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The best self tanner of 2024 — yes, you can totally fake a sun-kissed glow

With these tried and tested foams, creams and sprays, it's easier than ever to get a natural-looking tan — without the harmful skin-damaging rays

three self tanner bottles in a row
We tested the best self tanners of 2024 — drops and mousse formulas topped our list. (Amazon)

The first time I ever tried self tanner was in 2002. I was in my 20s, had an early-summer wedding to attend, a shortish dress to wear and only my splotchy-pale winter legs to pair with it. I wanted a fake tan and I wanted it fast. At the last minute, I picked up an inexpensive Jergens self-tanning product and applied it hastily with my bare hands on my un-prepped skin. The result was a streaky, uneven, too-caramel colored mess. My palms, which I'd waited too long to wash, resembled Oompa Loompas; I attended the event with my legs orange striped. Since then, a lot has changed in the world of at-home tanning, In fact, in 2024, choosing the best self tanner is easier than ever before. With an array of new formulations — from bronzing mousse to wipes to drops to traditional creams — there's a sunless tan method for most everyone, no matter your skin type or shade. If you're looking for a little summery skin glow up, self-tanning products are superior in all ways to time spent baking in the sun, decreasing your risk of skin cancer, hyperpigmentation, age spots and premature wrinkles. You just need to learn how to use them first.

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"The best way to apply self tanner is with a tanning mitt as well as makeup brushes to blend areas such as wrists, knuckles, fingers, feet and toes," says celebrity airbrush-tanning artist Kristyn Pradas (her clients include Bella and Gigi Hadid, Kendall Jenner, Kate Beckinsale, Jennifer Lawrence, Susan Sarandon and Kaley Cuoco). Pradas has been in the tanning game for more than a decade — she also owns the award-winning Pradas Glow spray-tan chain, with locations in Miami, New York and Los Angeles and has been featured as a tanning specialist on the Real Housewives of New York.

Other pro tips for applying self tanner include using less product in high crease/high texture areas such as knees an ankles — you can even dilute your self-tanner with your favorite moisturizer in these spots to ensure a more even look.

In terms of prepping skin pre-self-tan, according to the American Academy of Dermatology, the best way to get the most natural glow from self tanner is to exfoliate first (I like Bliss's Lemon Sage Body Polish for this — it's effective, affordable and doesn't smell like a cheap surf shop) and then dry skin completely. If you're not using gloves, wash your hands frequently so the product doesn't settle into your palms. And don't forget to allow time for any product to set: You should wait at least 10 minutes post application before putting on clothes.

The active ingredient in most self tanners is something called dihydroxyacetone, or DHA, a sugar compound that, when it interacts with the proteins of our skin cells, creates a temporary darkening of the skin. Dihydroxyacetone is FDA approved and safe for most skin types (though, as with any new product, you should test self tanners on a small area before a full application, particularly if you have sensitive skin). DHA creates a gradual tan, usually developing over the course of 2 to 8 hours, so don't freak out — and do not add more — if you're not seeing color right away.

I've been testing self tanners since my days as an editor at Lucky magazine — nearly 20 years. For this story, I tested 15 new (or new to me) face and body self tanners, leaving each on a week after initial application. I added those I liked to the list of standby self tanners I already know and love. I rated each product on: smell, texture, application, efficacy, development time, staying power and cost. I found self tanner mousses and foams to generally be the easiest and most fool-proof, which is why there are so many represented here. Heavier creams were (with few exceptions) harder to control. With one notable exception, I could not get self-tanning "mists" to appear smooth. Herewith, my favorite self tanners of the year.

The whipped consistency of this classic self-tanning foam is what makes it special — and especially easy to use. It glides on effortlessly (particularly when applied with its companion tanning mitt), dries fast with zero streaks and doesn't smell. The tan takes a while to develop — a full 8 hours to get the complete effect — but it also lasts: for me, it stayed in place for a week. The mousse itself has a green undertone, which means it's supposed to work best for those with cooler skin shades, but it made my warm-tone ruddy skin golden brown. St. Tropez is a trusted mainstay of the at-home tan world and this particular product currently holds nearly 13,000 5-star Amazon reviews. My only complaint is that it does transfer during the development process, if you go to bed before washing it off like I did, it will stain your sheets, even if the product appears "dry." 

