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You may not know it, but using a self-tanner is one of the only safe ways to get a bronzed glow. Unlike exposure to UV rays and tanning beds, self-tanner doesn't cause damage to the skin, so you can still achieve your desired look without risking your skin's health. That's why they're widely recommended by skin experts, including celebrity aesthetician and dermatological nurse Natalie Aguilar.
“Using a self-tanning product at home decreases your exposure to premature aging, sunburn, and skin cancer caused by the sun and tanning beds,” she says. “They contain an FDA-approved ingredient called dihydroxyacetone, commonly known as DHA, which temporarily tans the outermost layers of your skin.” Because of this, exfoliating your skin before application is key—whether that’s shaving, using a loofah, or applying a refined body scrub. When applying a self-tanner, it’s best to use a mitt to ensure even coverage (and to prevent your palms from darkening).
Ready to glow? Along with Aguilar and James Read, self-tanning expert and founder of James Read Tan, we rounded up the very best self-tanners out there.
Best Overall: Coco & Eve Sunny Honey Bali Bronzing Foam
This tropical-scented formula is packed with powerful anti-aging ingredients—like raw virgin coconuts and antioxidant-rich mango, fig, and cocoa—to firm and hydrate your skin and even target pesky cellulite. Formulated with 100% natural DHA, this easy-to-apply foam imparts a natural-looking golden glow in as little as two hours.
With three shades available, you can choose your level of tan—whether you want a subtle boost or a deeper bronze. And because each formula is developed with a green-gray base, you can rest easy knowing it won't leave you with any orangey tones. Also worth noting? Unlike many self-tanners that can smell pretty off-putting, this one has a yummy Balinese mango and guava scent.
Best Budget: Jergens Natural Glow Daily Moisturizer
This classic formula is a goodie for a reason. A top choice from Read, it lives up to its name by delivering a gradual tan that enhances your natural skin tone. "It's super hydrating and easy to use," he adds. Infused with moisturizers such as glycerin and avocado oil as well as antioxidants like vitamin E, the formula not only nourishes and softens the skin, but it also works hard to keep it protected.
This drugstore favorite is available in two different shades, light to medium and medium to tan, to flatter a range of skin tones. So if a subtle glow is what you’re after, trust, this moisturizing lotion is a winner.
Best Drugstore: L'Oreal Paris Sublime Bronze Hydrating Self-Tanning Water Mousse
This ultra lightweight mousse applies like a dream, imparting a natural-looking medium glow, no time spent in the sun required. The transfer-proof formula applies clear—meaning, it won’t stain your clothes—and dries quickly, getting to work in just four to eight hours. To keep your skin extra soft and smooth, the formula is enriched with coconut water and vitamin E—plus, it’s coconut-infused scent smells like summer. Expert tip? To create a deeper, longer-lasting tan, the brand suggests applying three times over the course of 12 to 24 hours.
Best for Face: James Read Tan Click & Glow Tan Drops
Read created these facial self-tanning drops to allow for a more customizable bronze. “The more drops, the more you tan,” he says. For an instant glow, add two to four drops to your favorite skincare product, such as a moisturizer or serum, and mix together in the palm of your hand before applying evenly all over the face. (For a deeper tan, try adding six to eight drops.) Since the formula is buildable, it’s best to apply two to three times a week to build and maintain your color.
Not only will it impart a natural-looking glow, but the formula is also chock full of skin-loving ingredients too: Vitamin E provides antioxidant protection and boosts collagen production while aloe vera and hyaluronic acid hydrate, plump, and soothe.
Best for Fair Skin: St. Tropez Self Tan Purity Bronzing Water Mousse
The trick to tanning fair skin is building up your color. This water mousse makes it easy to do just that—simply apply (no rinse needed afterward) and wait four to eight hours for the color to develop. Continue to reapply—and moisturize in-between—to get your desired result. Read likes this formula because it's super light on the skin, adding that its clear formulation makes it easy to tan-and-go during the day or wear to bed. "It's also super hydrating due to added vitamins," he says. Also nice? The formula is also vegan, cruelty-free, and non-comedogenic. Yes, please!
