How to Find the Best Self-Tanning Lotion (That Won’t Leave You Streaky or Orange)

editor@purewow.com (PureWow)
·13 mins read

There are many things we love about fall (see: foliage, pumpkins and cozy knits) but shorter days and a waning summer tan are not among them. While we can’t do much about losing daylight, we can resurrect our bronzed skin with the right self-tanner. Of the hundreds of formulas out there, we narrowed it down to 20 of our best self-tanning lotion picks based on scent (or lack thereof), ease of application, color and longevity.

RELATED: Self-Tanning Tips and Tricks Only an Expert Celebrity Tanner Would Know

1. Jergens Natural Glow Instant Sun

Easiest to Apply

First up, a drugstore classic. This airy mousse is a longtime favorite for self-tanners everywhere thanks to its spreadable texture and quick dry down. Just pump it into your palms and smooth it over your skin, taking care not to apply too much around drier areas like your knees, elbows and ankles. The mousse dries down within a minute or so and the subtle tint is immediately visible with the color deepening over the next few hours. “This stuff is awesome and so underrated in my opinion,” says one fan. “I'd definitely recommend this for people with naturally lighter skin tones who want a dark tan that actually looks natural,” she adds. Available in Light Bronze and Deep Bronze.

$11 at Amazon

2. St. Tropez Self Tan Bronzing Mousse

Best Overall

This bestselling brand has pretty much become synonymous with the words “self-tanner.” With a nod of approval from the golden goddess herself, Gisele Bündchen, it’s as fool-proof as these things go thanks to the lightweight mousse formula. Apply it using the applicator mitt for a smooth, streak-free tan that lasts up to 10 days. Take it from a previous tanning bed goer who would “lay in the tanning bed almost EVERY SINGLE DAY. And sometimes I would go to the beach right after”: “I was having a chat with a girlfriend recently and I complimented her on her tan and asked her where she goes tanning at. And she told me she uses self-tanning mousse. So I got this. And holy crap! It was SO easy to put on and dried really fast (unlike the self-sprays I’ve tried in the past). And it looks so natural!”

$42 at Amazon

3. Coola Sunless Tan Luminizing Body Serum

Best for pale skin

“I'm pretty pale normally, so I didn't want anything super drastic. This gives you a very healthy, glowy tan without looking fake,” says one reviewer (which was a shared sentiment among many of this tanning serum’s fans). With a sheer, lightweight formula and a pearlescent shimmer that instantly brightens skin, this formula uses sugar-beet derived DHA (the active ingredient that tans skin) to build a post-vacation glow that you can build on for more intensity. Another major plus is that it’s not messy. “I don't even need to wear gloves to apply it, I just wash my hands after the application and my hands and nails look perfectly fine,” says another user.

Buy it ($48)

4. Isle of Paradise Self-Tanning Water

Least Likely to Transfer

Our very own editor, Abby, is a fan of this self-tanning water because it makes her look like she “just spent a quick weekend sunning in the Hamptons.” Formulated with organic tanning actives and avocado, chia seed, and coconut oils, it’s as hydrating as it is bronzing. Another key factor to note is that this self-tanner uses a color corrective approach to help users better customize their glow to their skin tone. The peach water has skin brightening properties, the green (shown above) reduces redness and the violet water cuts down on sallow undertones. According to Abby, there are “no streaks, no gross leftover smell and, perhaps most importantly, no signs that I would soon turn orange.” Oh, and because the formula is close-to-clear, it doesn’t leave bronze streaks on your clothes or bedding.

Buy it ($28)

5. James Read Coconut Melting Tanning Balm

Best Scent

As you might glean from its name, this self-tanner is an absolute delight to use. It is indeed coconutty—both in scent and base—and it does, in fact, melt on your skin upon contact. Use the sheen of the balm as a guide to know where you’ve applied and apply sparingly before bed for best results. Enriched with organic coconut oil, the balm leaves your skin silky soft and gives you just a touch of tan that lasts up to five days. A final tip: Since the formula is packed with coconut oil, we’d recommend storing it in the fridge when not in use.

