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Sunless Tanners: How to Choose and Use Them

By Shelley Levitt

Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD

WebMD Feature

Getting a gorgeous glow without sun damage is easier than ever. All it takes is choosing the right sunless tanning product and following some simple steps.

If you're going to do it yourself, you might want some advice before you get started. Erica Kelly, MD, is a dermatologist in Galveston, Texas, who has been self-tanning since she was in high school. (She's now in her 40s.) During the summer she uses a self-tanner twice a week.

Choose Your Formula

There are lots of roads to a sunless tan. You might even want to use different formulas for various body parts. Kelly, for example, uses a spray for her back and face, a cream for everywhere else.

Your goof-proof options:

Self-tanning moisturizers: With a lower concentration of dihydroxyacetone (DHA), the active ingredient in sunless tanners, these gradually build a sun-kissed glow with daily use.
Best for: Achieving just a hint of color; a good starting step for novice self-tanners.

Tanning towelettes: Presoaked with self-tanner, these sheets just need to be unfolded and swiped across skin for an even glow.
Best for: Keeping up your glow on vacation. These pads are stress free. "It's almost impossible to apply too much product with tanning wipes," says Tamar Vezirian, a New York makeup artist who runs a tanning salon and mobile tanning service. She's helped some models in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue get their golden glow.

Self-tanning lotions and creams: The workhorse of sunless tanning, these formulas are often tinted so you can see if you've missed any spots.
Best for: Both practiced and beginner tanners. Because these formulas don't absorb into the skin instantly, you have a few extra seconds to blend.

Sunless mousses and gels: Lightweight and fast drying, these formulas are easy to layer, so you can build coverage or customize for contouring.
Best for: Experienced self-tanners. You need to blend fast before the color is absorbed.

Do-it-yourself tanning sprays: The fastest way to cover large areas. Technique matters: You need to apply evenly from about 6 inches away in a circular motion.
Best for: Hitting hard-to-reach areas like your back. "These dispense just a light mist of color so you can achieve results that are like an airbrushed tan," Vezirian says.

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