Perfecting a golden glow requires weeks - possibly even months - of sun bathing. Combine that with the terrifying chance that your outdoor lounging might result in skin cancer, and it’s easy to understand how self tanner became such a popular beauty product.
Applying self tanner is fairly simple once you know what you’re doing - but let’s be real, many of us don’t. Even celebs aren’t immune to application issues (seriously, check out some pics of celeb self-tanner disasters), and these fake-tan fails still happen with a professional beauty team on call! We don’t want you to end up with unsightly streaks or orange-hued skin, so we’re here to help. That’s why we’ve compiled a list of questions and concerns about self tanner to help you rock your self-tanning adventurs.
Choosing the Best Self Tanner
How do I pick a self tanner?
There are 4 main factors you should consider when you choose a self tanner:
- Skin tone
- Skin type
- Application area
- Self-tanning skills
It’s also important to consider your budget before you splurge for a high-end product that might not be much better than a drugstore self tanner. You may also want to look for a self tanner that smells good since the scent tends to linger for a day or two after you use it.
Some self tanners use a one-hue-works-for-everyone approach, while others are categorized by how dark the tanner gets. If you have fair skin, you may want to opt for a light hue so that your faux glow looks natural.
Your skin type matters because it affects the shade and formula you choose. Dry skin absorbs color easily (and unevenly), so don’t choose a deep hue unless you’re okay with this. Oily skin works with nearly every formula type, but you may want to dab your face with a towel or blotting paper first.
Consider the application area before you select a self tanner. Can you access hard-to-reach areas like the middle of your back with a towelette or lotion, or do you need a spray bottle? Do you really want to spray your face with a bottle of self tanner, or would you do better with a different application formula?
Think about your self-tanning skills before you choose a quick-drying formula. If you take too long, you’ll end up with uneven splotches of color on your skin.
What types of self tanner are available?
Self tanner comes in a wide assortment of formulas, including:
- Moist towelettes
- Loose powder
You can buy self tanner designed specifically for your face or opt for an all-over formula. It comes in different hues, ranging from light bronze to rich brown, so you can easily find one that’s perfect for you. Some brands include an applicator or mitt.
Many self tanners are scented, so they smell similar to sunscreen or tropical body sprays. Choose an unscented formula if you’re sensitive to fragrances or don’t want anyone to suspect that your tan came from a bottle.
Is self tanner the same as tanning lotion?
No, unless you’re referring to sunless tanning lotion. Regular tanning lotion helps you darken your skin with help from UV rays. Sunless tanning lotion darkens your skin using a chemical reaction that stains the dead cells on your outer layer of skin. We’ll talk more about that in the next question.
What is in self tanner?
Self tanner typically contains ingredients that moisturize and darken your skin, as well as fragrances and preservatives. Preservatives can be natural or synthetic, and they keep the self tanner from developing a rancid odor.
Dihydroxyacetone, commonly called DHA, is an ingredient found in most self tanners. It’s a sugar (but not the kind you eat!) that reacts with the amino acids in your skin cells. This chemical reaction only darkens the dead cells in the top layer of skin, which partly explains why self tanner fades quickly. Your body sheds up to 40,000 dead skin cells per day, so your sunless tan can’t last forever.
But wait - why are tattoos permanent when sunless tanner isn’t? Well, it’s because your immune system goes crazy when you get inked and attempts to get rid of the tattoo. This process backfires, resulting in permanent branding (although your ink might fade a bit). The tattoo ends up trapped between your dermis (inner skin) and epidermis (outer skin), whereas self tanner only affects the epidermis. Remember, the epidermis sheds cells on a daily basis.
Can I use self tanner on my face?
Yes, you certainly can - as long as you’re careful. We don’t recommend getting self tanner in your eyes or nose because the product’s ingredients can irritate these delicate parts. Keep it away from your mouth, too - after all, nobody wants a mouth full of lotion or cream.
Whenever possible, use a sunless tanner specifically designed for your face rather than your entire body. Save the sprays for your back and reach for a gel, lotion, or cream instead.
We’ll give you the lowdown on how to apply self tanner to your face in the section titled “The Application Process”.
What’s the best self tanner?
