I Tried a Ton of Self-Tanners, and These Were the Best

sunless tanner


Summer is approaching, but a quick glance at my pasty, un-glowy skin would say otherwise. It happens every year—a war between what I know to be true (sunscreen will stave off health risks and wrinkles) and what I can't help but think anyway (I love a nice tan). So what to do? Rather than bake all day in the sun and worry about the aftermath, I continue to slather on SPF 50 and invest in a few great self-tanning products. To my delight, self-tanning products now come in a slew of different textures (roll-on oils, coconut water-infused mists, and body-blurring lotions, to name just a few) with promises of no scent and no mess. Naturally, I had to find the best tanning water, lotion, and so on.

I tested out the best self-tanners of every category on my ultra-pale skin to see which formulas would make the cut (Spoiler: There were quite a few that didn't). To complicate matters, sometimes I'm in the mood for just a subtle tint of color, and other times I crave a deep, super-rich tan—which still needs to look 100% natural on my fair complexion (a difficult feat, mind you). However, the majority of the self-tanners I tried ultimately exceeded my skeptical expectations, and I've found 10 of the best self-tanners to suit my every skin mood—be it barely there and airbrushed-esque or more intense color, as if I just spent two weeks sunning myself in Hawaii. Ahead, the 10 best self-tanners to suit every shade and formula taste. Keep reading.

The Best Tanning Mist

Self Tan Purity Bronzing Water Face Mist
St. Tropez Self Tan Purity Bronzing Water Face Mist $30

I can't stop spritzing this tropical-scented face mist from St. Tropez. Sure, it smells like a vacation in the bottle, which is fabulous, but it also imparts the most natural color—boosting a pale complexion with that just-right dose of color I crave in the summer. It's also worth mentioning (as someone who is acne-prone) that this mist has not once triggered a breakout. Spritz it on your face, hands, and feet to keep those tricky areas maintained and well-blended with the rest of your tan. It's miraculous. And if you're like me, you'll find yourself bringing it with you everywhere you go. 

The Best Tanning Water

Tan Water
ModelCo Tan Water $29

This ModelCo self-tanner introduced me to a new form of sunless color: Tanning waters. Though I'm more of mousse or lotion gal, to be honest, I appreciated the super-subtle scent, the gradual hit of bronze which developed in only two hours, and the fact that it was easy to apply and left my skin feeling hydrated. It's high up there on my list of best sunless tanners for dry skin. I also appreciated how customizable it is depending on what your tanning goals are. If you seek an even darker tan after the first go-around, you can let the formula develop longer when it's time for re-application. 

The Best Tanning Drops

The Face: Anti-Age Rejuvenating Self Tan Drops
Tan-Luxe The Face: Anti-Age Rejuvenating Self Tan Drops $55

Alright, so I realize these drops are definitely an investment, but when you consider that this formula goes a long way and is one of the best tanning innovations on the market (especially where the face is concerned), I feel the steepness is worth it. And as with so many of the formulas in this roundup, what's really exciting about this facial self-tanner is how customizable it is.

A revamped version of the brand's best-selling Illuminating Self-Tanning Drops ($49), this youth-preserving formula targets dull, dehydrated skin with high-quality ingredients like a Tri-Collagen Booster, glycopeptides, raspberry seed oil, aloe vera, and vitamin E. All you have to do is add one to four drops into your go-to serum or moisturizer and then apply as usual. The result is a glowing tan that never leaves behind streaks or nose-wrinkling smells. (Which, since you're applying on your face, is important—at least I think so.)

The Best Tanning Foam

Best tanning foam
Bondi Sands Aero 1 Hour Express $29

Since I usually wait until the last possible second to apply my self-tan (I love the results but hate the process of it), anything touting "express" in the title always catches my fancy. Prior to trying this one-hour expedited iteration, I'd tried numerous other formulations from Bondi Sands, and though I was always satisfied, I was never blown away. Until now. 

Mousse is my poison of choice when it comes to self-tan formulations, and this one (although technically the brand calls it a "foam") does everything its bold claims say it will: Post-application, 30 minutes yields a subtle kiss of color, one hour yields dark, and two to three is ultra-dark. (Which, if I'm being honest, is what I've been going with because the color is just so summery and good.)

