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I don’t know about you, but there’s something about sun-touched skin that makes me feel like a better version of myself. Unfortunately, the sun itself can be majorly damaging to the skin, so for a glow that doesn’t come with repercussions, a fake tan is the way to go.
But applying self-tanner is an exercise in trusting the process—every application seems to come with the chance you’ll wake up the next day looking like a carrot, or that your skin will be streaked with unnatural colors.
Best Overall: Jergens Natural Glow Instant Sun Sunless Tanning Mousse
This mousse gives you an instant tan that gradually deepens over several hours. Its guide color makes it easy to see where you’ve already applied the tanner, and the scent fades quickly. You can even use it on your face, without worrying about too much dryness: “All self-tanners are made up of DHA (dihydroxyacetone) which is a drying agent. Because the level of DHA is lower in this product it won’t give such a drying effect on the face area,” said Flanagan.” Another bonus? According to Flanagan, it fades evenly.
Best Budget: Malibu Tan Hemp Skin Firming & Bronzing Body Moisturizer
While many options on this list are affordable, for the lowest price you can get try this combination tan and skincare moisturizer. It builds color over time while giving an immediate bronze look. CoQ10, a skin firming ingredient, smoothes wrinkles and tightens skin.
Best Spray: L'Oréal Paris Sublime Bronze ProPerfect Salon Airbrush Self-Tanning Mist
DIY a spray tan with this self-tanning mist. There’s no need to rub it in, which can make it easier to tan hard-to-reach areas like the middle of your back. The product dries quickly, and it can be used daily until you reach your desired level of tan.
Best Towelettes: L’Oréal Paris Sublime Bronze Towelettes for Body
For exfoliation and a tan in one, try these towelettes from L'Oreal. According to the brand, vitamin E and exfoliating AHA in the formula help give you an even tan, which fully develops over four hours. The towelettes are especially handy for travel (and easy to bring on planes!) so pack a few for your next vacation.
Best Lotion: COOLA Organic Sunless Tan Firming Self-Tanning Lotion
A tan and firmer, smoother skin? This lotion from Coola builds your tan gradually, so there is less opportunity to overdo the color or streak, while caffeine is meant to tighten up skin. It smells like Piña Coladas so you can dream of somewhere tropical even if beach days are far away. Use the lotion with a tanning mitt for best results.
Best Mousse: St. Tropez Self Tan Classic Bronzing Mousse
This is a favorite of Flanagan’s for its mousse-like texture and the bronze tones it leaves behind. “I find this to be one of those foolproof products especially for something so intimidating as a self-tanner,” she shared. The guide color makes it easy to see where you’ve already applied the product, and it fades evenly, said, Flanagan.
Best for Face: Coola Organic Sunless Tan Anti-Aging Face Serum
While most self-tanners can be used on the face (I recommend testing it first!), a dedicated self-tanner for the face can make the process easier. This self-tan doubles as an anti-aging serum and the gradual build means you’ll never overdo it.
Best Instant: Sally Hansen Airbrush Legs
If you don’t have time to wait, body makeup is a good option for tanned, flawless skin. It’s not permanent, so any mishaps can be washed away. “I have used this on myself and clients on the entire body (and even the face) and can really be a lifesaver if you don’t have the time for a permanent self-tanner,” said Flanagan. (New variations of the product work like traditional self-tanners and build a cover over several hours.)
Best for Dark Skin: St. Tropez Self Tan Extra Dark Bronzing Mousse
While several of our favorites have deep and dark options, those who already have dark skin may find they need something more intense. This extra dark formulation comes in an easy to apply mouse and develops to a dark, bronzed color in 8 hours.
Best for Medium Skin: St. Tropez Self Tan Purity Bronzing Water Gel
One coat will give you a healthy glow, and a second will give you a darker color—which is just one of the reasons Barnes suggests this tanner for fair to medium skin tones (the tropical scent is another reason!). “I do suggest a mitt for the evenest application. The only drawback is this formula is clear, so pay attention to where you are putting the product during application so it is even,” said Barnes.
Best for Fair Skin: Jergens Natural Glow Self Tanning Daily Moisturizer
Fair skin is more prone to revealing mistakes in your self-tan application, which is why something gradual like this daily moisturizer is a good recommendation. You can build up to the results you’re after and then use it less often to maintain your desired tan.
Best Longwear: b.tan forever + ever Self Tanning Mousse
While most self-tanners need to be reapplied at least once a week, b.tan’s last for up to 11 days. The tan is completely free of orange tones, and the formula is vegan, uses naturally sourced ingredients, and promises no fake tan smell.
You really can’t go wrong with our overall pick, Jergens Natural Glow Instant Sun Sunless Tanning Mousse. The consistency makes it super easy to apply, while you get an immediate glow that only gets better over several hours. For darker skin, turn to St. Tropez Self Tan Extra Dark Bronzing Mousse for a serious boost in color. If your skin is extremely fair, sticking with a formula that builds gradually, like Jergens Natural Glow Self Tanning Daily Moisturizer, is a safe bet.
What to Look For When Self-Tanning
Prep skin for a better tan
DHA (the ingredient that creates a tan) best adheres to clean skin, so exfoliate, shave, and skip moisturizer before applying self-tanner.
If your tan turns wrong, try Veet
If you accidentally apply too much tanner or make a mistake, Barnes offered an unconventional tip: “Just apply on the spot you want to remove and leave on for 1 minute and the self-tanner comes right off,” he shared.
Keep skin moisturized for a long lasting tan
Be sure to keep skin moisturized, and be mindful that too much exfoliation will cause your tan to fade faster. To amplify your tan, Barnes likes to use his Body Bling shimmering moisturizer lotion with his Pave Powder on top for extra glow.
Why Trust Byrdie?
Joline Buscemi is a Byrdie contributor and a beauty writer for several publications, and as a lifelong Floridian turned New Englander, she knows the value of a (fake) tan.
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 Walmart self-tanners from a Black-owned and/or Black-founded business. If you know of one we should consider, please email us at email@example.com and we will evaluate the product ASAP.