The Best Facial Self Tanners Will Have You Glowing

No sun damage necessary.

A white woman with blonde hair, bronzed skin, and blue eyes stares into the camera in a close-up image.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

There is no better compliment than being told your skin is glowing. The easiest way to get that glow? Applying the best self-tan for your face. A few drops of product or overnight application gives skin a non-orange bronze while keeping your precious skin out of the sun. It may seem like voodoo magic, but these products create a tint by using a chemical called dihydroxyacetone (DHA) as their active ingredient.

"DHA is a colorless sugar that interacts with the amino acids in the dead cells located in the outermost layer of the skin (the stratum corneum). This interaction leads to a browning reaction, resulting in the appearance of a tan," shares Alessandro Mendes, Chief Innovation Officer at custom cosmetic development and manufacturing company Cosmetica. "Self tanners only affect the top layer of the skin, which consists of dead cells. This is why the tan from self tanners gradually fades as these dead cells are shed and replaced by new ones."

You may have to reapply every few days for a continuous bronze, but with these non-comedogenic formulas it's a no-brainer—especially when you think about the alternative. "Tanning extensively, especially under the sun or using tanning beds, can cause detrimental effects on the face and overall skin health," notes board-certified dermatologist Dr. Divya Shokeen founder of Ocean Skin and Vein Institute and Oathology. On top of an increased risk in skin cancer, excessive tanning accelerates skin aging, leading to premature wrinkles, sagging, and hyperpigmentation or dark spots. "Self-tanning products offer a safer alternative by providing a tan without the harmful UV exposure," she adds.

Ahead, experts share their take on the best facial self tanners for a brilliant, sunless glow at any time.

What to Look for in a Face Self Tanner

  • Formula

Facial self tanners come in many formulations, such as drops, creams, mousses, sprays, and wipes, with separate styles catering to different application preferences and skin types. Medical aesthetician and Voodoo Makeup founder Aimee Carr prefers drops because they can be mixed in with your favorite facial moisturizer; you have control over how deep your tan is because you add the product. Mousses and creams typically offer a faster and more intense color payoff, while wipes are extremely convenient and great for travel.

woman holding lux unfiltered tanning drops to her face

Tanning drops are a great way to create a customizable bronze shade.

(Image credit: Lux unfiltered)
  • Shade

According to Mendes, your final color results will depend on multiple factors such as the concentration of DHA, the formulation's pH level, and your own skin tone. "Some self tanners may provide a more natural-looking tan, while others may result in a deeper or more intense color," he shares. Most products will come in a few base variations, so you can pick a tan that works for you.

  • Ingredients

When shopping for a face self tanner, customers should look for products formulated with gentle and non-comedogenic ingredients to minimize the risk of irritation and breakouts. Mendes suggests ingredients like hyaluronic acid, glycerin, antioxidants, and botanical extracts.

"Self tanners are generally safe for most skin types and do not inherently cause acne. However, like any product applied to the skin, there's a chance of a breakout if the product clogs pores or irritates the skin," shares Dr. Shokeen. "Choosing non-comedogenic (won’t block pores) self tanners and following proper application and exfoliation techniques can minimize this risk."

Fragrance-free formulas are also ideal, as fragrance can be hard on sensitive facial skin. However, this is harder to find than it sounds, as fragrance is often added to facial self tanners to mask the unpleasant smell of DHA.

The Best Self Tanners for Your Face

Also Recommended

How Does Face Self Tanner Work?

Self tanners usually work by temporarily staining the skin. This happens through a chemical reaction between the active ingredient dihydroxyacetone (or DHA, a colorless sugar derived from sources such as sugar beets) and the outermost layer of skin, aka stratum corneum.

"The reaction between DHA and amino acids in the skin is known as the Maillard reaction, similar to the process that occurs when cooking foods like bread or steak," explains Lisa Chevalier, a Physician Associate and Founder of SoVous Medical Spa and Laser Center. "During this reaction, DHA interacts with our amino acids on the skin's surface, resulting in the production of melanoidins and the subsequent bronzing of the skin."

A bottle of Charlotte Tilbury Island Glow on a beach.

A bottle of Charlotte Tilbury's new facial tanning drops glows on the beach.

(Image credit: Charlotte Tilbury)

This bronzed effect is also directly related to the amount of DHA in the product, which is why many self tanners are formulated to build upon themselves. "There are also other ingredients in these products that aim to increase the length of the tan and side effect of skin drying such as hydrators, antioxidants, and botanicals," she adds.

How to Apply Face Self Tanner

Because their formulas aren't all the same, there are different rules for applying various facial self tanning products. Always read the instructions. If your skin is sensitive or you're not sure about the color, try a patch test. "This can help ensure compatibility with sensitive facial skin. It may take some experimentation to find the perfect self tanner that meets all of one’s needs and preferences," says Mendes.

It's also essential to always wear SPF with your facial self tanner. Self tanners usually don't contain sun protection on their own. One more big tip? "Just make sure to wash your hands after application so the tanner doesn't transfer to your palms!" adds Carr.

How to Apply Makeup Over Self Tanner

It's a simple thing, but you'd be surprised how easy it is to forget that you'll need to match your foundation and concealer to your fake-tanned skin. "If you are using a facial tanner, then factor that into your buying and applying decisions," says Carr. You'll probably want to reach for two shades darker than your normal skin tone.

Should You Apply Self Tanner on Your Face?

If you're adding a self tanner to your face, it's important to mix up your skincare routine accordingly.

"Self tanners are generally safe for most skin types and do not inherently cause acne. However, like any product applied to the skin, there's a chance of a breakout if the product clogs pores or irritates the skin. Choosing non-comedogenic (won’t block pores) self tanners and following proper application and exfoliation techniques can minimize this risk.

Meet the Experts

Alessandro Mendes Headshot
Alessandro Mendes

With over 20 years of experience in the Cosmetic industry, Alessandro Mendes has developed and deployed new concepts and innovation formulation for companies like Beiersdorf, P&G, and Natura.

Holding a Master degree in Business Administration from FGV, Brazil, he has a Bachelor degree in Chemical Engineering from both the Technische Universität Hamburg-Harburg, Germany and from the Escola Politécnica, USP, Brazil.

A doctor with long brown hair smiling at the camera, from the shoulders up.
Dr. Divya Shokeen

Dr. Shokeen attended the University of California, Los Angeles, as an undergraduate and graduated with a major in psychobiology with an interest in biochemistry. She received her medical education on the east coast at Drexel University College of Medicine, in Philadelphia, PA. Due to her leadership and scholarly excellence throughout medical school, she was awarded a research opportunity as a dermatology pre-doctoral research fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania during her first and second year of medical school.

Aimee Carr Headshot
Aimee Carr

Aimee Carr is an expert medical esthetician, celebrity makeup artist and founder of VooDoo Makeup.

Lisa Chevalier Headshot
Lisa Chevalier

Lisa Chevalier is a board-certified Physician Associate and founder of SoVous Medical Spa and Laser Center on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. A few of Lisa’s favorite topics include the aesthetics industry’s issue with over treating people, a review of various laser, light and energy treatments (how they work, who they work for, long-term vs. maintenance options, etc.), how to make a skincare routine and makeup more efficient, and beauty trends vs. science in a practice.

Freelance Writer

Sophia Vilensky is a freelance beauty writer at Marie Claire, where she writes about the latest and greatest skincare launches, hair colors, and Cardi B manicures. Her work can also be found at Byrdie, Bravo, and Us Weekly. You can find her on Instagram @sophiavilensky.