obsessive tester

The 14 Best Self-tanners

Photo: Courtesy of the vendors

Self-tanner is one of those categories in beauty that can either make your life much better or much worse. Traditionally, the process is time-consuming (waiting hours to shower), takes commitment (weekly maintenance), and requires patience (splotches, bad odors, and a general mess are far too common), and runs the risk of turning you orange. But the latest body tanners promise to develop fast, smell better, and keep your towels, sheets, and bathroom clean in the process — while giving you a realistic faux tan.

In pursuit of transforming my own pasty limbs, I experimented with self-tanners both new and old. I discovered that lots of modern formulas have some kind of scent, but most were innocuous, especially once I showered. I’ve found the drying times to be quick, the color natural, and the application processes pretty seamless.

The bottom line: There is something for everyone, whether you wish to wake up golden bronze or prefer to gradually build up your glow. Keep reading for the options that deliver (almost) instant sun-kissed skin, no UV rays required.

Disclaimer: Unlike facial tanners, which often contain pricey anti-aging ingredients, bronzing the body is about covering surface area. Just as you have to use different moisturizers for your face and your body, you should do the same with self-tanner. These products are for below the neck only.

The Best Drugstore Self-tanner

L’Oréal Paris’s coconut scent is good, and the product delivers quality results at a fraction of the price. The water-based liquid pumps out as a white mousse and sinks in quickly without streaking or sticking to dry skin. It takes about eight hours to fully develop, so I used it before bed and was pleased with a subtle glow in the morning. In warm weather I’d definitely apply this daily for several days to build up the color.

The Best-Smelling Self-tanner

This solid coconut balm smells like tropical heaven, transforming from a thick paste into an oil the moment it hits the skin. Be sure to read the fine print on the tub advising to “Apply sparingly.” I over-applied and had to blot the excess with a damp paper towel before I could get dressed. While the formula does not contain a bronze color guide, the clear glossy sheen ensures you don’t miss a spot. The color took about six hours to show up, and the deeply moisturizing blend left my skin with a supple glow that’s usually reserved for vacation.

The Best Easy Self-tanner

This self-tanner works double duty delivering very gradual color and hydration to skin simultaneously. Apply the moisturizer to wet skin (this is important) before you get out of the shower; once it’s rubbed in, gently pat dry and you’re done. The formula looks like a moisturizer and feels like one, and you’ll recognize the scent if you’ve used Jergens products before. Don’t expect noticeable color until day three, though. If the goal is to take your body a full shade darker, plan on using it for a week. It’s definitely more of a commitment, but worth it if you are a beginner or have fears of waking up too tan.

The Reliable Self-tanner

While no self-tanner smells as pleasant as James Read’s coconut oil, St. Tropez’s new continuous mist is a close second. That’s because the company called upon the fragrance noses at Givaudan to create a floral powdery aroma that doesn’t make you want to hold your breath until it’s time to shower. After misting and blending it with a mitt, you wait one to three hours before rinsing it off for a light, medium, or dark tan, respectively. It dries instantaneously so feeling sticky was never a concern. I waited the full three hours, showered, and eight hours later my legs looked tan without a single streak — like my own skin, only healthier. I would use this one when you want to look really tan all over your body. Since it’s a mist, it makes it easier to reach back areas, which are difficult with a lotion.

The Best Self-tanner for a Weekend Trip

Coola’s self-tanner checks off all the boxes: zero mess, no strong odor, streak-free, and the color is noticeable and natural after one use. The oil formula is very dry and extremely lightweight, so it absorbed quickly without leaving behind a slick coating on my skin. Unlike St. Tropez’s continuous mist, this one sprays out in little bursts, but also requires blending in circular motions with a mitt. It’s best for a short-lived glow as it only lasts up to three days, but considering the simple application process, reapplication isn’t a deal-breaker.

The Best Self-tanner If You’re in a Hurry

New York dermatologist Dennis Gross’s wipes are equally travel-friendly, but are specifically designed for use on the body (the brand makes separate ones for the face). They offer exfoliation with the help of lactic acid and willow-bark extract and deliver a believable bronzy color that looks natural on even the palest limbs, like mine. Apply the wipes in a circular motion and the color begins to develop in an hour. In addition, the wipes have other beneficial claims, too, like firming skin and slowing down hair growth. There’s a slight DHA-smell to them, but that disappears after the first shower.

