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Best Self Tanners, Tested and Reviewed

Self Tanner cream
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Our evaluations and opinions are not influenced by our advertising relationships, but we may earn a commission from our partners’ links. This content is created independently from TIME’s editorial staff. Learn more about it.

updated: July 8, 2024
edited by Alyssa Sybertz
 | 

Am I a dermatologist? Nope. Am I a pale Polish/Irish woman that sometimes needs help looking a little less like a ghost, and a little more like a bronze goddess? You bet.

When it comes to the best self tanners, I honestly feel like I’ve tried them all. I’ve looked for different scents, levels, mousse, lotions, oils, gradual build tanners, mild glow tanners—the list literally goes on and on. Over the years I’ve personally tried so many different kinds, and I can tell you ones that had people fooled, asking where I just came back from vacation. I’m lucky enough to have very honest, loving people in my life who want me to look my best, so if I look orange, they’re going to tell me without hesitation…and they did.

Our top picks for best self tanners

Best self tanner for beginners: St. Tropez Self Tan Bronzing Mousse

Best self tanner for beginners
St. Tropez Self Tan Bronzing Mousse

St. Tropez Self Tan Bronzing Mousse

The St. Tropez Self Tan Bronzing Mousse has been a long time favorite of mine ever since my friend and I, who is also quite pale, came back from the Bahamas. She and I took a cruise back in college and it ended up storming the entire time and we barely got any time in the sun. When we came back, we rubbed this all over our bodies and people thought we had a wonderful time and got our “natural glow” from the Bahamian sun. It has a really smooth texture that goes on even and gives you a noticeable bronze boost with one layer. In addition to it easily being my favorite, it’s also on the less expensive side compared to some other brands at just $18.

Specifications:

  • Formula: Mousse
  • Shades: Classic
  • Longevity: Generally between 4-10 days
  • Size: 50 ml, 120 ml, 240 ml
  • Price on publish: $18 for 50ml

What we like:

  • Goes on smooth and even
  • Inexpensive

What we don’t like:

  • Slight yellow/orange tone that simmers down after the first shower

The bottom line:

If you want to try a self tanner, but don’t know where to start, this is a fan favorite at a lower price point.

Best self tanner for a dark tan and best-smelling self tanner: St.Tropez Self Tan Suprême Violet Mousse

Best self tanner for a dark tan and best-smelling self tanner
St. Tropez Self Tan Suprême Violet Mousse 4.6 oz / 200 ml

St. Tropez Self Tan Suprême Violet Mousse 4.6 oz / 200 ml

It’s quite unusual to find a good smelling self tanner and this one actually smells incredible. There’s no self tanner chemical odor—instead, it has a light floral-berry scent. A little goes a very long way with this one because it leaves a really rich, deep tan almost similar to a kalamata olive tone. (And yes, it does have a violet hue—this is said to help even out the undertones of the tan, helping to minimize any orange effects.) Go easy with this one, a little goes a long way. You can always add on another layer later if it’s not as dark as you want it. Tip: The brand recommends leaving this on for as little as 30 minutes for a hint of glow or up to 8 hours before showering if you want to achieve the olive/dark tan result.

Specifications:

  • Formula: Mousse
  • Shades: Normal
  • Longevity: Generally between 4-10 days
  • Size: 200 ml
  • Price on publish: $48

What we like:

  • Long lasting
  • Natural glow

What we don’t like:

  • Very dark—might not work for very pale skin tones

The bottom line:

Although this is a good place to start for beginners, it is a dark tan, so make sure you start with a little bit.

Best affordable self tanner: Tanologist Daily Glow — Hydrating Gradual Tanning Lotion

Best affordable self tanner
Tanologist Daily Glow - Hydrating Gradual Tanning Lotion

Tanologist Daily Glow - Hydrating Gradual Tanning Lotion

If you’re looking for an affordable self tanner, the Tanologist Daily Glow is only $13.99. There’s a subtle glow up with one layer applied, and it actually smells good, similar to a sweet vanilla scent. In addition to it being a quality product at a really low price point, it’s vegan and cruelty-free. The lightweight formula feels moisturizing, though the lack of tint to the formula can make it tricky to know just where you’ve applied it. However, the buildable formulation does reduce the streak factor, so if you do miss a spot, it’s easy to correct.

