These 11 Best Self-Tanners for Pale Skin Will Finally Cure Your Glow Woes

Yes, they bottled sunshine.

A pale woman.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

As Nicole Polizzi, aka Snooki, once said, "People go tanning because they like to feel tan." If I may, I'd like to make a slight adjustment to that statement: people self-tan because they like to feel tan...and minimize their risk of skin cancer. If this is true, what better reason to discover the best self-tanners for pale skin?

"There is no excuse to get tan from the sun. It’s too dangerous," says celebrity makeup artist Sarah Egan. In case you haven't heard—and I really hope you have!—tanning outdoors or in a tanning bed exposes your skin to ultraviolet (UV) radiation, which increases your risk of developing skin cancer. "Tanning also accelerates the rate at which your skin ages, which means an earlier onset of fine lines, wrinkles, and dark spots. Tanning can lead to sunburns, and indoor tanning beds can put skin at risk of infections," adds Dr. Brendan Camp, a double board-certified dermatologist from MDCS Dermatology.

Instead of risking all of these serious side effects, you can opt for any of the intriguing, and downright innovative self-tanning formulas currently on the market. Seriously, there's something for everyone—even the most ghostly among us (a category I absolutely fit into and am reminded of every time I pick out a new foundation).

"Self-tanners rely on dihydroxyacetone, a pigmenting agent, to form a tan. Unlike UV tanning booths or UV and visible light radiation from the sun, self-tanners do not increase your risk of developing skin cancer," shares Dr. Karan Lal, D.O., F.A.A.D., a double board-certified dermatologist and pediatric dermatologist with Affiliated Dermatology

Other pros? Unlike UV radiation, self-tanners don't break down collagen in the skin or lead to discoloration or skin growths or spots.

As nurse Tara Adashev so simply puts it, "there are so many amazing spray tan and self-tanning products in the market right now that give you that natural glow without the cancer."

Ahead, Marie Claire consults skincare and tanning professionals for in-depth (light-to-medium, if we're talking shade specifics) information on the best self-tanners for pale skin.

What to Look For in a Pale Skin Self-Tanner

  • Formula: Today's self-tanners come in a variety of formats, including sprays, tanning drops and serums (which you mix in with your favorite moisturizer), creams and lotions (which offer gradual results and a bit of extra moisture), and mousses/foams (which work quickly, but can result in a streaky tan if you're inexperienced with application).
  • Shade: "Applying a color too dark for your skin tone won’t look natural," shares Egan. If you're naturally pale, it's best to start with a light or medium tan color—read the label! The best part about self-tanner is that many of them are gradual; you can always add more if you want to go a little bronzier. (P.S.—We also have a guide to the best bronzers for fair skin.)
  • Confidence: Besides the skin-safety benefits, self-tanner can give you an easy boost of self-confidence. Dolce Glow founder and celebrity tan artist Isabel Alysa can attest to this. "My very first experience of trying self tanner, I was absolutely blown away by the instant confidence boost I endured," she says. "I really wanted everyone to experience the incredible feeling of radiance and glow that self-tanner brought me. I don’t think anyone is against a little confidence boost!"

The Best Self-Tanners for Pale Skin

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Miley Cyrus at the 2024 Grammys.

Miley Cyrus wore Dolce Glow tanner to perform at the 2024 Grammys.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

How to Apply Self-Tanner

As the self-tanning expert, Alysa tells her pale clients to apply a lighter layer of product first and then build their tan until they're comfortable with the shade.

"It’s important to make sure you’re using a tanner that offers buildable coverage that allows this process to happen," she shares. Another tip? "Invest in a great application tool when applying the tanner! Everyone has different preferences when it comes to using a brush or mitt for the application process, so I would say, find what tool makes you comfortable and helps make the application the easiest." (My good friend Miley and I both love Dolce Glow's Kabuki Brush.)

Egan also recommends that you ensure your skin is clean and dry before applying tanner.

"Work in sections. I tend to start at the top of my body and work my way down. Apply a small amount to your skin, smaller than a pea. Pat and smooth the self-tanner on your neck, décolletage, arms, and then downward to the rest of your body," she explains.

Next, smooth the product in with your fingertips or tool of choice," she says. "Look in a mirror before putting clothes on to ensure you didn’t miss a spot. If you did, simply apply to the spots missed and gently smooth in."

And while many new formulas don't require you to exfoliate beforehand, it's never a bad idea.

Self-Tanning Risks

Although they're about a million times better for you than a tanning bed, you must remember that most self-tanners do not provide any UV protection. Please, please continue to use sunscreen while using, even if you're bronzed.

Dr. Camp says that other self-tanning risks include uneven application (which can cause a blotchy tan!), staining of the palms or clothing, application site irritation or allergic contact dermatitis, and odor, as some products may have a chemical-like smell. Again, all are better options than skin cancer—but it is important to be aware of nonetheless.

