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As we sit at our desks dreaming of the ocean breeze blowing through our hair, warm sand between our freshly pedicured feet, our fantasy comes to an abrupt stop when we look down and notice how our vitamin D-deprived legs basically glow in the sunlight. Sound familiar?
Since visiting a tanning salon is a huge no-no if you want cancer- and wrinkle-free skin, why not give yourself a UV-free, sun-kissed glow at home? Yes, we’re talking about self-tanner. If you have a guttural reaction to this word, we don’t blame you. Finding a tanner worthy of slathering all over your body is hard. They’re messy, they smell, they streak, and sometimes they turn you oompah-loompa orange. Not exactly the Baywatch babe look you’re going for.
Fortunately, the newer formulas out there are easier than ever to apply, sans mess or streaks. But even the best tanning products will look bad if you don’t prep your skin and apply the product properly. We asked the pros how to get a bronze-goddess glow while sidestepping any mishaps, and are proud to present to you the complete guide to getting a killer UV-ray-free tan.
Step 1: Scrub and Smooth
“The skin must be clear of all products and well exfoliated so that you are tanning fresh skin,” says Sophie Evans, tanning expert for St. Tropez. Use a body scrub to slough away dead skin cells and create a smooth canvas. Remove all deodorant, too—it can turn your armpits green when combined with self-tanner formulas! Complete any waxing or shaving 24 hours before to avoid discoloration in the pores. Plus, your tan will last longer if you don’t have to shave on top of a fresh application, says Karen Brown, founder of Ireland-based self-tanning line Karora.
Apply an oil-free moisturizer only on very dry areas, such as the elbows, knees, hands and feet, to prevent patchiness. “If unprotected, these areas can go about seven shades darker and end up looking unnatural,” Evans warns. But make sure the rest of the body is free of product. “Most moisturizers tend to act as barriers and don’t allow the DHA in self-tans to develop properly,” says Brown.
Step 2: Choose Your Formula
Lotion, spray or mousse? It really comes down to preference, Brown says, but there are some key differences between formulas.
Evans lays it all out for us:
Step 3: Apply
Evans suggests doing a color patch test on a larger area like your stomach before slathering on your whole body. Even if the formula sounds great and has skin-loving ingredients, getting the right color is really your end result. “We could put every anti-aging ingredient under the sun in a tan, but if the color isn’t right, there’s no point!”
To apply evenly, use a tanning mitt, like this one from St. Tropez. "Forget latex mitts as these will make product stick to hairs and look streaky," Brown notes. Apply in long strokes, using the flat of your hand, Evans says. Make sure to dispense enough product so that it glides easily—streaks happen when you don’t have sufficient product and are dragging at the skin to attempt an even spread.
Brown's secret for bronzing hands and feet without streaking: Do them last, and apply the formula directly to a baby wipe before swiping on skin. "It absorbs excess colour so you can gently glide and blend tan onto backs of hands, feet and ankles."
If you feel confident in your self-tanning skills, Evans suggests some cool ways you can contour your body with tanner. "Any tan will naturally make you look slimmer and more sculpted," she says, but you can take it one step further. Use a spray formula one shade darker than the rest of your body and apply to areas where you want to create definition, like under each butt cheek for a lifted effect, or under your chin to define your jawline.
Step 4: Make It Last
Self-tanning can be a lengthy process, so you want to make sure your efforts are well worth it. Evans suggests applying a light gradual tanning lotion every few days to reinforce your color and prevent it from fading too quickly. Lightly exfoliate every few days to make sure your tan fades evenly, and apply moisturizer every day after showering. Pat skin dry with a towel after bathing to avoid rubbing off your perfect bronze.
Ready to get your glow on? Check out our favorite products for a completely flawless fake tan.
From prep, to application, to post-tan care, we've found the best products for getting that perfectly bronzed look—and keeping it looking fresh and natural even as it begins to fade.
Using a body scrub will ensure skin’s a smooth, healthy canvas for optimum self-tanner results. An oil-free hydrator is key in keeping extra dry spots, like elbows and knees, from absorbing too much tanner and becoming over-pigmented.
Elemis Spa At Home Frangipani Monoi Salt Glow, $58
Buff your body with this luxurious frangipani-scented salt scrub. Its coconut oil base melts into skin to seal in moisture and nourish skin.
Kona Coffee Sugar Detox Whole Body Scrub, $28
A combination of sea salt and sugar sloughs off dead skin cells, while the caffeine from the kona coffee improves skin texture. It’s also loaded with vitamin-rich coconut oil to hydrate and replenish skin.
