The 20 Best Gradual Self-Tanners Are Key to a Non-Streaky Bronze

All of the glow, none of the UV damage.

women who applied self tanner
(Image credit: Launchmetrics)

Y2K trends may be coming back, but there's one 2000s practice we're happy to leave behind: tanning beds. These indoor UV booths—and tanning in general—have been linked to spikes in skin cancer. Thankfully, with the best gradual self-tanners on the market, you still get a safe, even, and non-streaky bronze—without the patchiness of instant self-tanners.

"The intensity of a gradual self tan is generally lighter and more subtle," says Celebrity tan artist and Dolce Glow founder Isabel Alysa. "It's ideal for those who want a more natural-looking tan or are new to self-tanning and want to avoid drastic changes in skin color." And because the tan develops slowly, you can control the level of tan, so you don't have to worry about emerging from your tanning session with orange skin.

A handful of gradual self-tanners come in body lotions or nourishing mousse formulas, which actually help improve the skin as they work. "Self-tanners contain hydrating ingredients in the base solution, which doubles as a moisturizer to strengthen the skin barrier," says Teresa Song, M.D., and board-certified dermatologist.

Ahead, Alysa, Dr. Song, and other tanning experts delve into everything you need to know about gradual self-tanner, from best practices to the best options available. Your finest tan yet is just on the horizon—sans sun damage.

What to Look For in Gradual Self-Tanner

  • DHA Concentration

The active ingredient in most gradual self-tanners is dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a carbohydrate derived from sugar cane that interacts with the outer layers of your skin to produce a golden-brown color. Dr. Song explains that DHA "penetrates the stratum corneum, the most superficial layer of the skin, where it undergoes a non-enzymatic reaction to produce melanoidins that resemble melanin, darkening the skin temporarily." Wasser says the higher quality DHA you use, the longer your tan will last and the less the product will smell like chemicals.

Alysa adds that the main difference between gradual self-tanners and other formulas is the concentration of DHA, explaining, "They typically contain a lower concentration of self-tanning agents like DHA, compared to instant self-tanners or traditional self-tanning lotions." She warns that formulas with a higher concentration of DHA (typically products that promise darker, more immediate results) tend to dry out the skin, resulting in a patchy tan.

  • Ingredient Profile

Looking for a gradual self-tanner with hydrating ingredients like aloe vera, sodium hyaluronate, and squalane. Wasser also vouches for hyaluronic acid, macadamia oil, coconut oil, aloe vera, cocoa butter, shea butter, and antioxidants like Vitamin E and raspberry seed oil.

Meanwhile, if you have oily skin, Dr. Song warns that some self-tanners contain comedogenic ingredients, which can clog pores and lead to breakouts. "Some self-tanners may contain irritating ingredients such as acids and occlusives like oils that should be avoided in sensitive or acne-prone skin," says Dr. Song. She recommends opting for non-comedogenic formulas and anti-inflammatory ingredients like aloe vera and green tea extract. Finally, avoid potential irritants like parabens, phthalates, sulfates, fragrances, mineral oils, and artificial coloring.

  • Shade

Most self-tanning brands offer several shades of gradual self-tanner. For the most natural-looking tan, Alysa recommends choosing a self-tanner that is a light to medium shade if you have a lighter skin tone, and If you want a deeper tan, choose a medium to dark self-tanner. Remember that gradual self-tanners are meant to be used over time and it's easier to build up if you start with a lighter shade. If you don't see immediate results, remember that your results may still be pending. Celebrity makeup artist Brandy Allen recommends waiting at least 24 hours before reapplying any gradual self-tanner.

  • Longevity

So long as you're not continually reapplying, Allen says that most gradual self-tanners last about a week "depending on the person’s skin type, their prep before the application, and aftercare." However, some gradual self-tanners are made to wash off more quickly, so be sure to check your product's packaging so you can manage your expectations.

To extend the life of your tan, Allen advises moisturizing your skin daily with a water-based moisturizer. However, steer clear of oils and thick moisturizers, which can break down the tanner.

The Best Gradual Self-Tanners

Also Recommended

How to Apply Gradual Self-Tanner

First, Wasser recommends exfoliating before applying self-tanner, explaining that this lengthens the tan's lifespan, prevents patchiness, and ensures even application. Self-tanners appear darker on dry skin, so apply a thin layer of moisturizer to chapped areas such as the knees, elbows, and ankles to prevent the tanner from creating darker patches.

When applying the product, Alysa recommends using a tanning mitt (not your bare hands) in light, even, circular strokes. Oversized brushes, such as kabuki brushes, also work well. For best results, Allen advises, "Apply two to three sheer coats to make sure you cover all areas. Let the previous coat sit before moving to the next coat."

If you're using a DHA-based gradual self-tanner, you don't have to worry about it staining your clothes.

Meet the Expert

Dr. Teresa Song sitting on a chair
Teresa Song, M.D.

Dr. Teresa Song is a board-certified dermatologist at Mamur Medical in New York City. She works in general and cosmetic dermatology and encourages her patients to embrace a less-is-more approach in their skincare regimens.

Isabel Alysa headshot, tan artist founder of Dolce Glow
Isabel Alysa

As the mastermind behind the renowned self-tanning brand, Dolce Glow, Isabel's expertise has garnered her a reputation as the go-to celebrity spray tan artist for A-listers like Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, Kim Kardashian, Kylie Jenner, Kendall Jenner, Jennifer Lopez, and Sophia Richie Grainge, to name a few. Feeling immensely empowered by her first spray tan experience, Isabel made it her mission to spread this profound sense of self-love by creating her own brand & business. Her mission has ultimately led to her esteemed reputation as a top-notch celebrity spray tan artist in the sunless tanning industry. She made her "Isabel Signature Glow" available nationwide through Dolce Glow, making her sunless tan more accessible by creating a range of clean and anti-aging formulations.

Brandy Allen
Brandy Allen

Brandy Allen is a celebrity makeup artist who specializes in making skin look flawless, no matter the client's concerns. She has worked with Keke Palmer, Janelle Monae, Yara Shahidi, and others. She is currently bicoastal, splitting time between New York City and her native Los Angeles.

Brooke Knappenberger
Associate Commerce Editor

Brooke Knappenberger is the Associate Commerce Editor at Marie Claire, where she specializes in crafting shopping stories—from sales content to buying guides that span every vertical on the site. She also oversees holiday coverage with an emphasis on gifting guides as well as Power Pick, our monthly column on the items that power the lives of MC’s editors. She also tackled shopping content as Marie Claire's Editorial Fellow prior to her role as Associate Commerce Editor.

She has over three years of experience writing on fashion, beauty, and entertainment and her work has appeared on Looper, NickiSwift, The Sun US, and Vox Magazine of Columbia, Missouri. Brooke obtained her Bachelor's Degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism with an emphasis on Magazine Editing and has a minor in Textile and Apparel Management.