Meet the Experts

judges for marie claire skin awards
Dr. Karan Lal

Originally from New York City, Dr. Karan Lal grew up in Queens and attended Hunter Science High School in Manhattan. He graduated summa cum laude from the New York Institute of Technology, where he completed a rigorous seven-year accelerated combined medical program. He was selected to be an academic medical scholar, during which he received a Master of Science in neuroscience and a scholarship for three years of medical school and graduate training. He was elected to the Sigma Sigma Phi and Psi Sigma Alpha medical honor societies. He completed his internal medicine internship at the University of Connecticut Medical Center where he was elected intern of the year. He completed a three-year dermatology residency at the University of Massachusetts, where he was elected chief resident. He continued at the University of Massachusetts to complete a pediatric dermatology fellowship, where he gained an interest in vascular anomalies, pediatric laser, and dermatologic surgery of pediatric patients. Dr. Lal specializes in pediatric and adult dermatology, laser surgery, soft tissue filler augmentation, body sculpting, melanocyte keratinocyte transplant surgery for vitiligo and hypopigmentation, pigmentary abnormalities of the skin and enjoys treating patients from birth onwards. He is an expert in atopic dermatitis, vitiligo, melasma, psoriasis, and hidradenitis and has worked in specialty clinics among experts.

dr. brendan camp
Dr. Brendan Camp

Brendan Camp, MD, is double board-certified in dermatology and dermatopathology and sees patients at MDCS Dermatology: Medical Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery. Patients have been coming to him for his expertise managing medical conditions like acne, rosacea, eczema, warts, psoriasis, moles, and skin cancer, as well as cosmetic concerns and treatments with Botox, fillers, lasers, and other skin rejuvenation devices.

Dr. Camp graduated with honors from Cornell University, earning a degree in biochemistry. As a medical student at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, he participated in a one-year epidemiology fellowship at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, where he participated in viral outbreak investigations. He completed his internship in internal medicine at the University of Chicago and later completed additional residency training in dermatology at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. He also completed a fellowship in dermatopathology at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in 2012.

He has previously served as an assistant professor of dermatology at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences and worked in private practice just outside Washington DC in Northern Virginia. 

Dr. Camp is the author of several scientific articles that have been published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, the Journal of Cutaneous Pathology, and the Journal of Clinical Oncology. He has also presented at meetings of the American Academy of Dermatology, the American Society of Dermatopathology, and the Society for Investigative Dermatology.

Tara Adashev Headshot
Tara Adashev

Nurse Tara has been working alongside the prestigious surgeons at Neinstein plastic surgery for over five years and has become an integral part of Neinstein Plastic Surgery’s fabric and ongoing legacy. Nurse Tara grew up in the tri-state area, graduating from Moravian College and following graduation pursued her first job as an operating room nurse at St. Luke’s University Hospital. Nurse Tara thrives in the fast-paced environment that is Neinstein Plastic Surgery, and her critical thinking skills combined with her calm demeanor and strong nursing skills have allowed her to create long lasting bonds with each surgical and injectables patients she sees.

Working in Plastic Surgery and as a seasoned injector has been a lifelong dream for Nurse Tara. Initially Joining the Neinstein Plastic Surgery Team as Dr. Neinstein’s head nurse, Nurse Tara started by assisting Dr. Neinstein closely in complex surgical procedures in the OR. Starting from the ground up, Nurse Tara truly learned and understands the depths, nuances, and intricacies of body contouring and mommy makeover surgery.

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. 

Sarah Egan Headshot
Sarah Egan

Sarah Egan is a celebrity makeup artist. She is the makeup department head for Late Night with Seth Meyers, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, The Amber Ruffin Show and a 4 time EMMY winner for SNL.

Sophia Vilensky
Freelance Writer

Sophia Vilensky is a Freelance Beauty Writer at Marie Claire with a beauty, wellness, and entertainment journalism portfolio that includes contributions to Byrdie, Bravo, Teen Vogue, and Us Weekly. Growing up in a family of beauticians—and through her own personal studies—she developed an in-depth understanding of aesthetics, cosmetic product formulation, and beauty treatment development and has also held roles as a senior copywriter, content strategist, and proofreader for top beauty and wellness brands. Even so, you'd be hard pressed to find her with her hair and makeup actually done. Sophia is based in Minneapolis and is a 2019 graduate of the University of Minnesota, where she majored in English and minored in cinema studies. During her time at the university, she was the Arts & Entertainment Editor for the Minnesota Daily, earning the 2019 Editor of the Year award for her work. She connected deeply with the Twin Cities arts scene, collaborating with leading beauty professionals, designers, and artists. Graduating Summa Cum Laude, her thesis—a close-reading of Vanderpump Rules—was featured on NPR. When not immersed in writing or testing new products, Sophia enjoys watching reality TV, reading, and exploring the newest woo-woo wellness trends. Keep up with her on Instagram @sophiavilensky.