Sunless Tanners: How to Choose and Use Them

Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on October 06, 2014

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.

How to Apply Self-Tanner

Whatever type of self-tanner you choose, the rules for smooth, even color are the same.

  1. Prep your skin. For a streak-free tan, you need to start with smooth skin. Before she tans, Kelly takes a shower, shaves her legs and sloughs away dead skin and rough spots with a mild liquid cleanser and exfoliating gloves (you can find these slightly nubby mitts in any drugstore). A loofah and a bar of soap or an oil-free body scrub are fine, too. Just be sure, Vezirian says, to stay away from salt or sugar scrubs since those usually contain oils that linger on the skin and prevent the tanner from absorbing.
  2. Pat yourself dry. "You don't want to feel damp at all," Kelly says. If there are body parts that are parched, apply a light layer of moisturizer, and give it a few minutes to sink into your skin.
  3. Pull on some gloves. This will keep your palms from staining and also give you a smooth "applicator" to work with. Vezirian recommends powder-free disposable latex gloves, the type that colorists use in beauty salons.
  4. Work from the bottom up. Apply the self-tanner to your feet, ankles, legs, thighs, abs, chest, and arms. Use a small amount and blend in a circular motion.
  5. Go easy on the face. Choose a sunless tanner formulated for the face or mix the product you've used on your body with a light facial moisturizer. Put a dot on your cheeks, forehead, nose and chin, blend. Feather it out to your temples, hairline, and jawline.
  6. Do your hands last. Remove the gloves. Apply a hand sanitizer to your palms so they won't absorb any formula, then put a very small dab on the tops of hands and blend.
  7. Buff. With a slightly damp washcloth, buff any areas that tend to grab too much color, such as elbows, knees, and ankles.
  8. Be patient. Read the package instructions on how long to wait before you get dressed or go to bed so you don't transfer color to your clothes or sheets. With some formulas this might be just a few minutes. "I wait a little bit, but I've never stained anything," Kelly says. Don't take a shower for at least 8 hours or a sweaty gym class until the next day.
  9. Fix streaks with this fix-it recipe from Vezirian. Add some water to a teaspoon or so of baking powder to form a paste, apply to the blotchy spots, and buff with a washcloth until the splotches disappear.
  10. Maintain your tan by using a moisturizer every day. Depending on the formula, the faux glow will last from 3 to 7 days.
  11. Start over. When your fake tan fades, always exfoliate all remaining tan spots before reapplying. "If you layer new self-tanner over old you're going to end up with an uneven, dirty looking tan," Vezirian says.

Show Sources


Erica Kelly, MD, dermatologist, associate professor, University of Texas Medical Branch.

Tamar Vezirian, owner, Gotham Glow, New York.

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