Expert Tips About Self Tanners

Medically Reviewed by Debra Jaliman, MD on October 09, 2012
3 min read

Q. When I try to wear self tanner, it never looks right. Can you help me avoid looking streaky and orange?

Los Angeles dermatologist Jessica Wu, MD:

I love just about any product that convinces my patients to avoid tanning. But self tanners can definitely be tricky. For instant results, try a tinted formula so you can see where you're applying. This will help you avoid streaks and missed spots. Banana Boat Summer Color Self-Tanning Lotion is a good option.

Another way to make application simple is to use a richer moisturizing lotion, which isn't likely to drip or run, like L'Oréal Sublime Glow Daily Moisturizer. For natural results, always start with a light-color formula rather than a dark option. It's easier to build up pigment than to remove it.

My patients also complain about the smell of sunless tanners. The odor is due to a chemical reaction between the DHA molecules and the top layers of your skin. Many products have better fragrances to help mask the odor. I like Neutrogena MicroMist Airbrush Sunless Tan spray.

Getting a natural effect on the face can be challenging, so a lightweight liquid texture works best. My patients rave about Clarins Liquid Bronze Self Tanning. A little of this milky lotion goes a long way. 

Esthetician Patricia Young's top picks:

Preparation and application are key with self tanner. You should first exfoliate with a scrub in the shower to remove dead, flaky skin cells.

My application trick is to apply the tanner to your body with a damp sponge in circular motions. This allows the tanner to go on evenly and blends away streaks.

I think the aerosol options like Sally Hansen Airbrush Sun are great for a natural effect. The fine mist makes them easy to apply. You can also spray some on a makeup sponge and tan your face with them. If you have oily skin or acne issues, I suggest formulas designed specifically for the face, such as Estée Lauder Bronze Goddess Golden Perfection Self-Tanning Lotion for Face. These usually contain fewer oils and won't cause blemishes. 

The daily moisturizers with DHA make a fake tan easy to develop and maintain. You just need patience because it can take a couple days for the color to darken enough. I like California Tan Tinted Self Tanner Lotion because you can see where you're applying it and the tan looks very real.

One of my favorite options for a quick touch-up is disposable wipes like SoniaKashuk Sunless Tan Golden Tanning Towelette. They're super easy to use, and the individually wrapped towels are portable and convenient. 

Plan Before You Self-Tan

The tanning ingredient DHA attaches more to dead skin than to healthy cells, so you have to exfoliate to ensure an even tan. It's also important to moisturize after exfoliation to allow the DHA to attach evenly and smoothly.

Young offers these tips:

  • Before applying the tanner, coat your body with a thin layer of moisturizer. This is the secret to a natural look.
  • Be especially careful around wrinkles or areas that tend to be drier -- such as knees, elbows, and ankles.
  • After applying a self-tanner, take care to prolong the color. Moisturizing is crucial because, as your skin dries out, the color will flake off.
  • After you shower, pat dry with a towel. Don't rub. It removes the tint.

The opinions expressed in this section are the opinions of the experts and are not the opinions of WebMD. WebMD does not endorse any specific product, service, or treatment.