Sunless Tanning: Baking Is Out, Faking Is In

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on November 16, 2012
7 min read

Forget tanning. There's a better way to get that golden glow. Fake it. Bronzers and sunless tanners are safer and faster and can achieve results that are just as beautiful as the real deal.

Sunless tanning products generally fall into two categories: cosmetic bronzers that wash off like regular makeup and sunless tanners that actually stain the skin and fade as skin cells slough off.

Dermatologists now steer their patients toward these products if they want more color on their skin. "It's certainly much better than going out or going to a tanning salon and getting exposed to UV light," says dermatologist Robin Ashinoff, MD, of Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey.

These products come in several forms and add a bronzed glow to the face, legs, and body. You apply them and wash them off with soap and water later in the day, just as you would with any other makeup. Bronzers can spice up your skin for a special occasion or an evening out, or you can use them daily.

Christine Egashira, a Seattle-based makeup artist who travels the country with Sephora's elite Pro Beauty Team, wears bronzer daily. "There's not that much sun in the Northwest," she says. "I need that little 'oomph,' some type of color, some type of warmth to the skin."

Personally and professionally, she's seen the good and bad among various cosmetic bronzers.

Bronzing powders: These are the most forgiving, Egashira says. "You can perfectly place it and build on it, depending on where you want it, whether it's all over the face, down the nose, cheekbones, forehead, or chin." For the fair-skinned, Egashira recommends Fresh's Marbella Gold face bronzer; it creates a golden glow without brown or red undertones, she says. For deeper skin tones, she likes NARS Laguna bronzing powder. "It's great for that person who naturally has more of an olive undertone, just to add a little more luminosity and color to their face."

Bronzing gels: Compared to powders, gels are harder to apply, so the results can vary, Egashira says. They also may lead to that dreaded orange tone. Benefit's Talk to the Tan is a popular product, however, for those who prefer gels, she says.

Spray bronzers: Egashira appreciates the ease of these sprays. "You can do a really quick spray on the face, neck, decollete, or whatever area you're trying to give a little more warmth to," she says. "You can do it after your makeup is on to give it that subtle hint of color." She says she's "a big fan" of Dior Bronze Sun Powder Spray. "I love it because the colors show up amazingly well on all skin tones."

Stick bronzers: Similar to deodorant sticks, these products can be stroked right onto the legs for instant color. "They're super easy to use for someone who wants a hint of color to their legs if they're going out one night," Egashira says. Using a concealer with the leg bronzer will help hide scars, spider veins, and other leg imperfections. Also, leg bronzers can be set with translucent powder to keep the color from rubbing off, she adds. An Egashira favorite: Michael Kors' Leg Shine.

While most bronzers wash out of fabrics, let the bronzer dry completely before wearing something over it to prevent any possible staining.

All sunless tanning products contain dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a sugar that is very safe to use. It interacts with proteins in the epidermis, the outermost layer of skin, to produce a darker skin color or fake tan. As dead skin cells slough off, the "tan" fades, usually within three to seven days after the product has been applied.

Sunless tanners come in forms such as lotions, gels, sprays, or mousse and can be found at drugstores and department store cosmetic counters and on the Internet.

"Personally, I love the lotions. They go on smoothly," Egashira says. Gels have their advantages, too: faster drying time and a less sticky feel.

In contrast, she has found spray tanners harder to use. Often, they require an extra pair of hands, but spray tanners are popular and easy to use for the face, neck, and upper chest, she says.

Mousses don't contain as much moisture as self-tanning lotions or gels, Egashira says, so they're fine for oily skin but not dry complexions. But, she cautions, the resulting tan tends to fade unevenly.

Egashira says that she has found that self-tanning lotions tend to last slightly longer than sprays.

Some sunless tanners work gradually and build up color over a few days -- a boon to beginners testing the waters as well as those who want to tan subtly. "That's great for someone who maybe wants to build it up over time," Egashira says, "so that it's not, one day, you're fair, the next day, you're dark."

