You want to look like a beautiful, bronzed, radiant beach-dweller–but you’ve read about the harmful effects of tanning beds, or you just don’t have the time or money to spend on them. Surely you can’t be alone, and surely there must be a solution for you. Enter the world of modern sunless tanners. As more and more people stay away from tanning beds, the market for sunless self tanners has grown hugely. Even a quick internet search will bring up dozens, or even hundreds, of products and brands.
Of course, every product claims to be the best, but there really are quite a few reliable, quality sunless tanners out there nowadays—maybe even too many. So how do you choose the best self tanner for your needs? The perfect product for you is out there, and our breakdown of some of the top quality options will help you decide which it is.
Best Self Tanners for 2021 Comparison Chart
How does sunless tanning actually work?
But why so many options, and why do people report such different results from them? The main active ingredient in every sunless tanner is dihydroxyacetone, or DHA. DHA works by a harmless chemical reaction with the natural proteins and acids in your skin—so sunless tanning is less like painting a wall than developing a photo. That’s why sunless tans last a while and are waterproof, but the downside is that the chemistry of everyone’s skin is a little different: what got great effects for one person might leave another disappointed. All the products we look at here generally get good results, but since everyone’s body is different, everyone’s results will be a little different too.
How should I apply self tanner?
No matter what tanner you use, a few general tips will help you get the best results. Tanners work best on clean, dry, exfoliated skin–so before you reach for that bottle, be sure to shower and exfoliate your skin gently but thoroughly. No matter how well you exfoliate them, your knees, elbows, ankles, and knuckles will always absorb more color, so you’ll want to use less product there or even put a little lotion on them before you start. Your pores and hair follicles can also spell trouble, so be sure not to shave within 24 hours before tanning.
Opinions on the best way to actually apply the tanner are divided. Some people like to use special tanner application mitts, some prefer latex gloves, and others (depending on the product) use their bare hands but wash them thoroughly afterwards. Products where you’ll want to avoid direct hand contact are noted here, but beyond that, it’s really a matter of what feels best for you to get the most even application.
Once you’ve decided to go with a mitt, with gloves, or au natural, everyone agrees on the best way to get that product on your body: work thoroughly but quickly, use enough product to get an even coat everywhere, stand between two mirrors so you can see your back, and then go by sections up your body starting with your legs. With all of these products, you’ll get best results by putting it on before bed, letting it develop overnight, and rinsing off any excess product in the shower the next morning. You may get a little tanner on your sheets, but it should wash right out.
Best Self Tanners for 2021 Reviews
So without further ado, what should you actually buy? And why? The answers await!
St. Tropez Self Tanner Bronzing Mousse
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If you want something faster acting, but still easy to apply, St. Tropez Bronzing Mousse might be the answer. The product comes in a light, smooth, easy to apply foam. While the tanning compounds themselves are colorless, St. Tropez gives their product a bronze color to make it easy to see what spots you’ve hit and what you haven’t, so you can be sure you’ve got a smooth, even coat everywhere you want it. Like all the products here, you’ll get best results if you apply it before bed and leave it on overnight, but unlike most of the others here, it also acts fast enough that you can apply it multiple times in a single day to darken your shade. You’ll also get a slightly longer tan with this one than with most other products: one application will usually last about five to six days before wearing off, instead of the usual three or four.
Unfortunately, the convenience of this one will cost you: around $40 a bottle on Amazon. And, while most people have no problems with this product, those with very sensitive skin should beware, as some people do get an itchy allergic reaction with it. On most people’s skin it will just feel like a light, refreshing mousse, but if you’ve had reactions to cosmetics before, be sure to patch test this one before slathering it on.
- Why should I buy it? Hassle-free application
- What’s the catch? Slow, subtle results
Beauty by Earth Lotion
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If you do have sensitive skin, or are just concerned about having an organically-sourced, all-natural product, Earth Lotion’s Beauty is a great option. In addition to its natural and organic ingredients, Beauty is also vegan, gluten-free, soy-free, and contains no parabens. It has a consistency like thick hand lotion, and is white: just apply an even coat all over and rub in until the white is absorbed into your skin. You can use your bare hands with this one, but do be sure to wash them when you’re done. As a bonus, it also leaves your skin feeling soft and healthy!
Of course, the drawback of this milder formula is a somewhat milder tan. It is a proper sunless tanner, and you’ll see results after about six hours, but the color is fairly light and subtle. This makes for an easy, streak-free application process and a natural color as it fades over time, but if you want to be really brown or have a darker natural skin tone, you may want to go with something more dramatic.
- Why should I buy it? Great color, easy application, and all-natural ingredients
- What’s the catch? Relatively mild color
Fake Bake Flawless
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Fake Bake is one of the top sellers out there now, and it’s a solid product. In addition to the ingredients that react with your skin for a lasting tan, it’s also got an ordinary bronzer in it. Combine that with its super speedy drying time (it takes only a few minutes to sink in) and you have a great option for when you need that perfect tan… right now. The bronzer will look great while the more permanent tan develops, and you can get dressed within a few minutes of applying. The full tan, which will kick in in a few hours, has a natural, light brown color that you can get darker by applying Fake Bake again for a few days in a row. It has a hint of that chemical smell (sadly, that’s the smell of DHA–there’s no getting around it,) but it isn’t strong and the product has a pleasant tropical scent that covers it nicely.