We listed 5 of our favorite self tanners in the article above, and we 100% feel like Fake Bake Flawless Self Tanner is the best of the best. St. Tropez Self Tan Bronzing Mousse, Beauty by Earth Dye-Free Natural Sunless Self Tanner, SEPHORA COLLECTION Tinted Self-Tanning Body Mist, and Banana Boat Self-Tanning Lotion are the other self tanners that scored spots on our list of favorites.
Keep in mind that we chose these self tanners for different reasons, so read our pros and cons for each one before you decide if our favorite should also be your favorite.
The Application Process
How do you apply self tanner?
Depends on the type of self tanner. You can apply lotion, cream, oil, and mousse with your hands, a mitt, or a mini spatula-like applicator. When needed, we recommend wearing gloves made of an easy-to-clean material, such as latex. Avoid cloth or wool gloves because self tanner can stain them.
You can spray a bottled formula directly on your skin or apply it to a soft, smooth washcloth and then dab it on your skin. Make sure you’re okay with staining the washcloth; self tanner can be difficult to remove from fabric.
Loose powder requires a large, fluffy brush for application. Keep your bathroom vent or fan pointed away from you while you apply the powder so it doesn’t make a mess. You may also want to stand on a towel or in the tub so powder doesn’t end up all over the floor.
How do you apply self tanner without streaks?
Start by exfoliating your skin with a loofah or washcloth, but don’t get too rough. You don’t want to apply self tanner to irritated skin. This can be painful and possibly even cause an infection if you have abrasions in your skin.
Apply a light moisturizer to your skin and let it soak in completely. Give it about an hour or so if you’ve got that much time.
Wipe any remaining residue from the moisturizer off of your hands before you apply sunless tanner. Oil, lotion, and water can all make sunless tanner streaky.
Gently rub sunless tanner into your skin using a circular motion or spray it evenly across your body. Work in sections, giving each one time to dry before you move to the next one. If you move too quickly, you might accidentally smear some of your self tanner. Don’t forget to blend it into your elbows and ankles!
Self tanner usually takes about 10 minutes to dry, but some formulas take a little longer. These are just general recommendations, so read the instructions on the back of your bottle to make sure you’re using a method specific to your brand.
How do you apply self tanner to your back?
We’re not going to lie - unless you’re super flexible with long arms, it’s hard to reach the middle of your back! Allure says you should start with the spots you can easily reach, like the back of your neck and your lower back, if you’re using a mousse tanner.
After you coat all the easy-to-reach spots with sunless tanner, secure a mitt to a wooden spoon or long-handled loofah. Add a couple dollops of sunless tanner to the mitt, and make sure it’s distributed evenly.
Move the mitt around your back, starting from the top and working your way toward the bottom. Don’t forget to move side to side, too. Allure suggests running the mitt across your lower back and hips in large circles until you finish blending everything. You can fix mistakes with a tanning towelette (if you can reach the affected area) or mist.
Now, most of these instructions won’t work with a spray bottle. If you’ve got one of those, stand with your back to a large mirror, such as a wall mirror or the mirror above your bathroom sink. If you have a smaller mirror, hold it in one hand and place the spray bottle in your other hand. Use the smaller mirror to track your progress as you spray your back, coating it in an up-and-down, side-to-side motion.
How do you apply self tanner to your face?
Like your back, the face is a tricky part to treat with self tanner. Start with the general tips we detailed above:
- Gently exfoliate your face and neck
- Moisturize with an oil-free formula
- Wash your hands
- Wait for your face and hands to dry before you apply self tanner
After you finish the basics, try these tips to create a natural glow on your face:
- Dab self tanner on the spots where the sun hits your face, such as your nose, cheeks, and forehead
- Gently massage the self tanner into these areas, then blend it toward the rest of your face
- Watch out for dry spots around your nose and mouth - they’ll make your self tanner streaky!
- Blend a small amount of self tanner into your hairline so your scalp matches your face
- Lightly coat your ears with self tanner, but don’t put any inside of the ear canal! You might prefer to simply dust your ears with a bronzer instead
We find it helpful to pretend our self tanner is foundation. It helps us apply it evenly and remember to smooth it into our neck and decolletage.
Do I need to wear gloves when I apply sunless tanning lotion?
