If you’ve never touched self-tanners before, you’ve probably heard the horror stories. Orange hands. Streaky legs. A tan that faded before you even left the house. Missed spots. Everything you read about self-tanning will probably make you never want to try it, but here’s what they won’t tell you: there are many tips and tricks to getting the perfect self-tan (and sometimes, it all comes down to a good product).
Tanning expert Jordan Cook gave us a few pro-level tips for the best tan ever this summer, and we’re sharing our top 20 best self-tanners no matter what you’re looking for.
Regardless of your skin type, everyone can benefit from a gradual tanner, Cook explained. “The beauty of a gradual tanner is that you are in control of your shade,” Cook said. “You can apply as little or as often until the product becomes the shade of color you desire. Whether it’s a mousse, water spritz, or tanning drops, each you can tailor to suit you.”
If you’re unsure which type to use, it all depends on personal preference. Mousse tanners are typically the deepest in shade, while tanning waters are easy to apply and are typically less streaky. Gradual tanners are lighter coverage and have a more natural look. As for which shade to buy, Cook made it simple: “If you are a fair to medium natural skin tone, then go for the medium shade; this will look most natural on you. If you have a more olive, darker skin tone, go for the dark.”
If you have a deeper skin tone, don’t fret—self-tanning products are for you too! You can use self-tanners to even out your skin tone, add a golden glow, and enhance the natural melanin already in your skin.
Before You Tan:
Cook explained that you want a clean canvas before you tan if you want it to look flawless and even, so you should always shower and remove any leftover tanner you might have. You can use a tan remover to get any of the hard-to-remove tan off, and then always exfoliate. You’ll want your skin as clean and soft as possible before you apply a tanner.
You should also make sure to moisturize beforehand to make sure your tan is going onto hydrated skin. “Make sure you add a pea-size amount of moisturizer to your hands, feet, ankles, knees, elbows, and any other drier areas to avoid tan clinging there a little too much,” Cook said.
After you’ve tanned, Cook recommends this genius dry shampoo hack. Spray a light dusting of dry shampoo or baby powder on your body after you’ve applied your tanner, and it’ll take away any sticky residue, prevent transfer onto your bedding or clothes, and will prevent you from sweating while the tan develops so it doesn’t interfere with the tan
The Best Self-Tanners of 2021:
This is our editors’ #1 favorite self-tanner on the market. It’s affordable; never looks orange; and has a mild, tolerable scent. When applied with a mitt or glove, the result is never streaky. This tanner also comes in three shades to match various skin tones and depths of color. It looks just like you spent a Saturday laying out in the sun, just without the skincare worries.
When you’re looking for a tanner to just build off your natural skin tone and give you a light tint, a gradual tanner is the way to go. This one is our favorite, coming in under $20 with a light scent and a natural-looking tan that builds over a few days. Use this as your daily moisturizer for a few days, and you’ll notice a light tan that blends right in with your natural skin tone. Tip: you can also use gradual tanner to prolong your tan (both fake and any color you may naturally get from sitting out in the sun).
Editor's Note: "Anyone who self-tans knows that your face fades first, so I spray this on after cleansing, and it magically turns my face into the most natural-looking fake tan I have ever seen in my life. It's better than the Isle of Paradise Tanning drops, it's better than whatever you're using now—it never looks muddy or overdone, but makes you look like you truly spent the afternoon in the sun. This is probably my 10th bottle and I will always re-purchase it. This is in my top five favorite beauty products, no questions asked. Spraying a clear water on your face and it turning into the perfect, even tan sounds too good to be true, but I promise, it is not." —Madeline Galassi, Fashion Content Manager and Associate Editor
These flew off the shelves when they first entered Sephora. These tanning drops have over 2,000 reviews and still constantly go in and out of stock. Why do people love them so much? They give a customizable tan: add one drop to moisturizer for a light tint or a few for a full fake bronze. Tip: use these on the areas that are hard to tan like your ears, tops of the feet, knees, elbows, etc.