The drawback of Fake Bake? That same liquid formula and quick drying time. The product dries so fast that it can be tough to get it on yourself quickly enough for a smooth, even coat. That can lead to blotchiness, streakiness, and extra liquid getting in your pores to make dark spots. Using a mitt is a must with this one, and using a balm to blend and smooth the product right after you apply it can even out any trouble–there special blending balms for tanning you can buy, but any heavy lotion, like Vaseline or body butter, will work. Lots of people get great results with this product. But that said: be prepared to do a little practicing before you get the hang of applying it evenly for that perfect, right-away tan.
- Why should I buy it? Fast results, quick dry time, and reliably good color
- What’s the catch? Tricky application process
Jergen’s Natural Glow
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If the idea of having to practice and work quickly stresses you out, and you aren’t in a hurry, then you might look at the opposite end of the spectrum: Jergen’s Natural Glow. Natural Glow is less like a self-tanner than it is like a daily moisturizer. Rub it in every morning just like lotion and you’re good to go–no stress, and nothing to add to your regular hygiene routine. It contains DHA and other tanning agents, but in very low amounts. After using it daily for a week or so, you’ll start to see a light brown tan, but it isn’t strong enough that you have to worry about streaking, staining, or working quickly.
Of course, if you don’t have a week to wait, it won’t be a great solution for you. And even if you do, be warned that the low amounts of tanning compounds make this a very subtle tan. Some people will see a natural, light color, and others might see… nothing at all. For those who see no or insufficient results, don’t despair: you still have some perfectly nice body lotion, and Natural Glow also works great as a product to supplement and extend the tan you get from the more intense sunless tanners out there.
- Why should I buy it? Great color, easy application, and all-natural ingredients
- What’s the catch? Relatively mild color
Tan Physics True Color Sunless Tanner
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What else is at the top of the best-seller list, if you don’t want to deal with a tricky liquid application? Tan Physics’ True Color Sunless Tanner is a gel-based tanner, and also contains anti-aging compounds for your skin. It will give you a natural medium-bronze color. It’s a strong tanner and also dries very quickly which means it’s convenient if you don’t want to wait, but you can run into some of the same problems with having to work quickly or end up streaky, and there are some complaints that it can fade unevenly. With its quick dry time and clear, un-messy consistency, though, applying an extra coat the next day to even yourself out is easy.
However, getting your hands on it can be tricky: Tan Physics does not guarantee the quality of products sold anywhere other than their online store, as their product has a relatively short shelf life and doesn’t hold up well sitting in warehouses. A survey of the reviews of True Color Sunless Tanner seems to back Tan Physics up on this one, with users who purchased it directly from Tan Physics reporting great results, and significant numbers of other online buyers reporting a streaky, uneven result and an oily product that can cause breakouts. But Tan Physics also makes it a little difficult to order and get information on their website, and sometimes sell out of it. So if you choose to go through another vendor: let the buyer beware.
- Why should I buy it? Fast drying, good color
- What’s the catch? Difficult to find an authorized seller
Sun Self Tanning Ultra Dark Instant Tint
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So what is your best option if you have darker skin, or just want a rich, dark brown tan? Sun’s Self Tanning Ultra Dark Instant Tint isn’t kidding about being ultra dark. With a very thick, slightly sticky consistency, you’ll want to apply a nice thick, smooth coat of this all over. The tanning compounds will develop over about three hours, but in the meantime, the cream will dry and contains a bronzer to give you an instant color while you wait.
But, because of the strong color, you do need to be careful with this one. Particularly on your face, you may end up darker than you want to before you realize it. For first-time users, mixing this product with some regular lotion to get a milder effect may not be a bad idea. And of course, you’ll want to protect your hands when you use it. Also, because the initial results are more pronounced, you’ll notice this one start to fade fairly quickly–in three days or so.
- Why should I buy it? Great, dark brown color and immediate results
- What’s the catch? Tricky application
While all the options we’ve looked at here are quality products, it’s important to keep in mind that the most important ingredient in the process is the one the manufacturers can’t control: your own skin. Something that looks great on your friend, your sister, or a hundred people writing internet reviews might leave you disappointed—and on the other hand, a product that might not work for someone else could be your match made in heaven.
But since there’s no way to predict that factor, what should you be keeping in mind as you click and scroll your way through the options? The main factors to consider when choosing the best sunless tanner are how quickly you need to look tan, how dark you want to be, and how much hassle you’re willing to deal with when you apply it. All in all, if you have time to wait for the color the develop, the two products that consistently got the best results were Earth Lotion’s Beauty for a lighter color, and California Products’ Self Tanning Dark Lotion for a darker color. But if need something that will look good right away and you have some experience with tanners, your solution might be Fake Bake or Sun’s Ultra Dark, depending on the color you want. If your top priorities are a non-messy product with a quick drying time, Tan Physics might be the product for you. St. Tropez will get you the most pronounced results for the easiest application, and Jergen’s will give you the easiest application process, period.
There’s a whole world of products out there—but this breakdown should help you sift through the noise to find the best self tanner (or self tanners) to fit your needs. Sunless tanners are not the staining, orange nightmare they used to be, and it is possible to get the beautiful, bronze tones you dream of without damaging your skin in tanning beds. So don’t be shy, and happy tanning!