The 11 Best Gradual Self-Tanners of 2024

All of the glow, none of the UV damage.

Singer Miley Cyrus attends the Tom Ford AW20 Show at Milk Studios on February 07, 2020 in Hollywood, California.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

We may be in the final throes of summer, but I'm holding on to my summer glow for dear life. A few trips to the beach and a couple of days by the pool have left me with a subtle tan, which I'm planning on maintaining well through the upcoming fall and winter seasons. How you might ask? Not by hitting the tanning bed, that's for sure. Instead, I'll be pairing my favorite bronzer with a few of the best gradual self-tanners on the market for my year-round glow. 

If you're wondering what makes a gradual self-tanner different from your run-of-the-mill self-tanner mousses and lotions, it's all in the name. "As the name suggests, the color develops gradually over time, so the intensity of the tan is generally lighter and more subtle," explains Isabel Alysa, celebrity tan artist and founder of the self-tanner brand, Dolce Glow. Basically, it's the foolproof answer for self-tanning newbies. "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," adds Alysa. And because the tan develops slowly, you can control the level of tan, meaning you'll never have to experience the shell shock of waking up too orange again. 

I've been burned by self-tanner one too many times—either my tan comes out blotchy, the faux tan smell is too much to handle, or it's impossible to get my tan to last, which is why "gradual" is my new favorite word when it comes to self-tanners. From budget-friendly picks like Jergens Natural Glow to luxurious, beloved formulas like Tan-Luxe's The Gradual Lotion, I've rounded up the best gradual self-tanners for a glow year-round. And because it's best not to throw on a self-tanner willy-nilly, I've included Alysa's best application tips for a seamless, even tan. No sun damage required. 

What to Look For in Gradual Self-Tanner

  • Ingredients

In most self-tanners, you'll find that the active ingredient is dihydroxyacetone or DHA, a carbohydrate derived from sugar cane that interacts with the outer layers of your skin to produce a golden-brown color. The main difference between gradual self-tanners and other formulas is the concentration of DHA, says Alysa. "They typically contain a lower concentration of self-tanning agents like DHA compared to instant self-tanners or traditional self-tanning lotions." 

Alysa warns that formulas with a higher concentration of DHA (typically products that promise a darker tan quicker) have the tendency to dry out the skin, resulting in a patchy tan. To counteract that, Alysa recommends looking for a gradual self-tanner with hydrating ingredients. "Look for skin-loving ingredients that help to bind moisture and rehydrate the skin like sodium hyaluronate, aloe vera, squalane, and rich natural oils," she explains. "The best gradual self-tanners leave your skin feeling smooth, hydrated, and healthy!"

  • Shade

A word of caution: Lots of self-tanning brands offer different shades of gradual self-tanners and it's absolutely something you want to pay attention to. 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. 

The Best Gradual Self-Tanners

How to Apply Gradual Self-Tanner

Most gradual self-tanners come in lotion formulas, but they are a bit trickier to apply than the average lotion. Below, Alysa breaks down step-by-step how to apply gradual self-tanner for an even, glowy tan: 

  1. Before applying any self-tanner, exfoliate your skin with either an exfoliator mitt, shower pouf, or body scrub to remove any dead skin cells. This helps to avoid patchiness and ensures an even application.
  2. Apply a thin layer of moisturizer to areas that tend to be drier, such as knees, elbows, and ankles to prevent the self-tanner from clinging to these areas and creating darker patches. 
  3. With an application mitt (as Alysa recommends) or using your hands, start applying the self-tanner with light even strokes making sure you carefully blend in a circular motion until you’ve completely covered the area.
  4. Once you're done applying, allow for the product to completely dry before dressing. Wash your hands, then you're good to glow!

Meet the Expert

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. 

Brooke Knappenberger
Associate Commerce Editor

Brooke Knappenberger is the Associate Commerce Editor at Marie Claire, where she writes across the board from fashion and beauty to books and celebrities. As a pop culture junkie, Brooke obsessively consumes and writes about the latest movie releases, streaming TV shows, and celebrity scandals. 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.