Experts say that if you've never tried a self-tanning product before, tanning lotions, gels, oils, foams or towelettes are a good place to start. They tend to be very easy to apply, most have moisturizing properties, and they're more affordable than some other types of self-tanners.
Jergens Natural Glow Daily Moisturizer (Est. $12 per 10 oz.) is the one product we saw that makes it on virtually every "Best of" roundup and gets high marks from both users and independent expert reviewers. It truly does impart a very natural-looking tint that appears gradually and subtly. Most buy it for exactly that reason -- they don't want a sudden change in their appearance -- or because they just want an ongoing tint of color to brighten their skin.
While you may want to supplement this Jergens product with a facial moisturizer if you use it on your face, experts say it's a good choice as an all-over body moisturizer -- unlike many other types of self-tanners. It also blends well, with a minimum of streaking or uneven color spots. This particular formulation is in a new, pump-style packaging, and users say that makes it even easier to apply as they can do so with one hand. Jergens Natural Glow comes in two shades, fair to medium and medium to tan, and in several formulations, including quick-tan options, tan extenders, firming, and even one with an SPF of 20.
If you want your tan and you want it now, Clarins Self Tanning Instant Gel (Est. $37 per 4.5 oz.) gets raves for its performance, providing a quick, dark tan that users say goes on smoothly and evenly. Gels take longer to dry than lotions, but you can still expect to be able to dress in about 30 minutes or so without getting color on your clothes. Both the Jergens natural glow and the Clarins Self Tanning gel get mixed reviews for odor -- some say it's pleasant or unnoticeable, others say it's quite obvious and unpleasant.
St. Tropez makes a full line of self-tanners, and St. Tropez Self Tan Bronzing Mousse (Est. $40 for 8 oz.) is a consistent hit with experts and users. It was our former "Best Reviewed" sunless tanner, but improvements in other formulas dropped it down the list a bit for us -- especially since it contains ingredients that can irritate sensitive skin and may be drying. Still, if that's not a problem for you, reviewers say this bronzing mousse creates a subtle, natural-looking glow that is easy to apply. Mousse formulations are said to dry more quickly than other types, and St. Tropez claims that this formula dries in about 60 seconds. Users say that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but it does dry pretty fast.
Another popular choice from St. Tropez is their Everyday Body Gradual Tan (Est. $30 for 6.7 oz.). Reviewers rave about its subtle, natural glow and say that it is extremely forgiving of uneven application thanks to its gradual build-up. It includes a mitt that some reviewers love, and others say gets in the way of a smooth application. This mousse also comes in two shades, light/medium and medium/dark.
We didn't see any expert reviews for Fake Bake Flawless (Est. $10 for 6 oz.), but it gets a lot of love from thousands of user reviewers who say it's a great self-tanner with a very true, natural color that never strikes a sour note. They also say that, compared to other self-tanners, it's a great value for the price. It give you immediate color and most say it lasts for several days, although others say it wears off quickly and you have to reapply it frequently.
One of the handiest ways to apply self tanner is to use a pre-moistened wipe, and Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta Glow Pad for Body (Est. $30 for 8 wipes) is one that's recommended by several expert reviewers. The best news about this towelette is that it's fragrance-free and contains antioxidants, as the best skin care products do. It has a silky, pleasant texture, say reviewers and is much easier to use than traditional self-tanners. On the downside, it's pricier than larger, bottled formulations.
If you want an inexpensive towelette option, Thermalabs Self Tan Towelettes (Est. $15 for 20) are an alternative that's super-popular with consumers. While they don't garner any expert reviews, we spotted user reviews that say they give you a lovely, "sun-kissed" glow that looks real, not fake. They are also reported as generally easy to use, although some reviewers say they're so thin you have to be careful that they don't roll or tear. Still, at the price, they're definitely worth trying.
Elsewhere in this report:
Best reviewed self-tanners: Whether you want a gradual tan or need to brighten up your look before the sun goes down, these are the top lotions, gels, sprays and powders for the face and body.
Best spray tan: Experts agree: spray tans give you the best coverage, offer lasting color, and look very natural. These are the top choices for spray-on self-tanners.
Best self-tanners for the face: Adding a hint of color to your complexion will brighten everyone's day. These are the best self-tanners and bronzers for your face and décolleté.
Buying Guide: There is a bewildering array of self-tanning products. Check out our recommendations and suggestion for what to look for when shopping for the best self-tanner for your skin type.
Our Sources: These are the expert and user reviews and recommendations we used to find the best self-tanners. They are ranked in order of credibility and usefulness.