$35 at Amazon

6. Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Glow Pad for Body

Best for Travel

Fans of the dermatologist’s daily exfoliating pads will appreciate that these, as they offer a nice exfoliation and come in similar, single-use packets that are easy to toss into a bag. To use, simply swipe the textured towel across your skin in circular motions; the color will begin to develop within an hour. The multitasking wipes also have other skincare benefits, like firming and slowing down hair growth, while also relieving any irritation and preventing blemishes thanks to lactic acid, caffeine, capislow and vitamin D in the formula. One reviewer, who is a self-proclaimed “spray tan professional” and “self-tanner addict” shared her best application tips for using these, which we found very helpful: “Start on your thighs in circular motions. Work down your legs (leave your feet) move to bottom, back, tummy, chest, sides, shoulders, arms, feet, hands, knees, elbows, neck. Use [a] baby wipe/wash cloth with soap to wipe down [the] inside of hands, nails and toe nails,” for the most even results.

Buy it ($45)

7. Tan-Luxe The Body Illuminating Self-Tan Drops

Most Customizable

If you’re a bit wary of self-tanner and want to ease into it, we’d recommend these customizable drops. Add anywhere between two and six drops with your usual moisturizer and apply it to your skin in circular motions. The more drops you use, the deeper the color. (Just make sure to wash your hands well after applying.) The formula has raspberry seed oil, vitamin E, and aloe vera, which hydrates skin as well. Longtime users recommend using the drops “sparingly over the course of two or three applications,” adding no more than one to two drops each time for the most natural looking results. Another a pro for going slow? There’s minimal “fake tanning smell or staining.”

Buy it ($59)

8. Clarins Self Tanning Instant Gel

Best for Oily Skin

One of the OGs of the self-tanning game, this lightweight gel has garnered legions of loyal fans for its golden, never orange results. The smooth consistency and fast absorption make it a favorite for folks who don’t like the slick feeling that some other formulas give. As one reviewer describes, it’s “easy, no gloves, no tricks and gimmicks, gives great color with no spots or streaks” and it “fades evenly,” even as you shower and exfoliate.

Buy it ($40)

9. Josie Maran Argan Liquid Gold Self-Tanning Oil

Best for Dry Skin

Packed with 100 percent pure argan oil and coconut water, this liquid gold nourishes parched limbs while the natural DHA in the formula builds into a soft caramel-toned tan within hours. The subtle scent is pleasant, and we appreciate that each bottle comes with a velvety soft mitt to ensure a streak-free (and enjoyable) application. Fans of this hydrating oil also noted that it “it does not wear off in a patchy way,” but rather “it fades gradually and evenly.”

Buy it ($39)

10. Banana Boat Summer Color Self-Tanning Lotion

Best Budget

At seven bucks a tube, it’s the most cost-effective self-tanner of the bunch. The lotion formula is loaded with vitamin E and aloe vera extract, which give it glide and leave your skin smooth. Don’t just take our word for it though; there are over 2,000 glowing reviews on Amazon alone praising the budget bronzer for its “natural color” and “easy application” thanks to the brown tint it has, which makes it easier to see where you’ve applied the tanner versus where you haven’t. A useful tip on application from an avid fan: Use very sparingly around ankles, elbows, and knees. Once applied, wash [your] hands very thoroughly making sure you dry in between your fingers, then wipe the backs of [your] hands on the backs of your knees (which are often overlooked and look rather funny when they don’t match the rest of your skin).

$7 at Amazon

11. Bondi Sands Self Tanning Foam

Best for a Deep Tan

It’s safe to say that the Aussies know a thing or two about tanning. This import from down unda promises “the ultimate Australian tan in minutes,” meaning a deeply bronzed glow. Using an applicator mitt, smooth the foam over your legs, arms and body in long, quick sweeping motions. Note: This formula is stickier than some and you have to be careful not to get your skin wet for at least an hour, after which point you can shower with warm water and gently pat dry to finish. An expert self-tanner extolled this formula saying it gave her “the deepest darkest color [she] has ever seen in [her] entire life.”

$24 at Amazon

12. Neutrogena Micromist Airbrush Sunless Tanning Spray

Best for Acne-Prone Skin

If you frequently deal with breakouts below your neck (i.e., bacne and chestne), this spray tanner is a safe choice. It’s oil-free and non-comedogenic so it won’t clog pores, and it has witch hazel to soothe skin. We also like the micromist formula that gives you an even application without the need to rub or massage on and it sprays at all angles so you can better reach your back. Make sure you spray in a well-ventilated area and keep the nozzle at least six inches away from your skin to ensure a subtle, even glow.

