Self-tanners give you a healthy glow year 'round
Unless you've been hiding under a soundproof beach umbrella for the past decade or so, you probably know that experts say tanning is a bad idea, whether it's a "real" suntan, or one you get in a tanning booth. On the medical side, sun exposure can contribute to several kinds of skin cancer. On the beauty side, it can cause wrinkles.
It's hard news to swallow because almost everyone looks better with a nice tan.
The good news is that self-tanners can help you maintain a beautiful, healthy glow all year without the potentially unhealthy exposure to harmful UV rays. Self-tanners are available as lotions, gels, foams, sprays and towelettes. Regardless of the formula or application style, all work in essentially the same way: by staining the outermost surface of the skin with dihydroxyacetone (DHA) and erythrulose, both of which are safe for use on the skin.
Some tanners work gradually, with a very low concentration of DHA (this also means they typically have less of that telltale self-tanner scent) and are applied daily to build up a tan slowly. Results from gradual tanners aren't as immediate, but because they're applied over several sessions, it's harder to noticeably mess them up. In addition, many people prefer to subtly increase their skin tone, so it's not such a startling change in appearance.
Instant tanners, on the other hand, are the way to go if you want to create a tanned appearance quickly. In reality, all sunless tanners -- even so-called instant tanners -- take a minimum of a few hours to fully develop, but some types speed up the process by including a tint or bronzer. The tint will wash off as soon as you shower, but, in the meantime, it acts as a guide for application and offers instant gratification -- and color.
Whichever type of sunless tanner you choose, it's important to remember that your bronzed skin won't offer you any protection from harmful UV rays. Check out our report on sunscreens to prevent sunburn and sun damage.
Sprays tanning products can be self-applied or done professionally in a tanning salon. They take a bit longer to dry than a mousse, but promise full-body, even color with a quick application. Many experts say this type of application has the steepest learning curve, and several note that, for best results, having a friend spray it on is helpful.
Lotions, gels and oils are considered the easiest to apply, making them a particularly good option for first timers. Because they dry slowly, you have a little extra leeway in wiping or washing off any misplaced product. The downside of that slow drying time is that you can't put clothing on for 10 to 30 minutes while the product soaks in. Lotions and gels are usually best for normal to dry skin, but that will depend on the specific formula.
Mousses and foams are applied much like a lotion, but dry very quickly, making them less time-consuming, but also less foolproof and more challenging for a new user to apply.
Tanning wipes, which are towelettes doused in tanning solution, are best for spot treatments (like sprucing up tan lines) but not for full-body applications because of their tendency to cause streaking. They are popular for travel, though, thanks to their portability.
The nose knows
We cannot discuss sunless tanners without mentioning the smell. All sunless-tanning products have a distinct odor associated with them, caused by DHA. DHA is a derivative of sugar that reacts with dead skin cells, permanently coloring the cells right at the surface of the skin.
DHA has its own unique scent, but the odor of a given product will vary depending upon the amount of DHA it contains, as well as other ingredients that are part of its formula. One of the biggest contradictions we saw when researching self-tanning products was when it came to rating the smell. The same product that some don't notice a particularly strong odor in, or that they describe as "pleasant," might send other users straight to the shower to wash off the "offensive stench."
Odor issues aside, DHA is perfectly safe for skin, but that doesn't mean sunless tanners are completely free of ingredient list scrutiny. Like most cosmetics, there's increasing consumer interest in "natural" products that either avoid potentially harmful ingredients like parabens or fragrances, or add ingredients like shea butter and plant oils to moisturize and condition skin.
If you prefer something even more gradual, skin-friendly and temporary than a self-tanner, see our separate report on facial moisturizers where we recommend a few good tinted moisturizers. And don't forget -- self-tanners do not have sunscreen so you still need to protect your skin from the sun's damaging rays. For that, head on over to our report on sunscreens for some top recommendations.