What Our Testers Say
"The result was the most even fake tan I’ve ever been able to give myself. I usually discover streaks a few hours after applying self-tanner and cross my fingers that no one will notice, but those were nonexistent here." — Leigh Weingus, Product Tester
Best for Medium Skin: Tarte Brazilliance PLUS + Self-Tanner with Mitt
Tarte’s best-selling self-tanning gel will not only help you fake that just-back-from-vacation bronze in as little as four hours, but it also doubles as a skin-loving body treatment. The formula combines self-tanning agents with exfoliating citric acid, moisturizing maracuja and sunflower seed oils, and smoothing squalane to leave you with an overall smoother, more even texture and tone. Plus, the set comes with a custom application mitt to make application way less messy. The result? A beautiful and streak-free deep tan that’s especially flattering on medium skin tones.
Some self-tanners can have a very specific (and unpleasant) scent as they get to work, so Tarte developed its proprietary PUREshield scent-control technology to ensure you only see your tan—not smell it, too.
Best for Dark Skin: Bondi Sands Aero Aerated Self Tanning Foam
Read is a big fan of this self-tanning foam from Bondi Sans: "The color is very natural, it dries in 60 seconds (which means you can wear it out), and the fade down is natural," he says. The formula, which develops in about six to eight hours, boasts skin-soothing ingredients like vitamin E and jojoba oil for intense hydration, which can help prolong the lasting power of your tan. Plus, it has a delicious coconut scent that instantly transports you to a tropical beach. While this formula is available in three different shades, Ultra Dark is ideal for deeper skin tones, imparting a natural bronzed tan over a dark base.
Best Gradual: Vita Liberata Fabulous Self Tanning Gradual Tan Lotion
If you want more of a gradual effect when it comes to your tan, this lotion is perfect for you. Formulated with 100% natural ECOcert DHA, the moisturizing formula applies like a regular body lotion and develops between four to eight hours for a long-lasting, natural glow. It's also deeply hydrating, brimming with moisturizing ingredients like shea butter, hyaluronic acid, and marula oil, as well as antioxidants to protect your skin against damaging UV rays and free radicals.
The best part? It applies clear doesn’t transfer onto fabrics, so your sheets stay white even after application. And while it doesn't contain any fragrance (making it a great pick for sensitive skin types), the formula is low odor and doesn't smell as strongly as traditional self-tanners.
Best Instant: James Read Tan Glow 20 Body Tanning Mousse
No time to wait hours for your self-tanner to develop? Look no further than this express formula from James Read Tan. This fast-acting mousse creates a natural-looking glow in 20 minutes flat—which, in our opinion, is quite impressive—while leaving the skin soft, hydrated, and healthy. Thanks to skincare greats like vitamin C, hyaluronic acid, and fruit extracts, the formula helps to brighten and smooth out the skin while also protecting it against free radical damage and supporting collagen production. Overall, it’s a must.
Best for Sensitive Skin: Isle of Paradise Self-Tanning Water
This self-tanning water from Isle of Paradise combines tanning actives with a blend of good-for-you ingredients like coconut oil, avocado oil, and chia seed oil to hydrate and support the skin’s natural barrier. It’s also super gentle, making it an excellent choice for those with sensitive skin: The formula only uses actives at low pH levels in addition to other non-sensitizing and hypoallergenic ingredients.
It’s available in three different formulas for for light, medium, and dark skin tones, all of which are boosted with their own individual complexes: The light formula helps to brighten, the medium formula helps to reduce redness and calm the skin, and the dark formula reduces orange/sallow tones. Also nice: The formula comes in refillable bottles, making it a great option in terms of sustainability.
Best Mousse: Australian Glow One Hour Express Self Tan Mousse
This mousse from Australian Glow is a top choice due to the fact that it's absolutely brimming with natural botanicals, such as vitamin C-rich kakadu plum, purifying cocoa, anti-aging powerhouse green tea, and antioxidant-rich goji berries. It's also infused with plenty of moisture-boosting ingredients like hyaluronic acid and aloe vera. Depending on your desired level of tan, you can leave this mousse on for an hour for a subtle glow or up to four hours to develop an even deeper glow. Plus, you can build on your tan with multiple layers—no orange tones or streaks in sight.