The Best Self-tanner With Moisturizing Powers

Self-tanner junkies who have tried them all rave about Clarins’s gel for its natural, long-lasting, streak-free color. Rather than rely solely on DHA, this formula also contains another ingredient called erythrulose. Whereas DHA darkens skin within hours, the latter develops two to three days later, helping to prolong a fake tan. What I liked most about this gel is that it feels extremely hydrating while applying it, without feeling sticky like some lotions do. And it gets extra bonus points for being one of the few you can use on your face too.

The Best Subtle Self-tanner

If you’re already an olive-y skin tone, but want to take your glow up a notch, consider a gradual tanner like this lotion from Neutrogena. Unlike Jergens’s gradual option, which you apply in the shower, this one is a traditional lotion used on dry skin, so it is a little less messy. The formula is quick to develop with coverage that you can see in two hours and dries in minutes. It’s easy to find in your local drugstore, and at $9, won’t break the bank.

The Best Self-tanner for People Who Don’t Want to Do a Lot of Work

Vita Liberata’s foam transformed my legs several shades darker in one use. The full glow takes eight hours to develop, but once it does, the result lasts a week and fades evenly. Thanks to a water-base and hydrating botanicals (like organic raspberry), there’s no need to moisturize before application. With minimal prep and long-lasting color, this is a pretty low-maintenance option that’s made with 90 percent organic ingredients.

The Best Self-tanner for a Runwaylike Glow

Kristyn Pradas was the pro responsible for giving Victoria’s Secret models their bronze bodies for the brand’s annual runway show (RIP). The color develops in one hour for a light radiance and can be left on for up to four hours to achieve a dark tan. It also contains caffeine to tighten skin along with aloe and oils to give skin a glistening boost. Despite it being used for the Angels, it doesn’t make you overly dark. I didn’t feel like a V.S. model, unfortunately, but my skin was a nice glow-y bronze.

The Best Self-tanner for “Color-Correcting”

Reviewers and fans of Isle of Paradise’s mousse like to compare it to St. Tropez for its natural color. It’s available in three color-correcting shades: peach for a light glow on fair skin, green for a medium tan that counteracts redness, and violet for dark bronze sans sallow tones. As someone with fair skin with pink undertones, I chose the green. I wasn’t sure about the “color-correcting,” but in my experience, the color was bronzy and natural, lasting for several days, albeit fading a bit uneven. My only major issue: The cucumber eucalyptus scent won’t remind you of DHA, but it’s strong, almost like a Mrs. Meyers cleaning product I use in the kitchen.

The Glittery Self-tanner

If you’re looking for a self-tanner with benefits, this lotion from Tan-Luxe also claims to combat the appearance of cellulite. The buttery texture is courtesy of a blend of raspberry seed oil, aloe vera, and vitamin E. As for the illuminating finish — a slight shimmery effect that you can see in natural light, users either love it or hate it. I thought it was very subtle. My (very) dry skin was Über-hydrated after one use, and the glow I achieved looked subtle and realistic.

The Best Self-tanner for Hard-to-Reach Areas

It’s true that clear formulas won’t transfer or stain your clothing. Tinted formulas, on the other hand, ensure you don’t miss a spot. Sephora’s tinted option is also a continuous mist, which makes hard-to-reach spots like your back achievable. The application process is quick and the product goes on evenly as long as you spray it a continuous motion. Blend any areas that feel wet with your hands or a mitt. The results are deep and bronzy. My skin appeared as if I had just returned from a long beach getaway, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

The Best Customizable Self-tanner

Clean Tan’s self-tanning drops allow you to customize the process by controlling the amount of color along with the mechanism for delivery (i.e., body oil versus lotion). Follow the brand’s guidelines for one of four outcomes: light, medium, dark, or max, by mixing the directed ratio of drops to moisturizer. The plant-based ingredient list includes black, white, and green teas along with cocoa, beet root, and caramel pigments. I mixed several drops into one of my go-to drugstore body lotions. I expected medium color, but in reality the tan showed up extremely light. The good news is, this is a safe bet for beginners or those with doubts about self-tanning. And for those confident in their abilities, feel free to go for the extra drop.

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The 14 Best Self-tanners