You don’t have to wear gloves when you apply sunless tanning lotion, but do we think you should? Yes, definitely!
Sunless tanner is notoriously difficult to remove from hands, especially if your hands are dry. We’re not talking about “I just washed my hands and dried them on a towel” dry, we’re referring to cracked, peeling skin. This type of skin absorbs sunless tanner easily, so it looks darker than it might on other parts of your body.
Plus, we’re guessing you don’t want the whole world to know that you faked your golden glow. Orange-streaked hands will totally give your secret away!
If you forget to wear gloves, wash and exfoliate your hands as soon as you finish applying your self tanner. The longer you wait, the more time the tanner has to dry and bond to your skin cells.
How long does it take self tanner to dry?
Self tanner usually dries in about 10 minutes, but the brand you use might take more (or less) time.
Some people confuse drying time with developing time, but your skin doesn’t automatically become darker after you apply self tanner. Some brands develop in a few hours, but we’ve heard reports of brands taking up to 12 hours. Check your bottle for specific details regarding this process.
I used too much self tanner - how do I fix this?
Yikes! If your skin is sun-drenched rather than sun-kissed after experimenting with self tanner, don’t freak out just yet. You’ve got options!
Start by washing and exfoliating the overly tan areas. If your whole body is too tan, you’ll need to use an exfoliating body wash and then hydrate your skin with oil.
Another option for self-tanning experiences gone wrong is to take a dip in a chlorine pool. Marie Claire claims this helps self tanner fade quickly.
You can also try wiping down your body with rubbing alcohol. Pour some on a washcloth, then gently rub it across your skin. Rubbing alcohol zaps moisture from your body, so make sure you have some lotion or oil ready when you’re done.
Depending on how desperate you are to remove your faux glow, you can also try a mixture of milk and lemon juice. This curdled liquid allegedly helps fade self tanner, but it probably won’t get rid of it completely.
If all else fails, grab a bottle of spray tan remover like Sunkissed Dual Purpose Self Tan Remover. Products like this are specifically made to erase the evidence of a fake tan.
Maintaining Your Faux Glow
How long does a fake tan last?
The length of time your spray tan lasts depends on several factors, such as:
- The brand you used
- Whether you used a mousse, gel, lotion, etc.
- How often you bathe and swim
- Whether you exfoliate or shave regularly
In general, we’ve found that most spray tans last between 5 and 10 days. Keep in mind that your tan will begin to fade before the 10-day mark approaches.
How often should I reapply self tanner?
You can reapply self tanner as often as you need to, but we recommend waiting until your first application fades away (either on its own or with help from you). That’s because your faux glow can get streaky and uneven if you continue applying layer after layer after it’s already dried.
Your bottle of self tanner may have instructions that contradict what we’ve just shared. If that’s the case, follow the guidelines for your product.
Can I go swimming after applying self tanner?
Yes, but not right away. We recommend waiting at least 8 to 10 hours (preferably 1 day) after you apply self tanner, especially if you plan to swim in a chlorine pool or a sandy beach. Chlorine and sand are both exfoliators, so they can shorten the lifespan of your tan - especially if it hasn’t fully developed yet.
Oh, and just in case you didn’t know: Self tanner doesn’t provide protection against UV rays. If you’re planning to spend a lot of time in the sun, make sure you apply sunscreen over your self tanner.
Do I need to remove self tanner or does the tan fade on its own?
You can remove self tanner if you want - we listed plenty of tips for removing self tanner above. If you don’t have time to go back and review all the details, here’s a quick summary:
- Exfoliate your body
- Swim in a chlorine pool
- Soak in a mixture of milk curdled with lemon juice
- Try a tan-erasing product like Sunkissed Dual Purpose Self Tan Remover
If you don’t actively try to remove your sunless tan, it should fade away in approximately 5 to 10 days.
Should I moisturize if I have a fake tan?
Yes, it’s okay to moisturize your spray tan even though we advise against using heavy moisturizers prior to self-tanner application. However, wait until you take your first post-tanning shower to apply moisturizer. Applying it too soon can result in streaks and smudges.
Moisturizing after your tan develops might even help extend its life, says ELLE. Just make sure you don’t use an oil-based moisturizer, as this can have the opposite effect. Use a light, creamy moisturizer immediately after you get out of the shower to lock in hydration.