Editor's Note: "When I first started using this, I had never used a self-tanner before, so I admittedly didn't even rub it in, and ya know what, it didn't look half bad. Then, I upgraded to an old sock. I didn't use a real tanning mit with this until I almost used up the bottle, and my tan always looked great. I never got streaks. Ever." —Beth Gillette, Beauty Content Manager and Associate Editor
If you've never touched a self-tanner in your life, Ashley Graham partnered with the self-tanner gods at St. Tropez to bring us the ultimate self-tanner kit for beginners. The results? Glowy, moisturized skin (thanks to rosehip oil and hyaluronic acid).
You don't have to spend a lot to get a good self-tanner, and we all know that from stealing our mom's Jergens Natural Glow moisturizer in high school. Enter their self-tanner. It has a tropical scent and dries in 60 seconds.
Loving Tan is loved by those with medium to deep skin tones because they actually provide a tanner that goes dark enough rather than stopping at a light/medium skin tone. For medium skin, you can add a gorgeous, glowy tan with this, and deep skin tones will look evened out and bronzed.
Editor's Note: "As that person who does not tan but simply gets redder and redder like a glowing, sentient stoplight, I have dabbled in my fair share of self-tanners. I've seen it all: the orange hands, the unfortunate streaks, that weird crease under the boobs. But no longer! I have stumbled upon the sheer perfection in a tube that is the St. Tropez Gradual Tan Classic. I want to roll around in this mousse like Scrooge McDuck rolled around in his coin basement, that is how much I love it. It's by far the most I have ever spent on a self-tanning product, but it lasts for-everrrr. I can cover my full body at least 15-20 times with one bottle thanks to the sheer consistency. I recommend applying with a mitt and buffing in medium circles, starting with your legs and working your way up. I love how easily the mousse dispenses from the bottle and a little goes such a long way. It's labeled as "gradual" but the color develops on me within a few hours. It's subtle and sun-kissed and basically perfect. If I'm looking for a deeper color, I'll layer a second coat after about 20 minutes. And joy of joy, the color lasts around a full week before I need to reapply. I simply have no idea how I summered without this??" —Kelly Etz, Online Course Director and Senior Graphic Designer
St. Tropez revolutionized self-tanning for a reason, and it's because their products are damn good. Their classic tanner has olive skin tones down pat, leaving you with a golden glow that isn't anywhere near orange territory.
If normal self-tanners tend to break you out, you can count on this to be your new BFF. Made with soothing aloe and glycerin and dermatologist tested, it's a lot gentler on the skin than others on the market, making it ideal for those who are worried about acne.
Self-tan fades historically fast... until this one stepped in. This tanner is meant to last double the time of your other self-tanners, so if you're looking for something that will last you a while, look no further. Because you'll use it fewer times, using up this bottle will take a while too, making the higher price point feel a bit more manageable.
Self-tanner isn't known to be exactly the best perfume. If you can't bare to handle the smell of self-tanner, this self-tanner will give you exactly what you after: no scent. You can't smell anything when it's on your body, and when you're applying, it's the most mild scent our editors have ever come across.
Don't feel like self-tanning but have an event coming up? Put this on, sleep, and wake up with gorgeous tan skin. It's easy as that.
For the days you have somewhere to be quick, this will get you the tan you desire in about half the time as other tanners. Other tanners can take up to six hours (usually overnight) to develop, whereas this can develop to a full bronzey color in just one hour.
Bring this in your carry-on for any trips this summer. These towels are easy to use and make keeping up the longevity of your tan (maybe the spray tan you splurged on before you left) a breeze.
If you hate self-tanner but like to look bronzed and glowy in the summertime, this is the best on the market. Loved by celebrities and influencers like Jackie Aina, this body makeup gives a blurred look to your skin with a radiant finish. Use it on your legs, arms, shoulders, back—you name it. Plus, it comes in four shades that can be loved by all skin tones.