No one should risk sunburn or hop into a tanning bed just to achieve a bronzy glow—especially the fair skin set. While the self-tanners of yesteryear had a reputation for looking like, well, self-tanner, today's formulas are a horse of a different color.
Byrdie Researched & Approved
As global tanning expert, Jordan Annabel Cook puts it, "We are far too advanced now in the beauty world for anything fake to actually look fake." There are lotions, creams, mousses, and sprays, plus oils, drops, facial serums, and everything in between for creating a convincing sun-kissed look.
Most call on dihydroxyacetone (DHA) to temporarily deepen your skin tone, which sounds like a synthetic chemical but is usually naturally derived. But which products are best for pale complexions?
"It's always wiser to stick to the gradual developers and the lighter self-tanners when it comes to fair skin," Cook tells Byrdie. "They will give a much softer, natural glow to the skin, rather than an intense color change."
Ahead, the best self-tanners for fair skin.
St. Tropez Self Tan Purity Bronzing Water Mousse
Easy to apply
No self-tanning smell
Mitt not included
Who else recommends it? Cosmopolitan, Who What Wear, and StyleCraze all picked the St. Tropez Self Tan Bronzing Mousse.
St. Tropez reigns in the self-tanning market—and for good reason. Since its mid-90s launch, the brand's iconic Bronzing Mousse has been a go-to for achieving a sunless glow. And the clear water formula is a clutch for pale complexions.
Infused with naturally derived, vegan DHA, plus botanical extracts, and vitamin C, this self-tanning standby offers gradual, streak-free color, more even skin tone, and a natural glow from head-to-toe.
The rinse-free formula is easy to apply with a mitt (sold separately) and won't transfer onto your clothes or bedding. And thanks to St. Tropez's signature tropical scent, you won't end up with that dreaded self-tanning smell.
Price at time of publish: $42
Type: Mousse | Active Ingredients: Dihydroxyacetone, vitamin C | Size: 6.7 ounces | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
What Our Testers Say
"It will give your skin an even, vibrant, streak-free look." — Leigh Weingus, Product Tester
Jergens Natural Glow Wet Skin Moisturizer
A staple of the mid-aughts, Jergens Natural Glow has had a few iterations over the years, our favorite being the Wet Skin Moisturizer. Massage it into damp skin before hopping out of the shower, pat it dry before getting dressed, and you're good to go. No streaks, no mess, just a gorgeous glow.
Price at time of publish: $13
Type: In-shower moisturizer | Active Ingredients: Dihydroxyacetone | Size: 7.5 ounces | Cruelty-Free: No | Byrdie Clean: No
Alba Botanica Sunless Tanner
Drugstore brands hold their own in the self-tanning sector. Case in point: Alba Sunless Tanner, a fast-absorbing plant-based formula that provides a gradual glow while moisturizing the skin with shea butter and natural oils.
Price at time of publish: $10
Type: Lotion | Active Ingredients: Dihydroxyacetone, shea butter, plant oils | Size: 4 ounces | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
St. Moriz Professional Gradual Tanning Lotion Medium
"Fair skin should remain the fairest in all the land. A regular mistake is trying to change your skin color. Never pick up the product because it says 'dark'… We always want to enhance our look, not completely change it," says Cook. "St. Moriz Professional Gradual Tanning Lotion is beautiful for a gentle hydrating glow. Apply this every day until you are happy with the depth of color. Then, apply as often as you wish to keep your color."
Price at time of publish: $8
Type: Lotion | Active Ingredients: Dihydroxyacetone | Size: 9.3 ounces | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No
Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Glow Pad for Body
Cook explains that exfoliation is crucial for achieving even color. With this in mind, we recommend the Glow Pads by Dr. Dennis Gross. They gently slough off dead skin and smooth uneven texture with AHAs and BHAs (alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids), then deliver a natural-looking tan with DHA.
Price at time of publish: $45
Type: Pad | Active Ingredients: Dihydroxyacetone, glycolic acid, lactic acid, salicylic acid | Size: 8 pads | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Tan-Luxe The Body Illuminating Self-Tan Drops
Mixes with moisturizer
No self-tanning smell
We're also loving The Body from Tan-Luxe, an oil-based tincture offering customizable color. Just mix a few drops into your daily body lotion and massage it into your skin as you normally would. Want more color? Add another drop or two the next time.