Specifications:

  • Formula: Lotion
  • Shades: Fair to medium, medium to dark
  • Longevity: Generally between 4-6 days
  • Size: 250 ml
  • Price on publish: $13.99

What we like:

  • Inexpensive
  • Different shade levels
  • Nice smell

What we don’t like:

  • Subtle but still noticeable change that might not work if you’re looking for an instant, dark tan

The bottom line:

For a very affordable self tanner, this one is only $13.99, and gives skin that natural glow.

Best luxury self tanner: Sisley Paris Self Tanning Hydrating Facial Skin Care

Best luxury self tanner
Self Tanning Hydrating Facial Skin Care

Self Tanning Hydrating Facial Skin Care

Sisley has a great reputation using clean ingredients like hibiscus flower and sesame extract. It has a luxurious texture and feels more like skincare than your typical self-tanner product. Instead of having a really noticeable change, this one will be a little bit more gradual. You’ll have to repeat the application usually around every 2 to 3 days to increase the intensity, because one layer is barely noticeable.

Specifications:

  • Formula: Cream/lotion
  • Shades: Standard
  • Longevity: Repeat application every 2-3 days
  • Size: 60 ml
  • Price on publish: $170

What we like:

  • Natural ingredients like hibiscus flower extract, sesame extract, and alpine rose extract that nourish the skin and promote radiance

What we don’t like:

  • Very subtle—need to reapply a few times to see a tan
  • Expensive
  • Only meant for the face, not the entire body

The bottom line:

For a splurge that works more like a daily moisturizer (or every other day) try this self tanner from Sisley.

Best mist self tanner: St.Tropez Self Tan Purity Bronzing Water Face Mist

Best mist self tanner
St.Tropez Self Tan Purity Face Mist, Natural Sunkissed Glow Face Tan with Hyaluronic Acid & Antioxidants, Vegan, Natural & Cruelty Free Face Care, 2.7 Fl Oz

St.Tropez Self Tan Purity Face Mist, Natural Sunkissed Glow Face Tan with Hyaluronic Acid & Antioxidants, Vegan, Natural & Cruelty Free Face Care, 2.7 Fl Oz

St. Tropez Self Tan Purity Bronzing Water Face Mist smells incredible, with a very nice tropical scent. It goes on like a light mist, but is barely noticeable with one application. You might have to reapply it a few times to see how many layers it takes to get to your desired tan level. That said, it’s a great lightweight option that keeps your skin feeling fresh, clean, and hydrated.

Specifications:

  • Formula: Mist/water
  • Shades: Standard
  • Longevity: Generally between 4-10 days
  • Size: 80 ml
  • Price on publish: $33

What we like:

  • Light
  • Nice smell

What we don’t like:

  • With just one application, it’s a little too light, almost nonexistent, so you might have to apply more the next day if you don’t see enough of a change

The bottom line:

If you’re looking for a good mist to start with, the St. Tropez Self Tan Purity Bronzing Water Face Mist is very gradual and smells amazing.

Best self tanner for the face: TAN-LUXE The Face Illuminating Self-Tan Drops

Best self tanner for the face
TAN-LUXE The Face Illuminating Self-Tan Drops

TAN-LUXE The Face Illuminating Self-Tan Drops

Self tan drops seem like they would be more subtle—you mix a few drops with your moisturizer, serum, or face oil and then apply — but it is probably one of the darkest and longest-lasting products that I’ve tried. It’s definitely worth the splurge of $50 because a little goes a long way and the tan lasts about a week, going strong.

Specifications:

  • Formula: Oil
  • Shades: Light to medium, medium to dark
  • Longevity: Generally about a week
  • Size: 30 ml
  • Price on publish: $50

What we like:

  • Noticeable change
  • Two different shades
  • Can use with whatever “base” product you’d like

What we don’t like:

  • A little pricey
  • Could be too dark for some skin tones

The bottom line:

For self tanner drops that actually make a huge difference, go with these Tan Luxe The Face Illuminating Drops.