Julie Morgan, a makeup artist who works in Los Angeles and New York, recommends Jergen's Natural Glow as a good drugstore choice for building up a gradual tan. Egashira likes Sephora's Body Intense Moisturizing Bronzing Lotion.

Fast-acting sunless tanners can create a bronze glow in as little as two to three hours, great if you’re short on time or need a glow for a special occasion.

Experts praised certain brands, such as Clarins, Dior, and Estee Lauder. In particular, Morgan, an airbrush tanning expert who has tanned celebrities such as Naomi Watts, recommends Clarins Intense Bronze Self-Tanning Tint for Face and Decollete and Clarins "Delicious" Self-Tanning Cream for the body.

Another of Morgan's favorites: Victoria's Secret Bare Bronze collection of self-tanners.

Experts say that sunless tanners require more preparation than a cosmetic bronzer.

Morgan advices waxing or shaving the day before applying a sunless tanner. Shower and exfoliate the skin just before applying the product to allow the tanner to penetrate evenly.

Pay special attention to exfoliating "the parts that are really dry -- the elbows, feet, and hands -- because that's where it's a dead giveaway when you do the self-tanner," Jenna Anton, a makeup artist based in New York City, says. A tanner can settle into creases and turn too dark or orange.

After showering and exfoliating, experts say to skip any moisturizer, lotion, or deodorant, which can interfere with even absorption of the tanner.

One exception: Apply a small amount of light lotion or moisturizer to very dry areas, such as the hands or feet, to prevent too much tanner from soaking in and darkening.

Always do a spot test with a sunless tanning product before putting it all over your body. Most people tolerate sunless tanning products with DHA quite well, but dermatologists say that people with sensitive skin may be allergic to fragrances or preservatives.

When you're ready to apply the sunless tanner, pull your hair back into a ponytail or wear a shower cap. Applying self-tanning products in the buff spares you from faux tan lines, but you can also wear an old bikini or old clothing as they may stain. (Once the tanner has dried and you shower, staining isn't a problem.) Then don well-fitting latex gloves to apply the product without staining your palms.

Shake the product well, Morgan says. Apply it to the legs, arms, and torso with circular motions, which help to prevent a streaky look. "Massage and go in circles," she says. "Distributing the product evenly on the skin is what's going to create that fluid, natural glow."

Consider using a separate face-tanning product and a body tanner, or use only one coat on the face and two on the body so that the face doesn't appear too dark, Anton says. "You can always add bronzer or a little bit of makeup on the face, but sometimes putting too much of a self-tanner on the face, you just look weird. You have to experiment a little bit if you're doing this yourself," she says.

Save the hands for last, Anton says. After removing gloves, apply sunless tanner to the backs of the hands and rub them together, taking care not to get any tanner on the palms. Anton says she uses a moistened washcloth to remove excess tanner from hand creases and knuckles and to blend the color along the sides of the palms.

Also be sure to use self-tanning products sparingly on the feet, and towel away excess product around the ankles, Anton adds. "Those little wrinkles are where it tends to settle and look orangey or really brown."

If you've exfoliated and applied sunless tanner carefully but still end up with areas that are too dark on the hands, ankles, wrists, or other tricky areas, you can lighten them by applying hydrogen peroxide, baking soda, or whitening toothpaste, Morgan says.

"To get the most longevity out of your tan," she says, "moisturize, moisturize, moisturize." Prolonged soaking in pools, hot tubs, or the ocean will also fade a sunless tan faster.

Your face may need more frequent applications than your body because cells renew faster there, Ashinoff says.

Also remember to keep using sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. Dermatologists say that many people mistakenly believe that their newly bronzed skin will protect them from sunburn and sun damage.

"The tan that you get with these products is not protective," Diane Berson, MD, assistant professor of dermatology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University, says. "There should not be a false sense of security."