Updated March 2015
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Self-tanners give you a healthy glow year 'round

Unless you've been hiding under a sound-proof 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 advice 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.

Self-tanning formulas

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.

Sprays 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.

Tanning wipes, which are towelettes doused in tanning solution, are best for spot treatments (like sprucing up tan lines) but not 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. We found Paula'sChoice.com to be particularly valuable in our research. Site owner and beauty products expert Paula Begoun and her staff review virtually every beauty product on the market, in the BeautyPedia section. Hands on testing is not done, but reviews are updated frequently and the ingredients and the manufacturers claims are scrutinized and evaluated based upon the consensus of experts in the beauty field and scientific community. We also consulted the beauty product awards and roundups from sources such as Allure.com and TotalBeauty.com, 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, MakeupAlley.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.

Elsewhere in this report:

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.

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.

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