Best gradual self tanner: TAN-LUXE The Crème Gradual Self-Tanning Face Moisturizer

Best gradual self tanner
TAN-LUXE The Crème Gradual Self-Tanning Face Moisturizer

TAN-LUXE The Crème Gradual Self-Tanning Face Moisturizer

For a good gradual option that builds over time as you use it on a daily/semi-daily basis throughout the week, this Tan-Luxe self tanning face moisturizer is great. It reduces redness and hydrates the skin, while adding a blended and light glow that builds. For under $50, this face moisturizer also includes leucine on the list of ingredients which supports the production of collagen, keeping your skin looking healthy.

Specifications:

  • Formula: Cream/lotion
  • Shades: Standard
  • Longevity: Generally about a week
  • Size: 65 ml
  • Price on publish: $49

What we like:

  • Hydrating
  • Cruelty-free

What we don’t like:

  • Can be blotchy if not blended well
  • Darker than expected for a face tanner, so do a little at a time

The bottom line:

If you need a gradual tanner that’s good for your skin and cruelty-free, this is a great option from Tan-Luxe.

Best self tanner wipes: TanTowel Half Body Plus Self-Tan Towelettes

Best self tanner wipes
TanTowel Half Body Plus Self-Tan Towelettes

TanTowel Half Body Plus Self-Tan Towelettes

These wipes don’t seem to last as long as a bottle of lotion or mousse would because they’re single use, but they provide a really nice subtle, light glow—ideal if you’re just looking for a little pick me up. Some sunless tanners are really dark, but this provides just a little bit of a noticeable difference in about 2 to 4 hours.

Specifications:

  • Formula: Towelettes
  • Shades: Medium to dark
  • Longevity: Generally around 4-7 days
  • Size: 5-pack, 10-pack, 50-pack
  • Price on publish: $30 for a 10-pack

What we like:

  • Easy to apply
  • Easy to take with you in your purse or toiletry bag

What we don’t like:

  • Slight unpleasant smell

The bottom line:

If you’re looking for tan towelettes that are easy to take with you on the go or travel with, these are the ideal option.

Best self tanner for sensitive skin: Nuda Canada Face Tan Water

Best self tanner for sensitive skin
NUDA Face Tan Water

The Nuda Canada Face Tan Water is extremely subtle and soft with one application. It smells amazing, but you might need to do a few layers to get to the desired tan level. There are some really gentle ingredients, which is what makes me love this tan water for sensitive skin, like aloe vera, cucumber extract, and vitamins, A, C, and E. (Self tanning tip: If you have sensitive skin, it’s always a good idea to run it past your dermatologist and/or do a patch test first.)

Specifications:

  • Formula: Water based
  • Shades: Original and dark
  • Longevity: Generally about a week
  • Size: 75 ml
  • Price on publish: $39

What we like:

  • Two shades available
  • Water-based formula won’t dry out sensitive skin
  • Vegan and cruelty-free

What we don’t like:

  • Might need to be applied often for a noticeable glow, as you can barely see any change after just one application

The bottom line:

If you’re looking for an option that uses natural ingredients that can be gentle on the skin, this is a great place to start.

Best moisturizing self tanner: +LUX UNFILTERED N°32 Original Hydrating Self-Tanning Cream

Best moisturizing self tanner
+LUX UNFILTERED N°32 Original Hydrating Self-Tanning Cream

+LUX UNFILTERED N°32 Original Hydrating Self-Tanning Cream

For a natural glow, go with the hydrating self tanning cream from +LUX UNFILTERED. It’s extremely light, but being able to build on the color can be a good thing, especially for pale skin tones. The last thing you want is to look orange, so a nice gradual build will show you how many layers you need to get to a desired, but natural, looking tan. This cream contains natural ingredients like passionfruit oil, avocado oil, shea butter, and more—made to be gentle on the skin and nontoxic.

Specifications:

  • Formula: Cream
  • Shades: Standard
  • Longevity: Recommend using it daily for 4-5 days
  • Size: 200 ml
  • Price on publish: $36

What we like:

  • Vegan and cruelty-free
  • Affordable
  • Non-toxic
  • Comes in two scents, Rosewood and Santal
  • Soft, subtle glow

What we don’t like:

  • The self tanner “smell” still creeps in a bit over the scents

The bottom line:

For a non-toxic tanner with natural ingredients, go with this hydrating cream.