Price at time of publish: $50
Type: Liquid drops | Active Ingredients: Dihydroxyacetone, raspberry seed oil | Size: 1.7 ounces | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best for Face
Drunk Elephant D-Bronzi Anti-Pollution Sunshine Drops
Mimics vitamin D benefits
Drunk Elephant Sunshine Drops call on plant-based ingredients like cocoa extract and black currant oil to create a natural glow on your face, neck, and décolletage. They also contain chronocyclin, which mimics the benefits of vitamin D you get from the sun.
Price at time of publish: $36
Type: Serum | Active Ingredients: Chronocyclin, black currant oil, cocoa extract | Size: 1 ounce | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best With SPF
Supergoop! Healthy Glow Sunless Tan SPF 40
No self-tanning smell
The whole point of self-tanner is to avoid baking in the actual sun, no? With this in mind, Supergoop Healthy Glow offers buildable bronzing with DHA¹ while safeguarding your largest organ with broad-spectrum SPF 40 protection.
Price at time of publish: $38
Type: Spray | Active Ingredients: Dihydroxyacetone, avobenzone, homosalate, octinoxate, octisalate | Size: 3.4 ounces | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No
Josie Maran Argan Liquid Gold Self-Tanning Oil
Infused with pure argan oil, this nourishing self-tanning liquid quenches dry skin and smooths uneven texture. More to the point, it offers an instant hint of warmth, then gradually develops into a medium tan in a few hours.
Price at time of publish: $57
Type: Oil | Active Ingredients: Dihydroxyacetone, argan oil | Size: 4.3 ounces | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Isle of Paradise Light Self Tanning Mousse
Mitt not included
To make sunless tanner look natural on fair skin, reach for a transparent formula, like Glow Clear from Isle of Paradise. The ultra-light whipped mousse starts as a colorless foam, disappears instantly, dries notably fast, then emerges hours later in the form of a golden glow.
Price at time of publish: $32
Type: Mousse | Active Ingredients: Dihydroxyacetone, plant oils, omega-3s | Size: 6.8 ounces | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
The more your skin stays hydrated, the better your tan will look and last. Be sure to apply nourishing body creams, oils, or lotions on a daily basis so your skin looks smooth and supple and your tan is extended to its full potential.
Vita Liberata Fabulous Self Tanning Gradual Tan Lotion
No self-tanning smell
Some reviewers note it streaks
Cook says, "If you [have] fair-to-medium skin, go for a gradual developing product." We're big fans of Vita Liberata Fabulous, a supremely creamy lotion that offers a hint of warmth and builds with continued use—extra points for the brand's DHA odor-eliminating technology.
Type: Lotion | Active Ingredients: Dihydroxyacetone, marula oil, shea butter | Size: 6.8 ounces | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Tanologist Express Tan Light Self-Tan Water
Mitt not included
Gradual formulas are ideal for light skin tones, but if you don't have time to waste, your best bet is Express Tan. This sunless tanning spray starts clear and develops into a bronze glow within about an hour.
Price at time of publish: $18
Type: Spray | Active Ingredients: Dihydroxyacetone | Size: 6.7 ounces | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No
COOLA Organic Sunless Tan Dry Oil Mist
Contains organic ingredients
Coola's take on sunless tanner is this dry oil mist. Flaunting a concoction of sustainably sourced DHA, argan oil, and vitamin C, it pulls out all the stops to help you achieve a warm, dewy, healthy-looking glow.
Price at time of publish: $46
Type: Spray | Active Ingredients: Dihydroxyacetone, argan oil, vitamin C | Size: 3.4 ounces | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Tan-Luxe The Water Hydrating Self-Tan Water
Haven't tried tanning "water" yet? Allow us to introduce you to The Water. Containing organic DHA, raspberry seed oil, antioxidants, and aloe vera, this crystal-clear liquid promises deep hydration and sun-kissed color without streaks or irritation.
Price at time of publish: $48
Type: Spray | Active Ingredients: Dihydroxyacetone, raspberry seed oil, antioxidants, aloe | Size: 6.8 ounces | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
The best self-tanner for fair skin is undoubtedly St. Tropez Bronzing Water Mousse, an ultra-lightweight, user-friendly formula that promises subtle, streak-free warmth without transferring it onto your clothes. For babes on a budget, we recommend Jergens Natural Glow Wet Skin Moisturizer, which can be used in the shower and absorbs quickly with minimal streaks.