  • Easy to use
  • Zero streaks
  • Golden brown tan
  • Subtle scent
  • Nonsticky
  • Long lasting
  • Some transfer to sheets and clothes during develop process
$18 at Kohl's
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$31 at Amazon$31 at Ulta Beauty

This is an excellent choice for first-time self-tanners who want to try a reliable product without shelling out too much cash. The clear formula is infused with coconut water and Vitamin E to soften skin and make for an easier application. It develops into a streak-free tan in just two hours and won't transfer to your clothes, sheets or towels while it bakes in. The color itself is subtle — if you're looking for a deeper tan, a different mousse may work better. 

  • Develops fast
  • Easy to use
  • Streak free
  • Great for fair skin
  • Long lasting
  • Adds a lighter color, may not be appropriate for those looking for a deeper tan
  • Watery solution is best applied with a mitt
$10 at Amazon
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$14 at Walmart$18 at CVS Pharmacy

Even though (or maybe because) they're TikTok famous (with more than 15 million views), I was a bit skeptical of these clear, odorless tanning "drops." However, after dropping three into my morning serum (as recommended) and applying evenly to my face and neck, the product developed into a subtle (but still noticeable) golden glow that lasted for five days. Mixing with a moisturizer, face oil or serum you already use makes Isle of Paradise drops great for sensitive skin and the fact that you can dial up the hue by just adding a drop or two more means the color is highly customized too. Last, you can choose from three shades: Light, Medium and Dark — I went with "Light" on my ruddy medium-pale skin and it made my skin more taupe colored and less red. When in doubt, go lighter — you can always build more color with a follow-up application.

  • Versatile — you can easily level up the tan factor by adding an extra drop or two
  • Comes in three shades: Light, Medium and Dark
  • Streak-free
  • Affordable (you need just two to three drops at a time)
  • Natural, non-orange look
  • May be too subtle on darker skin tones
$22 at Amazon
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$22 at Kohl's$29 at Sephora

Kristyn Pradas's own line contains an outrageous array of skin-nourishing, clinically proven, classic skin-care ingredients. The list includes hyaluronic acid, aloe vera, vitamins E and C, niacinamide, CoQ10, peptides and caffeine — all of which are meant to improve skin elasticity, many of which promote collagen production and tighten skin overall. If you're looking for a self-tanner that can pull double duty, this is the highest quality skincare product I've tried for the body, boasting a supple texture and step-by-step instructions for customizing your desired color. It comes in three shades — Ibiza Nights worked best for my skin tone, but you can also choose from Hollywood's Secret for more olive skin or Miami Vibes for those with naturally golden or neutral (ie not ruddy) skin.

  • High-quality skin-care ingredients
  • Smooth application
  • Easy-to-follow instructions
  • Develops quickly
  • Customizable, natural-looking color
  • Shades for every skin tone
  • Smaller size runs out quickly
$39 at Amazon

I don't know if I'm legally allowed to write a self tanner story without mentioning Jergens. The brand is a pioneer in the no-sun tan game, and this in-shower lotion is particularly standout. You apply it when your skin is wet (yes, ideally in or just after the shower), rub it in like you would a moisturizer, let it dry and ... that's it. The tan — a few shades darker than where you began — develops in just a few hours while you go about your life/day. The formula is white like a cream and doesn't transfer to a towel or clothes. Unlike other popular self tanners there's no wait time for getting dressed or heading to bed. It's not the best product I tried, but the results are reliable and consistent and you truly cannot beat the ease. The only two downsides for me: it has a bit of a chemical smell and you have to remember to wash your hands immediately after applying or risk the dreaded palm tan.  

  • Easy in-shower application
  • No wait time
  • Goes on like a moisturizer
  • Subtle shade
  • No color transfer
  • Strong scent
  • Lasts only 2 or 3 days
$10 at Amazon
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$10 at Walmart$10 at Target

Coco & Eve's self tanner is packed with ingredients like coconut oil, lotus extract and mango oil which are meant to reduce the lumpy appearance of cellulite and help older skin look less crepey. In the week I tried this mousse I didn't notice this (I also don't know that any product can actually deliver on these claims), but — still — this is a high-quality self tanner that left my legs a tawny light brown, developed in just two hours and lasted for 5 days. The texture of the foam is super lightweight (think ocean foam) and the included glove is velvety soft and made application a breeze. The product did settle a bit in my knees and ankles, but I was also not especially careful — blame the player here, not the game. 