How we chose the best self-tanners
There are a lot of excellent, expert sources for beauty products, and self-tanners are no exception. ConsumerReports.org and PaulasChoice.com both offer comprehensive reviews of products along with helpful background information on the subject of self-tanning. We also consulted the beauty product awards and roundups from sources such as Allure.com, TotalBeauty.com, Elle and Harper's Bazaar, because they study beauty and they know what works for their customers and readers. Even WebMD had an in-depth reviews of self-tanners that included recommendations.
Beauty product retail sites like Ulta.com and Sephora.com are invaluable in gauging real-world results from these self-tanners. Users posting on those sites tend to be very knowledgeable about beauty products, including specific ingredients and how they work, and their input is often sharp and focused.
We used all of these review sources to get an idea of how well each self-tanner performed (essentially, whether it provided natural-looking results and worked gradually or instantly, as promised), how easy or difficult it was to apply, how it feels on skin -- and how it smells, of course. One of these top products is sure to get your glow on.
The best spray tanners
There's no doubt about it: A professional spray tan is the ultimate in fake tans. Self-tanners in spray formula can give you the look of a professional tan in the privacy of your home, but they can also be pricey and time-consuming. Experts say spray formulas take longer to dry and have a greater learning curve when it comes to applying them properly, but once you get the hang of it, spray self-tanners offer a smooth, even color appearance. However, if you prefer something more subtle, or don't want to have to deal with figuring out how to use a spray tanner, see our discussion of the Best Tanning Lotions and Bronzers elsewhere in this report. There, we recommend easy-to-apply lotions, gels, foams, bronzers and towelettes.
The one spray tan we see that gets the most raves is L'Oreal Sublime Bronze Pro Perfect (Est. $9 for 4.6 oz.). Professional testers say it results in a very natural-looking tan with very few reports of any odd, orange or green undertones. Users agree, saying they love the professional spray tan vibe it gives them.
There's a learning curve to getting perfect results, but most say that once you've mastered the technique, using L'Oreal Sublime Bronze is quick and easy. It also dries more quickly than most spray tanners, users add. That said, to get best results, at least initially, you may want to involve a friend. Those who use the buddy system report more satisfaction with this spray tanner than those who try to go it alone. Regardless, the Pro Perfect's wide, 360 degree spray nozzle earns universal kudos.
L'Oreal Sublime Bronze supplies an instant tan, but it also darkens in a few hours. You can reapply multiple coats for even more color, but most users caution against more than two coats, saying it can cake or flake if you lay it on too thick. The color lasts a good amount of time -- several days at least - although it may lighten after a shower or two. As with all self-tanners, reviews on the perceived pleasant -- or not so pleasant -- scent are mixed.
Another spray tanner that gets great feedback from experts and is Banana Boat Summer Color Self-Tanning Mist Airbrush (Est. $20 for 15 oz.) It gets reviews that rival those of department store spray tanners, earning raves for its gentle, non-drying, alcohol-free formula. Users say it's very easy to apply and dries quickly enough that they can apply it in the morning before getting dressed for work. The color is reported as very natural and one application gives a lovely, healthy glow that most say is sufficient for an everyday tint. A few say it's difficult to use -- a complaint we see about virtually all spray-type self-tanners, which definitely have a bit of a learning curve, especially when you're trying to spray harder-to-reach areas. The majority of users like the fresh citrus scent and say the product doesn't feel too oily.
Body Drench Quick Tan Instant Self-tanning Spray (Est. $10) is another high-value, drugstore spray tanner that gets great reviews. Users say it gives a natural glow that can be adjusted with additional coats of spray. Some say they have used it for many years and that it has had no negative effects on their skin even after numerous applications. This spray tan formula gets fewer reviews for that ubiquitous "self-tanner smell" than any other we saw.
Elsewhere in this report:
Best Tanning Lotion/Bronzer | Buying Guide | Our Sources