What the best self-tanner does
- 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.
- 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.
- Won't dry out your skin or leave it greasy. If your skin is dry, a gel or lotion-based tanner is best, whereas mousses and sprays are better for normal to oily. Many self-tanners now contain a moisturizer.
Know before you go
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 clothes or sheets.
Are you willing to do the prep work? Not everyone can use a self-tanner, and there isn't a single self-tanner that will work equally well for everyone. How well a self-tanner works depends on your skin type, natural skin tone and what you've done to prepare your skin. Exfoliation and applying moisturizer are steps almost universally recommended by experts prior to applying any tanning lotion. Regardless of preparation, there is typically some trial-and-error involved in finding the right self-tanner for your skin.
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.
What is your natural skin tone? 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. Finally, some self-tanners have the option of layering applications for users who want a darker tan.
The nose knows
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. In reviews for every tanning lotion, we read at least a few complaints about the product's scent -- in most cases, opinions are divided between those who don't mind it and those who find it unbearable.
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.