What to consider when buying self tanners

What shade should you choose for a natural look?

It can be really tempting to jump right to dark tan, but that’s honestly not the best move. We live in a world of wanting instant gratification, so I fully understand the urge to do that, but if you’re pale, go for a light/mild shade first. You’ll have a much more natural look and you can always layer on more if you feel like it’s not quite dark enough.

Are you sensitive to any ingredients?

Pay close attention to what’s in the product. You can always ask your dermatologist if you have any specific questions or do a patch test (or both) before rubbing it all over your face or body.

What are you willing to spend on the product?

Believe it or not, self tanners can go up to the triple digit price range. And, since you have to reapply regularly (once your tan fades), you will go through the product quicker. Like tinted moisturizers and tinted sunscreens, you may want to spend slightly more for a face-specific formulation (especially if it's from a brand you trust already) to avoid potential breakouts or irritation, but keep in mind that the cost can easily snowball.

How to prep your skin and apply self-tanner

The experts at the American Academy of Dermatology recommend exfoliating and drying your skin off first, followed by applying the tanner in sections and washing your hands after each application, being careful to blend the product very well at your ankles and wrists. I personally also recommend moisturizing before putting any tanner on. This tends to make it go on smoother, and I also use a glove to avoid my fingers being blotchy and orange.

Side note: I have a friend that used to do competitive dancing, and the women always applied self tanner and makeup before shows, so they didn’t look washed out on stage. That friend told me that the best way to remove blotches from your hands after applying is to wash your hands with soap and water, and then wash your hands with toothpaste, as well, as an extra trick.

How long do self tanners last

It really depends on the particular tanner, but most self tanners tend to last about a week (5 to 7 days).

How do self tanners work

According to the National Institutes of Health, self tanners generally stain the skin, using dihydroxyacetone (DHA).

How to make your self-tan last longer

Following the steps above on how to exfoliate and prep the skin before applying the tanner should help it last a little longer. It also helps to avoid exfoliating after you apply it and to not take any baths or soak in any hot tubs. For more specific advice, make sure to follow the suggestions on the product you choose.

How I chose the best self tanners

Testing

Although I have tested and tried out the majority of these tanners through the years, I collected them all to do trial patch testing before approving them for the list.

Ratings and reviews

I looked at ratings from other users and made sure that other people enjoyed the products too. I also made sure they were a fair price for the product.

Natural look

Just like quality eye creams, so you don’t have to hide behind your sunglasses, a natural glow can give you a little confidence boost. For the products on the list, it was important to me that they provided a tan that looked as natural as possible.

Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

Do self tanners expire?

Always check the product itself, but generally yes, self tan products typically expire within six months to a year. This usually has to do with the strength of the dihydroxyacetone weakening over time.

What self tanners are safe during pregnancy?

I’m not a doctor, so when it comes to anything to do with pregnancy and what is safe for your baby, you should always check with your physician first and foremost. Second to that, you should check the label or speak to the manufacturer of the specific product. For the most part, fake tanner lotions should be okay to use during pregnancy because the active ingredients are not absorbed beyond the outermost layer of skin, but again, always check with your doctor first.

Why do self tanners smell bad?

Some smell a little better than others, although I noticed for the most part, the ones that smell great don’t seem to work as well. Fake tanners tend to have that specific smell that isn’t a very pleasant odor, until you’re able to shower the next day. That smell generally comes from the chemical reaction that occurs when the dihydroxyacetone comes into contact with the skin.

What do the Kardashians use for self tanner?

The Kardashians stand behind St. Tropez products, with one of Kim’s favorites being the Jumbo Self Tan Express Mousse.

Which is better: Tanning drops or mousse?

Personally, I’ve tried both and I prefer the mousse. I like that I can see where it’s being applied, and get that instant gratification. The drops tend to give you a more even, smooth tan, but it doesn’t show up right away, which I don’t always love.

The information presented here is created independently from the TIME editorial staff. To learn more, see our About page.

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