In the year 2020, we are well aware of the damage the sun can do to our skin (hello, UV rays are responsible for causing over 90% of non-melanoma skin cancers and up to 85% of melanoma). With those kinds of stats, gone are the days were it was “cool” to slather yourself in baby oil and fry outside in the name of getting a good tan. Instead, self-tanning products allow us to get that golden-bronze glow, without the harmful effects of UV rays. And honestly, they’ve come a long way from your mother’s OG Jergen’s lotion (which, by the way, still holds up).
How does self-tanner work?
Self-tanners, which are a safer option for getting that just-stepped-off-the-beach tan, wore thanks to an active ingredient called DHA (dihydroxyacetone).
“When applied, DHA comes into contact with the amino acids in the surface layer of the skin, creating a pigment or melanoidin,” explains Harold Lancer, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist.
Gabriella Baki, Ph.D., a cosmetic scientist and assistant professor of pharmaceutics at The University of Toledo College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, explains that the higher the percentage of DHA, the more pronounced the tanning action will be. “Products available in stores usually contain 3% to 5% DHA,” she says. “They are usually labeled as light, medium, and dark, which can help consumers pick the right product.”
DHA is also the ingredient that gives a lot of products an unpleasant “self-tanner smell,” but luckily for us, modern formulas have come a long way in masking it with fragrances such as coconut, aloe, and watermelon.
How long does self-tanner last?
“This skin coloration is temporary, and often only lasts only about one week, as the skin will naturally shed its dead cells,” says Dr. Lancer.
It’s also worth noting that it usually takes anywhere from between eight to 48 hours for the skin to fully develop a ‘tan’ from the DHA, so if you’re in search of a more immediate tan, look for tinted or instant options.
From beginners who just want a subtle glow to those who want to become a full-blown bronze goddess, we rounded up some of the best self-tanners on the market.
1Best self-tanner with SPF: SuperGoop Healthy Glow Sunless Tan SPF 40
Get a sunless tan and feel good about it with this two-in-one product. It provides a gradual tan for the face and body while also giving you the daily UV protection you need. It’s mitt-free and scentless, giving you buildable, long-lasting color in an easy-to-use, fine-mist spray.
2Best self-tanner towelettes: Kate Somerville 360° Tanning Towelettes
Tanning towelettes are a great way to apply self-tanner in one easy, fast-absorbing swoop. They’re mess-free and can be discarded after one use, cutting down on those pesky tanner stains some formulas transfer onto your towels and clothes. The towelettes are formulated with all skin types in mind, so they can be used on both the face and body without worrying about clogged pores or reactionary breakouts.
3Best self-tanner for a natural tan: Tan-Luxe The Gradual Illuminating Tanning Lotion
For a natural tan that’s not streaky or blotchy, opt for a gradual tanning lotion. This one has a silky, weightless formula that’s made with skin-beneficial raspberry seed oil, vitamin E, and aloe vera to hydrate skin at the same time. You’ll notice a soft glow (no orange-y tint here) and more supple skin within just days of use.
4Best instant self-tanner: St. Tropez Self Tan Express Bronzing Mist
Kind of like a spray tan in a bottle, you can control the depth of your color with this customizable mist that delivers near-instant results. Depending on how long you leave it on before you shower, it will give you either light, medium, or dark color since you determine how long to let the DHA develop. Unlike some of the more gradual formulas, you can achieve a true golden color in just one use—making this one ideal for quick on-the-go tanning.
5Best self-tanner for face: Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta Glow Pad for Face
Finding the best tanner for your face can be a serious challenge. It can’t be too orange, too dark, or too blotchy. That’s why tanning towelettes that are specifically designed for your visage are your best bet. These are infused with alpha-and beta-hydroxy acids to exfoliate your skin and reduce the appearance of pores, leaving you with a bright, evenly tanned face.
6Best self-tanner serum: HauteBronze Sun Drops Self Tan Anti-Aging Serum
Add a drop or two of this tinted serum to your everyday face moisturizer or body lotion for a customizable, healthy boost of color. Ideal for those with pale skin, the more drops you use, the more color you’ll notice. Plus, it’s loaded with glycerin, a mega-hydrating product that will help maintain your skin’s healthy moisture level.
7Best moisturizing self-tanner: Tarte Brazilliance PLUS + Self-Tanner with Mitt
Tarte’s self-tanner comes with a mess-free mitt for easy application, making it the best self-tanner for avoiding stained hands. It’s also formulated with hydrating maracuja oil for smooth, moisturized skin, which will help your overall glow. Even better? This self-tanner is alcohol-free and vegan, so it’s nice to your body and animals.
8Best drugstore self-tanner: Jergens Natural Glow 3 Days to Glow Moisturizer
Jergins has been around since the very beginning of our self-tanning obsession, and if you love their original, this one is even better. Delivering quicker results in just 3 days (as opposed to the original, which gradually tans over about a week), this rich, hydrating lotion has antioxidants and vitamin E help to keep skin healthy.
9Best quick-drying self-tanner: Coola Sunless Tan Dry Oil Mist
Made with 70% organic ingredients, this dry oil gives you a luminous, dewy, and sun-kissed finish that can be layered for an even darker tan. It’s streak-free and transfer-resistant, and comes in a convenient aerosol can that makes spraying on easily. Just make sure to apply in a ventilated area.
Now, go get your glow on with the best self-tanners out there.