If the number of competing products is any indicator, instant self-tanners are the most popular sunless tanning products. Nearly every cosmetics company with a skincare line offers at least one self-tanning mousse, gel, lotion or spray. In addition to all of those products, there are a handful of cosmetics brands that exclusively sell sunless tanners, adding dozens more options into the mix.
Despite the overwhelming array of options, all instant sunless tanners work in essentially the same way: You apply the formula all over your body, let it develop for several hours, and your skin tone will become a few shades darker (gradual sunless tanners require more than one application). The intensity of the result depends on the product -- some offer a few shades for different skin tones, while others offer only one, which may have drastic results on fair skin, but only subtle results on darker skin.
The factor that has the biggest impact on results, though, could be the formula. Some are easier to apply than others. For example, St. Tropez Bronzing Mousse (Est. $42 for 8 oz.) is smoothed on like a lotion and dries in just minutes. The quick drying time makes it easy to apply and get out the door, but it also allows for mistakes to soak in before they can be rectified. For beginners, Clarins Self Tanning Instant Gel (Est. $35 for 4.2 oz.) may be a better bet. This formula dries slowly (making it more time-consuming), allowing users to wipe or wash off any unwanted product.
However, that's not all that separates these two popular picks. The Clarins Self Tanning Gel, which only comes in one shade, creates very subtle color, according to reviewers. Some love this, as it makes it appropriate for use on the face and body, but others are disappointed by the lackluster results. St. Tropez, also only available in one shade, offers far more noticeable results, according to reviewers. Plus, St. Tropez is tinted, making it easy to see where it's been applied.
Of course, the most important consideration for most reviewers is whether or not results look natural, and this is where St. Tropez Bronzing Mousse pulls ahead. While Elle and Harper's Bazaar editors both love Clarins Self Tanning Instant Gel, some MakeupAlley.com reviewers say the results can look unnatural. We didn't see this complaint for St. Tropez.
Typically, sunless tanners have an odor due to the DHA it contains, and there's no exception with these two products. Reviewers say that neither smell as bad as some products they've tried before, but they're far from perfect. Many reviewers, including expert Paula Begoun, love the feel of Clarins; she praises the "silky lotion base that doesn't feel thick or greasy," but others disagree.
However, Paula Begoun says St. Tropez Bronzing Mousse is laden with several fragrance chemicals that can dry out skin and cause unseen damage to collagen. User reviews don't reflect this, as we didn't see any complaints about irritation, but some users note the formula can feel a bit sticky.
Despite the cons, we name St. Tropez Bronzing Mousse our Best Reviewed sunless tanner. Users say the included mitt and tinted formula make it easy to apply evenly, plus it offers ultra-natural color and dries in just minutes. For beginners or those who want more subtle results, Clarins Self Tanning Instant Gel is a decent option, but gradual self-tanners may be a better bet.
Natural self-tanners are increasingly popular with consumers, but it's still not clear what really makes a self-tanner "natural." The products we found making this claim typically rely on the same active ingredients as other products, but add ingredients for moisturizing or other perceived benefits.
Tarte Brazilliance (Est. $37 for 5.5 ounces) is part temporary bronzer and part self-tanner, and includes maracuja oil, which is supposed to improve skin health. Paula Begoun says the product provides a temporary, natural-looking bronze until you shower, but also includes a small amount of DHA that creates a long-lasting, subtle tan. However, Begoun doesn't buy into the claims associated with maracuja oil.
Alba Botanica Natural Very Emollient Sunless Tanner (Est. $11 for 4 oz.) is another "natural" option. It relies on dihydroxyacetone (DHA) and erythrulose like other sunless tanners, and Paula Begoun knocks it for its use of fragrances. But Alba does offer some added ingredients including several plant oils. "Those additions are helpful and make this worth considering as something more than just a self tanner," Begoun notes.
Natural or not, performance wins out among self-tanners. Many Sephora.com reviewers are pleased with the final results, but several reviewers, including an editor at Refinery29.com find that Tarte's short-term bronzer can look streaky or discolored. While it takes longer to see results from Alba Botanica -- some say results develop over a full 24 hours -- reviewers find the final tan to be very natural-looking. This formula only comes in one shade that's pretty faint on most users' skin, but users at MakeupAlley.com point out that the product can be reapplied for a deeper tan.
When it comes to application, Alba Botanica has the upper hand between these two natural products. Tarte Brazilliance can take up to an hour, to dry according to the editors of PaulasChoice.com, whereas Alba Botanica takes only 15 minutes to dry -- less time than most lotion or gel formulas. While some reviewers love Tarte's included mitt, others find it too cumbersome and prefer to use their hands.
Between these two "natural" picks, Alba Botanica Natural Very Emollient Sunless Tanner is probably the better bet. The natural ingredients it does include are more beneficial, and the results and application process are better according to reviewers. Still, neither compares to the best-reviewed St. Tropez Bronzing Mousse, which stands out for better results and a quicker application.