H2O Plus Oasis Body 24-Hour Hydrator, $25
This lightweight, oil-free moisturizer provides 24-hour hydration and replenishes dry and depleted skin with minerals and antioxidants. Perfect for those extra dry spots that need some love pre-tan.
Extremely fast drying, lightweight and transfer proof, mousse formulas are great for all skin types and super easy to apply.
L’Oréal Sublime Bronze Tinted Self-Tanning Golden Mousse, $11
Apply this lightweight, citrus-scented mousse for an instant tan that continues to develop and darken over time. It’s very buildable, and easy to maintain with weekly applications.
Vita Liberata Rapid Tan Mousse, $43
After just one hour, expect to have a light sunkissed glow; after three hours, you’ll have a dark tan. The formula is extra moisturizing, keeping skin hydrated for hours after application.
Paula’s Choice Sun 365 Self-Tanning Foam, $13
This self-tanning foam is quick drying, so you don’t have to worry about ruining your clothes or sheets, and the tinted formula helps you avoid missing any spots. In 1-3 hours, you’ll be beautifully bronzed, with some continual darkening a few hours after.
A spray-on tan formula with a 360 spray bottle will help you get those hard-to-reach spots, like the middle of your back, and provides instant gratification that darkens over time.
Karora Tinted Self Tan Mist Light/Medium, $30
Get a natural golden bronze tint with this self-tan mist that provides an instant glow to help you achieve perfectly streak-free application. Aloe, acai berry, argan and coconut oils keeps skin healthy and nourished.
Fake Bake Airbrush Instant Self Tan, $30
Perfect for hard-to-reach areas, this continuous spray fine mist can be used at any angle, giving you full control of your tan and a flawless airbrush finish.
Norvell Venetian Sunless Mist, $40
Designed to mimic the sunkissed skintones of the Mediterranean region, this ultra fine mist contains a combo of violet and brown tones blended to achieve the perfect color.
Super-hydrating and longest lasting of all the formulas, tanning lotions are great for building up to your desired shade and reaching the perfect color for your skintone.
Yon-Ka Paris Lait Auto-Bronzant Self-Tanning Milk, $50
Full of nourishing fruit extracts, shea butter, cereal germ oils, rice oil and vitamin E, this self-tanning milk hydrates and improves skin health while providing a subtle glow that takes about 4 hours to develop.
Sephora Collection Gradual Self-Tanning Body Lotion, $16
A true gradual tan lotion, this hydrating formula gives skin a golden glow that gradually darkens with each application. Apply until you get your desired color, and then use every few days to maintain.
St. Tropez Self Tan Dark Bronzing Lotion, $44
If you want an even deeper, darker tan, this dark formula is ultra-absorbent and contains innovative melanin technology to ensure your color develops to flatter your skintone. It’s also packed with antioxidants and extra skin conditioners.
If you’re allergic to DHA, the active ingredient in self-tanning products, or just aren’t ready for the commitment, you can get a bronzed glow with body makeup that washes off with soap and water.
Karora Instant Tan Wash Off, $25
This water-resistant body makeup provides flawless coverage loaded with skincare ingredients like grapeseed, horse chestnut extract, and sweet almond and macadamia oils.
Lorac Travel Size Tantalizer Body Bronzing Spray, $15
Now in a new travel size, this aerosol bronzer provides instant color, evens skintone and masks imperfections; plus, it’s water and transfer resistant and full of superstar ingredients like maracuga, camu camu, acai berry, pomegranate and vitamins A and E.
Laura Mercier Body Bronzing Makeup, $38
Apply this non-sticky, lightweight bronzing makeup for a healthy radiance and glow that washes off with soap and warm water.
Regular moisturizing and an everyday gradual tan will make your color last longer and keep fading even.
St. Tropez Tanning Essentials Everyday Gradual Tan for Body, $30
This body moisturizer with gradual tanner will keep skin healthy and hydrated while adding a gradual golden glow that will help you maintain your bottled tan for longer.
Nivea Smooth Sensation Body Lotion, $8
Shea butter and glycerin deeply hydrate the skin in a quickly absorbing formula that doesn’t leave any greasy residue.
James Read BB Gradual Face Tan Pen, $25
If despite your greatest efforts you end up with some splotchiness as your tan fades, this BB pen is perfect for filling in small areas and evening out your color. Plus, it’s super convenient so you can throw it in your bag and take it along for any self-tanning emergencies.
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