Sunless tanners, or self-tanners, are a favorite way to maintain a bronzed look through the winter, to hide tan lines, or to avoid sunbathing and exposure to the sun's harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. One study conducted by the Archives of Dermatology found that 33 percent of participants who were educated about sun damage and given sunless tanners were less likely to sunbathe.
Sunless tanners are available as lotions, gels, foams, sprays and towelettes. While most formulas are strictly do-it-yourself, there are also some professionally applied sprays available. Regardless of the application, 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 – though smelly – dyeing ingredients.
There are a few decisions to make before buying a sunless tanner.
Gradual self-tanners come in lotion format, have a very low concentration of DHA (this also means they typically smell less) 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.
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 develop, but some cheat the system 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.
Once you've chosen to go with instant or gradual tanning, you'll need to select a formula.
Lotions and gels are considered the easiest to apply, therefore a suitable 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 this can depend on the specific formula.
Mousses 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.
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.
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. The tint will not wash or rub off but it begins to fade as dead skin cells slough off, approximately four to six days after application. However, some products can extend the life of a tan by keeping skin moisturized.
Despite the stink, 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.
Cosmetics companies are happy to meet this consumer demand, but there is little to no federal regulation defining what "natural" is, so manufacturers can slap the label on nearly anything, causing confusion among consumers. For this reason, we have not named a single best natural self-tanner. However, we have pinpointed a few good choices throughout our report.
We identified the best sunless tanners by first surveying expert recommendations. Paula Begoun's beauty product database, Beautypedia.com, is an excellent resource for up-to-date and scientifically backed product reviews, while magazines like Allure, InStyle, Cosmopolitan, Self, Shape and others publish annual reports based on expert recommendations, editor opinions and reader tests and reviews.
Several of these sources also publish seasonal articles listing favorite picks in the self-tanner category, as do other reputable publications, including Harper's Bazaar, Health, Elle and Woman's Day magazines. Good Housekeeping shares the results of a handful of lab tests of self-tanners, and beauty websites like Refinery29.com, TotalBeauty.com and SelfTanning.com round out the professional recommendations.
We also rely heavily on user reviews on retail and enthusiast websites. Sephora.com is an excellent resource for thousands of high-end product reviews, while reviewers at MakeupAlley.com and TotalBeauty.com review products at both ends of the spectrum -- typically in great detail. 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.