$10 at Amazon

13. Vita Liberata Self Tanning Gradual Lotion

Best for Sensitive Noses

One the biggest complaints that comes with self-tanners, in general, is the slightly burned scent it gives off as it develops. Though it’s difficult to find one that eliminates that odor completely, this lotion comes the closest thanks to their “Odour Remove™ Technology” and organic, non-toxic ingredients. The creamy formula applies clear like a lotion and gradually builds into a subtle tan without staining your clothes or bedding. The only knock, according to one user, is that “it is perhaps a little too subtle,” in case you’re expecting a bigger color payoff.

Buy it ($20)

14. Alba Botanica Sunless Tanner

Best for Sensitive Skin

If you’re looking for more color with fewer chemicals, this paraben, phthalate and synthetic fragrance-free formula is a solid bet. Instead, the creamy lotion is loaded with ingredients like shea butter and sweet almond oil to smooth and soothe easily irritated skin, while delivering a nice, golden glow. One fan claimed that it feels “like you’re putting on regular lotion except you end up with a natural looking color” that doesn’t look splotchy or streaky. “I even use it on my face and doesn't irritate my skin or cause breakouts,” raves another.

$10 at Amazon

15. Beauty by Earth Self Tanner

The Fan Favorite

With a whopping nearly 9,000 reviews on Amazon, this top selling tanner has a cleaner formula than most (mostly organic ingredients like organic shea butter, aloe vera leaf juice, witch hazel extract and jojoba seed oil to name a few) and a “thick texture that goes on slightly white so you can see where you’ve put it.” According to fans, it has a “nice light coconut/vanilla scent” that’s “not as strong a smell as some self-tanners” and it develops into a “very natural tan color” that takes you “from ghostly to golden.” Given the thicker consistency, it does require some extra rubbing in, but rest assured, the additional effort is worth the glow.

$30 at Amazon

16. L’Oreal Sublime Bronze Hydrating Self-Tanning Water Mousse

Best for Beginners

It’s hard to find fault with this drugstore fave. For starters, it has a clear, transfer-proof mousse formula that disappears into your skin as soon as you apply it, so you don’t get any staining, streaking or sticky feeling. There’s also coconut water and vitamin E in the formula so it softens skin, while giving you an even, natural-looking tan over the next four to eight hours. As one reviewer described, “it applies like water so you can literally wipe it all over your body like water, unlike a cream. Creams tend to stick too much to dry or creased areas causing that blotchy look. This didn't leave ANY blotchy areas. I like that it's buildable and doesn't just give an instant medium or dark tan, so you manage your level of intensity. This is one of the easiest and nicest tanners I've used.”

$12 at Amazon

17. Sephora Collection Tinted Self-Tanning Body Mist

Best for Fast Results

If you’re looking for a quick boost of color, try this bronzing mist that adds an instant warmth to your skin upon application (and a deeper tan as it develops throughout the day). The mist sprays on easily and evenly and dries quickly without dripping all over. Some reviewers likened it to getting a professional spray tan because of how smooth and even the results look. “It’s amazing. I never use self-tanner and applied [this] myself after exfoliating/moisturizing. It set in very quickly, did not streak or smudge. I am beyond pleased,” says one fan.

Buy it ($19)

18. The Organic Pharmacy Self Tan

Cleanest Ingredients

If you're conscious about the ingredients in your products, try this UK import, which uses an Ecocert approved DHA, derived from sugar beet, to deliver a healthier (and healthy-looking) tan. Boosted with aloe vera, coconut oil, shea butter and jojoba, it moisturizes skin, while giving you a streak-free bronze. “I have a tendency to get eczema on my legs and this has been hydrating,” says one reviewer.

Buy it ($69)

19. Vita Liberata Phenomenal 2-3 Week Tan Mousse

Longest Lasting

Another hit from this Irish import, this long-lasting mousse goes on smoothly without streaking and has little to no scent. It dries quickly, comes in three shades (dark, medium or fair) for your desired level of tan, and promises to last anywhere between two and three weeks, as its name implies, before fading subtly like a natural tan would. “This stuff looks very natural and does not fade in a spotty way,” agrees one longtime user.

Buy it ($54)

20. Sisley Paris Self Tanning Hydrating Body Skin Care

Best Splurge

Leave it to a luxe skincare brand like Sisley to turn self-tanning into a spa experience. With a plush, velvety mitt and an equally plush, skin-moisturizing formula, this cream has a nice slip to it and keeps skin moisturized and radiant, while imparting a golden glow that doesn’t look too dark or orange. Hibiscus flower extract in the formula gently exfoliates so you get a more even tan. (Psst, use code “OLIVELA” for 10 percent off your order.)

Buy it ($132)

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