Best Serum: Fake Bake Flawless Coconut Tanning Serum for Face and Body
Equal parts skincare and self-tanner, this body serum provides a natural bronzing effect on all skin tones while leaving the skin smooth and supple. Infused with hydrating powerhouses like coconut oil, hyaluronic acid, glycerin, and silk amino acids, the quick-drying formula is a total game-changer. "This serum is great—the application is so easy with its pat to dry formulation, plus it's super hydrating and has great color," says Read. "And who doesn't like coconut?" (Yes, it also smells super good.) For maximum absorption and a longer-lasting tan, leave it on for four to six hours before rinsing off.
Best Odorless: Loving Tan 2 HR Express Self Tanning Mousse
If you're a regular self-tanner user, then you're probably well aware of the fact that many products can have quite an unpleasant scent. That's why we love this formula from Loving Tan (which, as the name implies, was made by tan lovers for tan lovers).
Not only does it smell absolutely delicious (read: no chemical smell), but the quick-drying formula also provides a natural bronzing effect after just two hours. Of course, before application, remember to exfoliate and moisturize your skin for an even, streak-free tan.
Best Wash-Off: L'Oréal Paris Beach Bae Face & Body Liquid Luminizer
Looking for a temporary glow boost that you can rinse off in the shower? Swipe on this liquid luminizer for a radiant finish that feels lightweight and looks natural. Essentially a bronzer for your bod (and your face, too), the subtle shimmer isn’t overpowering, and because the formula is sheer, it blends well into the skin. Wear it alone, or dab over foundation for an instant lit-from-within glow. It's also available in two shades, light to medium and medium to deep, meaning this formula can work its magic on all skin tones.
Overall, we’re giving top honors to the Coco & Eve Sunny Honey Bali Bronzing Foam. Not only is it brimming with powerful anti-aging and antioxidant ingredients, but it’s specially formulated with a green-gray base to prevent that dreaded orange tinge. When it comes to the face, we’re big fans of using drops in order to customize and build gradual, even color. Our favorite is the James Read Tan Click & Glow Tan Drops, which also boasts antioxidant vitamin E, soothing aloe vera, and plumping hyaluronic acid. Finally, we love the ease of applying tanning mousses like the L'Oreal Paris Sublime Bronze Hydrating Self-Tanning Water Mousse. This ultra lightweight formula checks all the boxes: It’s super hydrating, quick-drying, and affordable.
What to Look For in a Self-Tanner
If you consider yourself a self-tanner novice, Read recommends starting out with gradual formulas. These will allow you to slowly build up your color to your desired shade, rather than leaving you with an instant tan that could end up being too intense for your skin tone. Plus, gradual tanners tend to be formulated as lotions and creams, which will provide extra hydration benefits.
Mousses and Mists
If you consider yourself a more confident tanner, Read says mousses and bronzing mists are best. These tend to be a bit stronger, providing you with more intense, deeper color that lasts longer than gradual formulas. With that in mind, if you’re experienced with self-tanners and looking for a quick, on-the-go solution, he recommends reaching for express formulas. And with any body product, express or not, Read recommends always using a tanning mitt to apply.
2-in-1 Formulas for the Face
When it comes to using self-tanners on your face, Read recommends looking for 2-in-1 formulas that double as skincare. Products that contain hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid, antioxidants like vitamins C and E, and other brightening and smoothing ingredients will ensure your complexion looks its very best, all while providing a post-vacation glow sans sun. According to him, tanning drops, water mists, and overnight serums are your best options. “Also make sure it’s translucent, as these don’t block your pores,” he adds. Additionally, you should also avoid anything too dark or instant, and never use a product that’s formulated solely for the body.
“Depending on the self-tanner brand, you can reapply within 3-7 days,” suggests Aguilar. Her two biggest tips to keep your tan and your skin in perfect condition? “Moisturize your skin with a hydrating body lotion and always protect it with sunscreen.”
Meet the Expert
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.