as well as men, because it’s simple—it’s a formulation we’re all familiar with,” says Silver Goodwin, brand educator for Vita Liberata, stressing the need for exfoliating prior to applying any tanner. “This ensures a radiant, even tan, as DHA clings to super-dry areas.” And though it’s applied like regular body lotion, don’t forget to wash your hands when done to avoid oompa-loompa palms the next day

One to Try: Post-shower, use Vita Liberata The Fabulous Gradual Tanning Lotion ($20) every day for a week to develop a beautiful tan.

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Mousse + Foam

What they are: Mousses and foams contain a surfactant to give them a light, airy texture, making them easy to blend. “They’re also fast-drying due to the air bubbles, allowing you to avoid the classic self-tan drip and streak disasters,” Harrington says.

Who they’re best for: They can be a bit drying, so they’re great for those with oily skin. And because they dry quickly, they’re ideal for speedy application; however, it’s for this same reason that mousses and foams may be better for more experienced self-tanners. “Wait at least 10 minutes before dressing after applying, and always apply any self-tanner in a cool, dry area,” Harrington says. “In a steamy bathroom, humidity, water and sweat can break down the tanner, creating a streaky mess.”

One to Try: “My Body Mousse ($50) is a soft soufflé that glides on and melts into skin like a body cream,” says Harrington.

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Water + Mist

What they are: “Self-tanning waters are the closest you can get to a spray tan at home,” says Jules Von Hep, founder of Isle of Paradise. They spray out in mist form and feel like water on the skin.

Who they’re best for: These are good for beginners, Von Hep says, as the application method is very similar to applying SPF at the beach: just spray on and rub in. “The wetter your skin is when you apply, the deeper the glow will be,” he explains. “Skin should be saturated with the mist first and then you can massage it in.” Sprays are also an easy way to apply tanner to hard-to-reach areas like the back.

One to Try: Use Isle of Paradise Self-Tanning Water ($28) to refresh a facial tan in between full-body applications, or as a makeup setting spray. In the warmer months, Von Hep suggests keeping it in the fridge for a refreshing application.

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What they are: Individually wrapped cloths that are pre-saturated with self-tanner and formulated for face or body.

Who they’re best for: “Jetsetters and those on-the-go because they come pre-soaked and ready for use, no extra tools needed,” says Sephora beauty director Melinda Solares. “Just apply to dry skin in circular motions until the towelette is nearly dry, then wash your hands immediately and follow with your favorite face or body moisturizer.”

One to Try: Infused with a clear self-tanning formula, TanTowel Body Tan Towelettes ($29) give skin a natural-looking tan in just a few hours.

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What they are: These usually come in an oil base and are meant to be mixed into a face or body moisturizer. “Drops are a tanning concentrate, so they need to be diluted with another cosmetic formulation,” says Von Hep. First-timers can start with one or two drops and work up to five or more, depending on the desired tan intensity.

Who they’re best for: Those who don’t want to add another formula to their routine, but want the effect of a tan. However, Harrington says her issue with drops is that you can’t really tell if they are compatible with the product you’re mixing them into. “For example, oil can break down a tan and retinol can accelerate fading. And because most drops are oil-based, they can also cause breakouts, so check the ingredients if you’re prone to acne.”

Two to Try: For the face, we like vegan and fragrance-free +Lux Unfiltered No.12 Bronzing Face Drops ($42). For the body, Tan-Luxe The Body Illuminating Self-Tan Drops ($59) offer the bonus of a Cellutone Complex that helps reduce the look of cellulite.

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In-Shower Lotion

What it is: A gradual self-tanning lotion that can be applied to wet skin during or at the end of a shower. Some formulas require waiting a few minutes and then rinsing off; others don’t require either to work. Both options are generally transferproof and allow you to pat-dry and get dressed right away, and the tan develops gradually. “In-shower tanner has a higher level of DHA, which is meant to help make it work quicker because you usually rinse it off quickly. However, I find it takes a few applications to develop,” says Solares.

Who it’s best for: The ultimate multitasker who wants to save time in their routine, or the self-tan pro who wants an option to touch-up or deepen their existing faux tan.

One to Try: A dime-size of Jergens Natural Glow Wet Skin Moisturizer for Body ($9) on each arm and a quarter-size on each leg are the expert-recommended amounts to create a bronzed, even glow.

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Tool Time

Though tanning mitts don’t typically come with self-tanner, and not all are created equal, most pros consider them a necessary accessory. They also come in a variety of textures: Von Hep prefers foam-like mitts; Goodwin likes a soft velour or velvet finish. “It comes down to what you find to distribute product more evenly,” says Von Hep.

Harrington prefers a different method: “I stopped using mitts about 15 years ago and developed my own line of tanning brushes instead,” she explains. “The reason is that mitts tend to absorb most of the product, and because their surface is flat, they don’t work well in tricky areas like the fingers, ankles, hairline and forearms. Brushes blend and buff while also allowing you to contour.” Solares says latex-free, nitrile gloves work well, too, for self-tanners who are more advanced.

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