The best tanning lotions, foams, drops, and more to get a golden glow at home.

By Samantha Driscoll
May 27, 2020
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This is part of our new weekly series called Test Drive, where our team of beauty experts demystify products and tools, as well as explore new techniques IRL.

My first and only self-tanning experience was when I was about 10 years old. I pumped a generous amount of express tanning mousse onto my leg at Bath & Body Works and was confused that there was no color. Well, a few hours later, I had a huge dark circle on my leg right where I applied the product. It wasn’t exactly the sun-kissed look I had imagined, so I quickly gave up on trying to get a faux glow.

But as summer gets closer, I’ve found myself wanting to give my pale skin some much-needed color. It’s important to wear SPF to prevent skin cancer, wrinkles, and dark spots, and self-tanner is a safe way to get color without any harmful risks. And since I’m home, it's the perfect opportunity to find the right self-tanner without worrying about anyone seeing my trial and error.

So this time, I did some homework before applying a self-tanner. First I reached out to Sophie Evans, celebrity tanning expert for St. Tropez to understand how self-tanners actually work and get tips on how to apply them. Lesson number one: Self-tanner contains DHA (dihydroxyacetone), a natural ingredient that comes from sugar fructose. DHA reacts with the top layer of your skin and turns it a darker color. “The natural chemical reaction is similar to what happens after you bite into an apple and expose it to oxygen," says Evans. "The apple starts turning brown.” The effect lasts until your skin naturally exfoliates, so take your time and follow these steps to get the most even, natural self-tanner application.

Credit: Courtesy of Samantha Driscoll

Prep Your Skin

It’s important to make sure your skin is prepped before applying any self-tanners. “You want to start with clean, product-free skin," Evans says. "Make sure you exfoliate, and if you have just waxed wait 24 hours, otherwise the tan may develop spotty.” Next, apply a body lotion like the Curél Fragrance-Free Daily Moisture Hand & Body Lotion ($8, Target) on any dry areas including elbows, knees, hands, wrists, feet, and the back of your heels. “These areas will turn darker than the rest of the body, and the moisturizer will dilute your tan in those specific areas.”

Use an Applicator Mitt

While most tanning products can be applied with your hands alone, an applicator mitt (or latex glove) comes in handy. Not only does it keep your palms clean, but it also makes applying the products a lot easier, according to Evans. With all self-tanning products, the key is to completely cover your skin with the product. “You can never apply too much self-tanner because your skin can only absorb a certain amount of product,” Evans says. “Your skin will only become as dark as the product has been formulated to go, not by how much product you’ve applied.” Meaning, the more DHA the product contains, the darker your tan will be. Regular self-tanners have the most DHA and give you a tan in as little as one hour. Gradual tanners have lower levels, so you get a subtle color after a few applications. For areas like the hands and feet, make sure that the product is well blended since tans develop a lot faster on thicker skin.

Wait for the Tanner to Dry

Self-tanners absorb into your skin at different speeds depending on whether you used a mousse, drops, lotion, or towelettes. Once the product dries, you can sit down and get dressed. Evans advises avoiding clothing that is too tight that will rub against the areas where you applied tanner. “If you have been using a self-tan with an instant guide color (built-in bronzer), you may experience bronzer going onto your bed sheets or clothing, particularly if you get hot and sweat," she says. "Once the guide color has been washed off with your first shower there won’t be any transfer.” During the drying time, I recommend wearing dark clothes to avoid staining them. Express tanners can be washed off after a few hours depending on how dark you want your tan to turn out, but gradual tanners don’t need to be washed off once they are absorbed.

Correct Your Mistakes

After the tanner has had time to develop, you might begin to notice streaks or uneven color. Don't panic. It might only be excess guide color that will most likely wash off the next time you shower. If you still see areas you missed or dark patches, try exfoliating.  “If you have ended up with dark spots, use an exfoliating mitt to lightly buff off any mistakes and make that area lighter," says Evans. "If you notice a light area, simply exfoliate and reapply the product.” During my last self-tanner application, I had missed several spots on my arms and ankles. Using Evans’ advice, I exfoliated and applied product to the areas I had missed, and the next day the light spots were gone.

Care for Your Color

Self-tanning requires extra skincare maintenance to keep up your glow. Evans advises moisturizing every day and avoiding oils that can fade your self-tan quicker. To make sure your tan is fading evenly and to prevent color build-up, you should lightly exfoliate every three to four days. For boosting and maintaining your tan, Evans recommends applying your favorite self-tanner every seven to 10 days and using a gradual tanner halfway through the week

After learning how to easily apply self-tanners and avoid any rookie mistakes, I tested out as many drops, wipes, and foams as I could. These were my favorites.

Credit: Courtesy of COOLA

I love this dual-function tanning mitt because I only need one glove instead of having to buy both an applicator and exfoliator separately. Not only does it help wash away any dark patches after using a self-tanner, but it’s also great for pre-tan prep to make sure skin is ready to go.

Buy It: COOLA Sunless Tan Applicator Mitt, ($7, COOLA)

Credit: Courtesy of Sephora

I love these drops because you can customize the amount of color you want on your face or body. Because this product is intended to be mixed with a daily serum or moisturizer, you can add fewer drops if you want less color or more drops if you want to be a little bit darker. The medium drops give me a warm golden color after just a few uses, and they are formulated to even out skin tone as they tan, which helps the color look natural on everyone. There are also light and dark drops available depending on your desired level of tan.

Buy It: Isle of Paradise Medium Self-Tanning Drops, ($29, Sephora)

Credit: Courtesy of Ulta

Because I’m not touching a lot of product as I would with a lotion or foam, these tanning wipes let me skip using an applicator mitt. I find that using two towelettes ensures I don’t miss any spots. Although this product is gradual, you can simply use another towelette the day after you first apply it if you want a deeper color. 

Buy It: SOL by Jergens Sunless Tanning Towelettes, ($24, Ulta)

Credit: Courtesy of Supergoop

For the days that the weather is nice and I manage to escape my apartment, I use this spray-lotion that also has SPF to protect my skin from the sun’s harmful rays. This gradual tanner rubs into skin quickly and turns skin a shade darker just a few hours after application.

Buy It: Healthy Glow Sunless Tan, ($38, Supergoop)

Credit: Courtesy of Luna Bronze

“Gradual lotions are easy to apply but you may have to use them two or three times to build your tan,” Evans says. I love this moisturizer because it’s easy to apply like regular lotion and it gives me a subtle, natural-looking tan after just one use.

Buy It: Glow Gradual Tanning Moisturizer, ($29, Luna Bronze)

Credit: Courtesy of Amazon

If you hate the feeling of product on your skin, stick with mousse self-tanners since they dry quickly. This water mousse works a little bit faster than a gradual self-tanner. Not only does it give you a quick tan within four to eight hours of application, but it’s also formulated with Vitamin E and coconut water to leave your skin soft, smooth, and hydrated after each use.

Buy It: L’Oréal Paris Sublime Bronze Water Mousse, ($12, Amazon)

Credit: Courtesy of Ulta

With express tanning options, you can customize your glow by how long you wait to shower. “The product will stop developing after three hours whether you shower or not, but if you want your glow lighter rinse it off within one to three hours,” says Evans. This gel tanner is easy to apply, even for a beginner like me, and it’s also very conditioning on my dry skin.

Buy It: St. Tropez Express Bronzing Gel, ($44, Ulta)


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