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Your Fool-Proof Self-Tanning Guide

Because it's a quick descent from bronzed goddess to Oompa Loompa.


Self-tanning can seem daunting—there are so many formulas, so much skin, and so many things that could absolutely go wrong. But what if we said you're not going to end up like that girl from The Wedding Planner (you know, the one streaky and crying) but more like the bronzed beauty that is J.Lo? Are you in? 

Here, your fool-proof guide to getting your tan on, the safe way. (And remember, if you do mess up, heed J.Lo/Mary's advice: "Stop crying. A quarter cup lemon juice, half a cup of salt, and loofa—scrub, scrub, scrub.")


1. We're not joking: You need to exfoliate 

Exfoliation is 🔑. "Make sure to do any waxing, shaving, exfoliating beforehand," advises Svetlana Feller, founder of Spray di Sole brush-on tan. "If you attempt to do those after, you will just be exfoliating away your tan! Also, exfoliating before you faux ensures that you'll be removing dead skin, which otherwise the tan could stick to." 

2. Moisturize

People blame self-tanning products for turning them orange when really, dry skin is the biggest culprit. Parched skin absorbs extra DHA (Dihydroxyacetone, the active ingredient in sunless or self-tanning lotions), so make sure skin is super moisturized when you apply self-tanner. Choose a moisturizing product like Versa Spa's Gradual Tanning Spa Butter, which contains brown and green marine algae and squalene to hydrate, enhance collagen production, and improve skin's firmness. And don't even think about oil-based moisturizers, like coconut oil. "While coconut oil is amazing for many things, when it comes to DHA-based products, the coconut oil can actually make the tan break down more quickly," says Feller. A regular, cream-like lotion does the trick. 

"While coconut oil is amazing for many things, when it comes to DHA-based products, the coconut oil can actually make the tan break down more quickly."

3. Prep your face

Now that you've exfoliated and moisturized, make sure you're set for your tan everywhere. Tanning expert James Read recommends rubbing a piece of ice on your face prior to applying self tanner to close the pores. 

4. Find the right formula

People with dry skin and women over 40 should use a lotion so they can maximize hydration and absorption for an even, natural looking tan. (Translation? Less chance of screwing up.) A gradual tan lotion is also the most foolproof choice for your face because it allows you to build color over time. Mousse and gel formulas work well for people with normal skin  because they glide easily over the body. Sprays such as Mystic Tan's Bronzing Spray are good for hard-to-reach spots like your back. It also gives you an immediate hint of color while you build a long-lasting tan. (If you need help finding the right one for you, start here.)

Design by American Artist

1. Spray di Sole Kabuki Brush, $56; spraydisole.com2. Sun Bum Self Tanning Towelette, $16 for 5; ulta.com3. James Read Express Glow Mask—Face, $38; sephora.com4. St. Tropez Bronzing Mousse and Mitt, $42 and $6.50 ; sttropeztan.com

5. Watch out for the tricky spots

"Make sure the lines where your leg meets your butt get tanned—missing these is a telltale sign you have a faux glow," says Feller. "So many people forget to tan this crease, leaving behind what I call a 'moon line.'" Feller also notes that if you're tanning the face, make sure you tan around the eye area, while being very careful to not let the tanner come in contact with the eye. "When you miss the under eye area your under eyes look very white while the rest of your face is tan, creating a reverse raccoon look that is a dead giveaway your tan is faux," says Feller. "Make sure to blend in the tanner everywhere – our Spray di Sole Kabuki brush helps get these hard to reach spots."

"So many people forget to tan the crease where your legs meet your butt, leaving behind what I call a 'moon line.'"

6. Have a set of helpers

Your phone, good lighting, and a mitt/gloves are all your friends today. "Your palms are often dry, and when tanner touches dry skin, it progresses quickly, leaving palms looking unnaturally orange or brown," says Feller. "Make sure to apply with either rubber gloves or a kabuki brush to leave hands clean and ensure that the tan goes on evenly." To make sure you're not going overboard with color, get in natural/good lighting, and double-test by taking a photo of yourself with your phone (with the flash!) to make sure it looks natural, advises Read.  


7. Know you can fix it

Too much? Don't panic. "Remove excess self-tan from your hairline by simply applying makeup remover to a Q-tip and rubbing along the hairline to even out the color," advises Read. If you're too dark all over but you've recently applied, know that faux tans have a time before it truly sets in—usually about 4-6 hours. "Buff away the streaks with a makeup brush or kabuki brush. What you are seeing when you see the streaks, spots, etc. is not usually not the DHA but just the bronzer on top, which is essentially makeup and is easy to fix," says Feller. "Take your powder brush and start blending—that will set the bronzer back into place and no one will know!" If you're too late, don't freak out just yet. Call your local salon and make an appointment for a fix. Pros—they know what they're doing.

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