Meet the Expert
Jordan Annabel Cook is a global tanning expert and SFX (special effects) makeup artist who uses self-tanning products in all aspects of her work. In her several years in the industry, she has worked with well-known brands, such as St. Moriz, Urban Decay, and Mac. Previously, she volunteered to help burn victims cover their scars using makeup and other cosmetics.
What to Look for in a Self-Tanner for Fair Skin
If you have fairer skin, Read suggests opting for customizable formulas, allowing you to either initially measure out your level of tan or gradually build up your color over time. “Tanning drops, express tan formulas, or gradual tan formulas are great, as you can measure your glow and decide your own level of tan,” he says. “I would advise you to start light first and then build it up. Less is more.” By going this route, you’re less likely to go overboard and end up with a tan that’s either too dark or too orange.
Exfoliating before applying a self-tanner is crucial, which is why it’s also important to find a self-tanning formula that’s hydrating. This will not only enhance your overall glow by replenishing moisture to freshly exfoliated skin, leaving it soft and supple but can help prolong the length of your tan too.
2-in-1 Face Formulas
When it comes to the face, Read suggests using products with 2-in-1 formulations that double as skincare. Drops, serums, and lotions are best for building up the color gradually (and avoiding a tan that’s either too orange or too dark), while ingredients like hyaluronic acid and antioxidants will pack in the skin benefits, leaving you with a natural-looking tan and a healthy, radiant glow.
How do self-tanners for fair skin work?
Most self-tanners for fair skin contain dihydroxyacetone (DHA). The active ingredient reacts with the outer layer of your skin, temporarily darkening it to mimic the appearance of a natural tan.
"Usually, self-tanners work in medium/dark shades," says Cook, explaining that fair/medium is better for lighter complexions. "It will have a truer representation to your skin tone and look natural rather than fake."
How do you apply self-tanners for fair skin?
According to Cook, preparation is key. "Exfoliate so you have a completely fresh canvas to work from… Put moisturizer on all your drier areas—knees, ankles, elbows, wrists, and any other areas that seem to be drier—even if the tanner you are applying is a moisturizing one."
Next, apply the product by massaging it into your skin, preferably with a mitt. "Once you have finished applying, I would highly recommend diluting the dry areas [with moisturizer] a second time," says Cook. "The less these areas look like you've tanned them, the better." Finally, wash your hands thoroughly to avoid unnaturally dark palms and buildup between your fingers.
How often should you use self-tanners for fair skin?
With pale skin, less is usually more, as you want to avoid accidentally overdoing it. Having said that, the ideal frequency of use depends on the formula. Some self-tanners work gradually and can be applied daily until you achieve the color you want, while others provide a bronze hue after one use and fade within a few days.
In any case, Cook says to moisturize with a regular lotion every day. "It will help keep your tan looking fresher longer while also leaving your [color] more subtle so that removal won't be too hard."
Why Trust Byrdie?
Theresa Holland is a commerce copywriter specializing in cosmetics and lifestyle products. She interviewed a tanning expert for this story, compiling their product suggestions and expertise on the best formulations for pale complexions. Before landing on her final picks, she referenced several peer-reviewed articles and combed through the ingredients lists of numerous sunless tanners. From the above, she has personally tried St. Tropez, Jergens, St. Moriz, Dr. Dennis Gross, Tan-Luxe, and Drunk Elephant. Theresa covers skincare, makeup, haircare, and wellness products at Byrdie.
According to our Diversity Pledge, 15% of products in our newly-published market roundups will feature Black-owned and/or Black-founded brands. At the time of publishing, we were not able to find any self-tanners from a Black-owned and/or Black-founded business. If you know of one we should consider, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will evaluate the product ASAP.
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15 best self-tanners for pale skin that won’t turn you orange. Cosmopolitan. https://www.cosmopolitan.com/style-beauty/beauty/g39820527/best-self-tanner-for-pale-skin
18 self-tanners that don't leave my fair skin orange or streaky. Who What Wear. https://www.whowhatwear.com/best-self-tanners-for-fair-skin
11 best self tanners for fair skin, according to reviews – 2022. StyleCraze. https://www.stylecraze.com/articles/best-self-tanners-for-fair-skin
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