What the best self-tanner does

  • Gives you a natural tone. The biggest complaint we see about various self-tanning products is that it leaves the user with an odd, unnatural tint -- usually orange, but sometimes brown or green. We largely ignore those reviews (unless there are quite a lot of them) simply because that's more than likely not the fault of the self-tanner. Products react differently on different skin tones and not every self-tanner will work for everyone. What turns one person's skin a lovely shade of gold may turn another's a sickly shade of green.
  • Covers evenly. No one wants to end up with streaks and uneven color when their self-tanner finally dries. The best self-tanners go on evenly and smoothly. Many have tints that give you immediate feedback as to where you've already applied it, making it easier to avoid too much or too little overlap. Gradual tanners tend to be more forgiving, while you have to be more careful with instant tanners. Also, practice makes perfect, the more you use the product, the better you'll get at applying it properly.
  • Applies easily. Spray tanners are some of the most difficult types to apply and there's a learning curve to getting them just right. You also have to be careful where you're spraying so your entire bathroom (or any other area where you use it) doesn't end up with a light coat of "paint." Lotions and gels are the easiest to apply, while foams and mousses may be a bit more challenging.
  • Smells pleasant. Virtually all self-tanners have some scent, but some have scents that are much stronger than others. Keep in mind that scent is a highly personal preference. What smells just fine to one person may be more than another can bear. In addition, we found many reports of people who could not even smell their self-tanner, but it repelled their significant other.

Know before you go

What is your skin tone now? If you have fair skin, you'll want to choose a sunless tanner that offers a light shade or promises a gradual tan. If you have darker skin, you may only see noticeable results from a medium/dark shade of tanner. We saw many comments from those with darker skin that they saw absolutely no difference when using a gradual tanner. Spray tanners also seem to work best for darker skin tones, according to experts.

What's your skin type? If your skin is dry, a gel or lotion-based tanner is best, whereas mousses and sprays are better for normal to oily skin. Wipes can work well for most skin types. Many self-tanners now contain a moisturizer.

How much time do you have? All self-tanners take a while to dry, but some are quicker than others. In general, mousse-type tanners dry the most quickly, with lotions and gels a close second. Spray tanners can take quite a while -- 30 minutes to an hour or two. Be sure you have time to dry off before you dress or go to bed or it can wear off on your tan or sheets.

How quickly do you need it? Instant tanners give you a quick burst of color, but they take a few hours to fully develop. Gradual tanners can take days to see results. One quick shortcut is tinted tanners, which can give the impression of darker skin immediately -- though some tints tend to look splotchy or fake before they're washed off. Bronzers give you an immediate glow, but they are temporary and will wash off with your next cleansing.

Are you sensitive to fragrances? We can't stress enough how many different reactions we see to the scents in self-tanners. We suggest that if you have any sensitivities to scent that you sniff before you settle.

Value expectations: The dollars and cents of it

Although some drugstore self-tanners are highly affordable, most of the top self-tanners are a bit pricey per ounce, especially when you consider how much you have to use to cover your entire body. In addition, what works great for one person may turn another orange -- or the fragrance may be unbearable. One way to be sure that you don't end up with your self-tanner collecting dust in the bathroom cupboard is to request sample sizes. Almost every department store brand has sample sizes available; this can help keep you from paying top price for something you can't use.

Useful tips for using a self-tanner

  • Practice in advance. Don't decide to use a self-tanner for the first time a couple of hours before a big event. We saw many tales of woe from those who decided to self tan a few hours before prom or a significant business event. Plan in advance and be sure the self-tanner you choose works for you -- because they don't wash off and will take several days to fade.
  • Wash your hands. Unless you want to end up with a "tani-cure," be sure to wash your hands after applying a self-tanner. Even if you use a mitt or applicator pad, users say you may not realize you have gotten some of the tanner on your fingers, which can result in a dirty nails look that's not appealing.

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 Self-Tanners: Super easy to apply, lotion, gel, foam and towelette self-tanners will give you a beautiful glow in an instant or over a few days. They come in a range of shades, too, for every skin type.

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.

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.

Back to top