  • Lightweight
  • Develops fast
  • Easy to apply
  • Natural formula
  • Green-gray base means it never looks orange
  • Pleasant scent
  • No streaking or transferring
  • Settled into knee creases
  • Small bottle doesn't last long
$41 at Amazon

I've been using these famous exfoliating + self-tanning pads since my magazine days when every beauty editor I knew raved about them (and kept a handful in her purse). They're the perfect on-the-go face self tanner, combining an anti-aging pre-treatment and a glowy-bronze hue all in one. The pads are packed with lactic and glycolic acids to slough away dead skin and they add a light, natural-looking golden tan that develops in about an hour and builds each time a new one is applied. They're not in any way a bargain, but they're a consistent, reliable and easy way to get a quick sun-kissed glow on your face (or your legs or arms — they come in body size too).

  • Easy to use
  • Portable
  • Trusted brand
  • High-quality ingredients
  • Reliable results
  • Even color
  • Could be longer lasting
  • Pricey
$39 at Amazon
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$39 at Nordstrom

If you don't want to deal with the art-project messiness of a mousse or cream, Dolce Glow's mist is the choice for you. The clean, ultra-hydrating spritz is made by tanning artist Isabel Alysa Vita (her clients include J.Lo, Salma Hayak and Kim Kardashian) and sprays on almost freakishly evenly (there's a specially designed nozzle to ensure uniformity). I used a glove and followed the handy instruction video and wound up with perfectly bronze-y legs within 3 hours. I did use a bit too much product so my legs ultimately developed to a shade or two darker than I wanted but luckily the tan hue lasted only around 3 days before it started to fade. 

  • Fast drying
  • Easy, even application
  • Good for all skin types and tones
  • Paraben-free, sulfate-free, phthalate-free, silicone-free cruelty-free and vegan
  • Non-offensive scent
  • No product transference
  • Expensive
  • Easy to go too dark
$53 at Nordstrom

There's a part of me that wants to ignore this #1 best-selling self tanner with more than 30,000 positive Amazon reviews because BY GOD, DID IT MAKE ME TAN. Within an hour of application, I looked like I'd been laying out in Ibiza for a week. This was a bit alarming, too "bronze babe" for this middle-aged mom but, listen, I'm a pale white writer lady whose skin rarely sees daylight — a tanning wimp. If you're looking to appear more sun goddess than sun-kissed, B.Tan's Tanned AF Tanner Mousse just might be the thing for you. It's a quality, cruelty-free, vegan product with no weird smell. It goes on easy and smooth and left behind zero streaks. It lasts for at least four days. Warning: It will stain your sheets (or hands or anything in its non-tan path) before it's rinsed off but, as one happy 5-star reviewer claimed, you may be "Too tan to give a damn"!

  • Deep, dark tan
  • No streaks
  • Develops in an hour
  • Affordable
  • Easy application
  • Transfers to clothing and sheets while developing
$10 at Amazon
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$13 at Ulta Beauty$13 at Sally Beauty

There's a lot to like about this cruelty-free, toxin-free, ultra-hydrating mousse from Tan-Luxe which tops many "best self tanner" lists, but ultimately the $50 price tag felt, for me, like not enough bang for your buck. 

$20 at Kohl's
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$49 at Amazon$49 at Sephora

This is a hard "No"! The American Academy of Dermatology advises applying a broad-spectrum, water-resistant SPF 30 or higher over self tanner whenever you plan on being in the sun.

What's the best way to remove self tanner?

So what if you make a mistake when applying self tanner or apply too much? Kristyn Pradas has you covered: "The best way to remove self tanner that has not yet developed — for instance from palms of your hands — is with witch hazel, or witch hazel wipes work amazingly well," she says.

If your tan is already developed and it's looking too dark or in the wrong place, Pradas has this advice: "You can make a homemade mix of baking soda and lemon juice, then, in circular motions, apply to the area you want to either lighten or remove self tanner. You may also use a loofah or a washcloth."

Lastly, for a tan that's fading unevenly: "Salt scrubs are my favorite. For dry or balanced skin I love mixing salt with jojoba oil. For extra dry skin I like to mix the salt with apricot seed oil or avocado oil. These options will help nourish your skin while you are exfoliating."

How do I find the right self tanner for my skin?

"One of the biggest mistakes people make with self tanner is thinking there is one shade or one hue for everyone, says Pradas. "Just like with makeup, certain hues look better with certain skin tones."

When in doubt, choose light options with olive-brown undertones which tend to look good on most skin tones.

What makes a good self tanner?

"People should look for a self tanner that is hydrating, glides on easily, yet dries quickly. This will ensure an easy stress-free application," says Pradas. "This will also help to prevent crease marks from developing and to prevent the self tanner from transferring to clothing leaving your skin uneven in certain areas."