How to Apply Self-Tanner, According to Experts

mixed femme tanning by the pool

AARON THOMAS / Stocksy

Experts agree: The best, safest tan is a fake one. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, sun exposure is a major cause of skin cancer, the most common form of cancer in the United States. Not to mention the skin changes we tend to associate with age—dark spots, wrinkles, sagging skin—are caused by the sun. So much for "signs of aging."

If you love having a summer glow, learning how to self-tan should absolutely be on your beauty bucket list. Getting a faux tan is easier and cheaper than ever—not to mention safe and suitable for all skin types.

We asked experts the secrets to getting a flawless, streak-free tan every time—and how to make it last as long as possible.

Read on to learn how to apply self-tanner like a pro.

Meet the Expert

  • Loretta Ciraldo, MD, FAAD, is a dermatologist based in Miami, Florida, and the founder of Dr. Loretta skincare products.
  • Moe Kittaneh is the founder of Svelta Beauty, a skincare line featuring self-tanners and body scrubs.
01 of 07

Shower & Exfoliate

Admit it: You've probably had at least one experience with streaky self-tanner in the past. The trick to getting an even, long-lasting fake tan starts with showering and exfoliating.

"Self-tanners work much like a food coloring to stain the dead skin cells at the skin surface," Ciraldo explains. "Exfoliating before application of the self-tanner results in an even appearance to the tan."

Use a body scrub like Sunday Riley Charcoal Smoothie Jelly Body Scrub, which polishes skin with a physical exfoliator (activated charcoal power) as well as chemical exfoliators (salicylic acid and lactic acid).

If you shave your body hair, now's the time to take care of that, too. (More on shaving later.)

02 of 07

Protect Key Areas

blond woman in one piece swimsuit
Caroline Tompkins/Refinery29 for Getty Images 

When you dry off from the shower, don't apply your usual body lotion everywhere.

“It’s crucial to moisturize dry areas only (like your ankles, feet, knees, elbows, wrists, palms, etc.) to prevent them from soaking in too much color,” says Kittaneh. “The rest of your skin should be dry and free of oils or lotions to maximize the effectiveness of the self-tanner."

Have light hair or eyebrows? Put moisturizer over your brows and around your hairline, too. The active ingredient in self-tanner, dihydroxyacetone (DHA), works by tinting the keratin in your skin, Ciraldo explains. Because keratin is also a component of hair, you can give yourself an unintended dye job if you're not careful.

"Light-haired people should be meticulous at avoiding the product getting on scalp or brow hairs," she advises.

03 of 07

Cover Your Hands

Hands are especially prone to turning orange after self-tanning, so for best results, keep them covered. “Use a tanning mitt or latex gloves to apply the self-tanning product evenly and to avoid staining your fingers and palms,” Kittaneh suggests.

The St. Tropez Double Sided Luxe Tan Applicator Mitt is slightly absorbent, ensuring your tanner goes on smoothly and it's washable—so you can use it again and again.

If you're applying the product with bare hands, make sure they're lotioned up first. After applying the self-tanner, wash your hands with a cleanser and washcloth. "The washcloth texture will help to physically exfoliate away the self-tanner," Ciraldo says.

04 of 07

Apply in Long Strokes

After prepping your body and hands, get to work applying your tanner. Remember, your skin needs to be completely dry to absorb the product, so no self-tanning right after your shower; step out of your steamy bathroom and wait 10 minutes.

Put the product directly on your mitt or gloves; try Vita Liberata Fabulous Self-Tanning Mist, a buildable self-tanning water with a quick-drying formula. We also like these self-tanners for fair skin.

vita liberata fabulous self tanning mist
Vita Liberata Fabulous Self-Tanning Mist $20
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“Work on one section at a time, applying the tanner in light, long vertical strokes until smooth and even," Kittaneh says. "Apply sparingly to feet, ankles, knees, elbows, neck, face, and hands, but be sure to touch on all exposed areas for a natural-looking glow.”

Fortunately, overloading on tanner won't turn you orange—DHA can only stain the keratin in your skin to a certain degree—but using too little product can create a streaky-looking tan. Put a liberal amount of product on your glove, enough to coat your skin thoroughly and evenly without rubbing.

05 of 07

Clean Up the Excess

To keep your faux tan looking seamless after you've finished applying your self-tanner, towel off excess product on the rougher skin around your joints.

“After you've finished applying the self-tanner, brush over your knees, wrists, elbows, feet, and ankles with a very slightly damp paper towel to pick up excess color and eliminate unevenness,” says Kittaneh.

06 of 07

Let It Develop

dark haired woman outside in bikini bottom and striped top
Rockie Nolan/Refinery29 for Getty Images 

Wait at least 20 minutes to get dressed and at least 12 hours to shower or get your tan remotely wet (like with skincare products or perfume).

When you do shower, avoid shaving for as long as you want to keep your tan. Shaving exfoliates dead skin, which means your tan will go down the drain along with your shaving cream.

If you have to de-fuzz your legs or arms, "use a depilatory cream instead of shaving to prolong the life of your faux tan," Ciraldo suggests.

07 of 07

Moisturize & Wear Sunscreen

Dry skin is the enemy of a faux tan; Kittaneh says: “To keep your tan fresh as long as possible, moisturize all over daily."

Better yet, if you're heading out of the house, wear moisturizing sunscreen. "We do have to remember that self-tanner alone doesn't afford any sun protection," Ciraldo advises.

Coola Classic Body Organic Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50 is a non-greasy, non-chalky sunscreen that feels like a light body lotion but protects powerfully against UVA and UVB rays.

Reapply your tanner as often as needed—every few days should do the trick—for a long-lasting glow.

Article Sources
Byrdie takes every opportunity to use high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. Rittié L, Fisher GJ. Natural and sun-induced aging of human skinCold Spring Harb Perspect Med. 2015;5(1):a015370.

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