The Best Tanning Body Mist

Sleep Mask Tan Body
James Read Sleep Mask Tan Body $46

I'll just go ahead and say it. This is (and probably forever will be) the only self-tanning mist I've loved. For whatever reason, I typically struggle with the process and am consistently left with random dark streaks, saturated spot-like stains, and other unsightly yet unfortunately telltale signs of a self-tan gone awry. Thus, you can imagine my apprehension when I willed myself to test out this self-tanner from James Read. And go figure, it ended up being one of my absolute favorites. (Admittedly, I have a weakness for all of his products; they're always so good.)

The morning after I sprayed myself down according to the mist's instructions (one thing I love about sprays is how fast and fuss-free they are), I was definitely holding my breath. But after slowly opening one eye and then the other eye, I was shocked by how even, flattering, and all-around perfect the tan looked. The color is more on the subtle side of the spectrum, but it definitely gave my skin a noticeable boost I appreciated. It also has wonderful ingredients like coconut water and a whole host of skin-hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid, aloe vera, and algae extract.

The Best Tanning Mousse

Self Tan Extra Dark Bronzing Mousse
St. Tropez Self Tan Extra Dark Bronzing Mousse $45

I've been infatuated with St. Tropez's Self Tan Express Bronzing Mousse ($44) ever since it launched. I was obsessed with the color, the duration of the tint payoff, and the super-natural fade. And in my opinion, there wasn't really any way the formula could have been improved except for more saturated color on those rare occasions when I wanted to channel my most tropical, sun-drenched self. 

Enter the St. Tropez Self Tan Extra Dark Bronzing Mousse, which imparts the boldest (yet most believable) deep tan I've ever messed with as a self-professed self-tanning enthusiast. Although it's not technically an express format like my old go-to, it does yield fast, high-quality results while still delivering the flattering color, duration, and fade perks I loved from my previous pick. Yes, the color is dark, so if that's not the look you're after, I would suggest looking elsewhere on this list. That being said, I have very fair skin, and this still managed to look natural after my shower the next morning. It will look crazy upon initial application—you've been warned. 

The Best Tanning Oil

Wonder Oil Illuminating Self-Tan Oil
Tan-Luxe Wonder Oil Illuminating Self-Tan Oil $68

I'm not typically all too oil-inclined when it comes to my self-tanning MO, but this tanning oil from Tan-Luxe is too slick not to make for an honorable mention. First of all, it's cute, and it reminds me of the days back in the early 2000s when 87% of my Caboodle-housed beauty collection was in roll-on form. So there's that. And then, of course, there are the praiseworthy results and application perks. (Also, the rollerball is "cooling"—amazing come those dead-of-summer heat indexes.)

Here's how it works: All you have to do is work the product steadily over your entire body (it's enriched with organic tanning actives based in a glow-enhancing blend of six different oils) before using your hands to spread and work the no-mess formulation into the skin. Just don't forget to wash your hands post-application!

The Best Wash-Off Tan

Body Foundation Wash Off Tan Face & Body
James Read Body Foundation Wash Off Tan Face & Body $18

Sometimes, no matter how efficient and lovely a self-tanning product is, I just can't be bothered to go through the whole rigamarole of moussing, oiling, or spraying myself. It just feels exhausting. So strategic, instant formulations like this one from James Read come in clutch. Essentially, all you have to do is spread it directly onto the skin (or if you want a more diffused glow, mix it into your favorite lotion or moisturizer) and slather it all over your body. It basically tans, airbrushes, and tones your body in less than five minutes. It dries fast, smells nice, and I've even found it doesn't transfer onto white sheets if, like me, you forget to wash it off prior to collapsing into bed at night. Amazing.

Currently, the version for face and body is only available via the brand's UK site, but the OG version (which is equally wonderful and meant just for the body) is available here in the states: Body Foundation Wash Off Tan ($16). 

The Best Tanning Body Makeup

Body Blur Instant HD Skin Finish
Vita Liberata Body Blur Instant HD Skin Finish $45

I was excited to try this revamped, cult-favorite pick from Vita Liberata (Hailey Baldwin's go-to red carpet self-tanner), which, in case you didn't know, is formulated with organic ingredients—score. Similar to the previous product, this is an instant body makeup type of self-tanning situation which imparts immediate, (albeit darker) color for a true tan (versus more of a tinted diffused glow as the James Read does). 

However, what's lovely about this formula is that it not only grants that immediate airbrushed effect which will endure all day and/or night, but after you shower, it'll also leave you with a lasting tan. So basically, it pulls double duty—multitasking at its finest. And there you have it, the best new tanners in the game.

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