Is self tanner safe?
Self tanner is generally considered safe, but read the ingredients carefully to make sure you don’t have an allergy or sensitivity to any of them.
During the application process, make sure you don’t apply the product to open wounds. This can trigger an infection or delay the healing of your wound.
Avoid getting the product in your nose, ears, mouth, or genital region. Sunless tanners usually aren’t suitable for internal use.
There has been some controversy involving DHA, an ingredient found in most self tanners. The FDA says it’s safe for external use, but some experts believe it can alter your DNA.
Our take? Follow the instructions on your bottle of self tanner carefully, and keep the potential risks in mind before you fake a golden glow.
Do self tanners cause acne?
If you’ve got acne-prone skin, we’ve got bad news for you: Yes, self tanners can cause acne.
Will it cause acne on your face, though? That depends.
Before you tan, look for a product made exclusively for the face. It may be noncomedogenic, which basically means it shouldn’t clog your pores. Avoid sunless tanning oils, as these may cause acne on your face.
Also, remember that the pre-tanning process, not the self tanner itself, might be the culprit behind facial acne. If you have sensitive skin, exfoliation may cause your skin to break out.
But hey, we do have some good news: Self tanner may help camouflage existing breakouts. It won’t make them disappear, but it can offset some of the redness associated with pimples.
I got self tanner on my clothes - will it come out?
Depends on the fabric and how well you treat the stain. Here’s what you should do if you get self tanner on your clothes:
- Flip your clothes inside out and hold them under a faucet (make sure the water is cold - warm water sets stains)
- Flip your clothing back to the regular side and apply a dab of dishwashing soap or laundry detergent
- Gently rub the soap into the stain, then rinse. Repeat several times until the stain disappears
- Wash according to the instructions on your garment(s)
If this fails, try OxiClean. Some of the writers at Faveable have personally had good luck with that.
Will my self tanner rub off on leather, microfiber, or other materials?
Don’t plop down on that sofa just yet! Well, unless you applied your self tanner at least 8 to 10 hours ago.
Self tanner does transfer onto some fabrics, especially if you rub against them before the color fully sets. This is true for furniture, bedding, and even your clothes.
What are the signs of an allergic reaction to self tanner?
Many men and women use sunless tanning products without experiencing adverse reactions, but that’s not always the case. If you have sensitive skin, you may experience contact dermatitis after applying self tanner.
Self tanner can also cause:
- A raised rash or lesions
- Hair follicle inflammation
In rare cases, you may have trouble breathing. Contact a doctor immediately, and head to the emergency room if breathing becomes increasingly difficult.
Oh, and immediately discontinue the use of any self tanner that causes a reaction, mild or otherwise.
Does self tanner expire?
Self tanner doesn’t last forever. It’s generally not unsafe to use self tanner beyond its expiration date (which might be listed as a “best by” date instead), but the product won’t be as effective - if it even works at all.
Over time, the ingredients in self tanner lose their effectiveness. They also separate from each other, which may give your sunless tanner a different texture or scent.
Why do self tanners turn you orange?
Well, not every self tanner results in an orange glow. If you or someone you know have had a bad experience with self tanner, it was probably due to one of these reasons:
- Using the wrong hue for your skin tone, such as a dark tanner for fair skin
- Applying too much product
- Massaging self tanner into skin moisturized with oil
- Using an expired (but harmless!) product
Luckily for you, you aren’t stuck looking like a worker in Willy Wonka’s candy factory forever. If your skin turns orange, gently exfoliate it with a body scrub until the orange fades into a more natural hue.
Can I use self tanner if I’m pregnant or breastfeeding?
The American Pregnancy Association says that self tanner is generally okay for pregnant women, but wait until your first trimester passes. In fact, the agency says that it’s probably safer than soaking up natural sunlight.
Self tanner is okay if you’re breastfeeding, but make sure you don’t apply any to your breasts. Per the FDA, sunless tanning products are only suitable for external use, so your precious little one might get sick if he accidentally ingests your self tanner.
Regardless of what the FDA and the American Pregnancy Association say, we suggest talking to your OB/GYN or midwife before you use self tanner. They might have different recommendations based on your unique needs.