15 Expert Tips for Applying a Self-Tanner

Medically Reviewed by Mohiba Tareen, MD on March 31, 2020
4 min read

Despite the well-known dangers and repeated warnings about UV damage, some people can’t resist the allure of a suntan. For those who love the look of bronzed skin but want to avoid the health risks of sun exposure, self-tanners are the answer.

“Sunless tanners are the only safe way to appear tan. Any pigment from the sun -- a tan or a burn -- is sun damage,” says Deanne Mraz Robinson, MD, an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Yale School of Medicine. “Unprotected sun exposure is a proven risk factor for developing skin cancer, and it also breaks down collagen and elastin in our skin accelerating the signs of aging.”

But the risks of looking orange or streaky can make some feel hesitant about attempting to do the job on their own. The good news is that with a few expert tips, and a little patience, a faux glow is the best way to go.

Understand the Tan

First, it helps to understand how sunless tanner works. The ingredient that turns your skin bronze is a plant-based sugar molecule called dihydroxyacetone (DHA). The DHA reacts with amino acids in your skin to form brown compounds called melanoidins that stain your skin. As the surface skin cells rub off over the course of 7 to 10 days, the tan wears away.

Avoid Alcohol

Robinson advises opting for an alcohol-free tanner because alcohol is not only drying but can also trigger skin reactions including dermatitis and rosacea flares.

Patch Test

“As with any topical product, you risk an allergic reaction,” Robinson warns. “It’s always wise to test an application on a small area before coating yourself in it.” Doing a patch test serves another purpose -- it will help you determine how the color will develop. “I recommend always to do a spot test first to check the shade level and how it reacts with your unique skin tone,” says Courtney Claghorn, founder of Sugared + Bronzed spray tanning salons.

Start Smooth

DHA deposits into the dead surface layer of the skin, so you want to remove the flaky layers that are about to shed -- any dry patches will react with the tanner and look darker than other areas. That’s why preparation is crucial, explains Fabiola Trujillo, owner of Sobe Tan in Miami. She advises exfoliating ahead of time with a washcloth or loofah in the shower to ensure you have a smooth surface so the tanner can uniformly dye the skin.

Exfoliation will also prolong the life of your tan. “Since the formulations work with the outermost layer of the skin, getting the newest cells possible to the surface for application will help extend how long the tan lasts,” Robinson says.

Watch Rough Patches

While you’re exfoliating, focus on rough, scaly areas like the heels, knees, and elbows because the DHA will deposit more heavily there. Those areas are prone to thicker patches of dead skin cells, Robinson explains, so they absorb more DHA. Plus, those areas shed more slowly than the rest of the body.

Apply a Barrier Cream

Before you apply a tanner, Robinson suggests applying a light layer of barrier cream like Aquaphor in your nostrils, on your lips, around your cuticles and on any rough patches to avoid those areas getting too dark.

Take Your Time

Trujillo’s warning is to always take your time -- being in a rush makes it more likely you’ll miss a spot. She suggests doing tanner in the evening and waiting overnight before doing anything else. “You should never do self-tanner when you’re in a hurry,” she says. “You always need to give it time to dry and develop properly.”

Wear a Mitt

The experts suggest wearing a mitt designed to apply self-tanner. Not only do mitts provide a smooth surface to help blend the tanner more seamlessly than your hands, they prevent your palms from turning orange, Robinson says.

Move in Circles

Claghorn says applying in a circular motion, working in small sections will help avoid streaks. “You don’t need to apply a lot of pressure when applying a self-tanner,” she says. “A gentle but consistent pressure over the body while easing up over the knees, elbow, neck, and wrists will do the trick.”

Reach Your Back

And if you can’t enlist a friend to help with your back, Trujillo suggests heading to the kitchen. Her trick is to slip a tanning mitt over a spatula and use that to apply tanner to the areas on your back that are out of arm’s reach.

Skip These Spots

Avoid applying tanner to your heels and your ears. Trujillo says it will just stain and look unnatural.

Allow Time to Dry

Just because you’ve applied the tanner, your work isn’t done. Ideally, you should wait at least 15 minutes before putting clothes on and then you should stay in loose-fitting clothing for the next few hours, Trujillo advises. This allows the tanner time to absorb. Getting wet, sweaty, or wearing anything too tight will cause the tanner to wear off and look splotchy and uneven.

Wait a Day

This is also the time when patience is crucial -- you need at least 24 hours to determine how the self-tanner will fully develop on your skin and see the complete results, Trujillo explains. “One application may not be enough, but it’s better to build the color than start with a shade that’s too dark and unnatural for you,” she says.


“Moisturizing is key for a tanner to work on your skin,” Trujillo says. Keeping your skin moisturized helps slow down the natural shedding process to help extend the life of your tan.

Don’t Forget SPF

“What people often get wrong about self-tanner is thinking it protects them from the sun -- it does not,” Robinson says. Just because your skin looks bronzed, you don’t have any additional protection and the same SPF application guidelines apply, she says.

Find more articles, browse back issues, and read the current issue of WebMD Magazine.