If you’re on the hunt for a just-off-the-beach bronze before summer kicks into full gear, we have some good news. Getting a gorgeous, glowy, and, most importantly, even tone has never been easier thanks to the best self-tanners on the market. With everything from facial tanning drops to gradual lotions and tinted creams that come with buffing mitts for easy applications, there are tons of streak-free formulas that’ll leave you looking like you just hopped back from the beach.
While a perfect bronze is the end goal, anyone that’s tried their hand with self-tanner knows that streaks and patchiness can creep up. To help you avoid blotchy color or distinct lines around the wrists and ankles (the worst!), we’re breaking down the top tips and techniques for getting a summer-worthy glow from the comfort of your own home.
How to Prep Your Skin for Self Tanner
The secret to a faux tan that looks real as can be? The right preparation. “Shaving and exfoliating is the key to an even tan as it flattens and evens the skin’s surface,” tanning expert and celebrity makeup artist Tarryn Feldman explains.
While any physical exfoliant will get the job done, Feldman is a big fan of the St. Moriz Pro Exfoliating Skin Primer, which is specifically formulated for tanning prep. Plus, it's “gentle for sensitive skin users, and won’t cause breakouts prior to application.”
How to Apply Self Tanner
While some of the easier-to-use formulas (read: gradual tanning lotions or facial drops) are pretty self-explanatory, there are a few tips and tricks for getting a flawless finish with trickier textures like mousses or foams. Haphazardly applying the product is a huge no-go—you’ll be covered in streaks. Instead, build up the self-tanner with long, sweeping motions. Feldman recommends patting the formula dry with a tanning mitt, buffing out the product with a big powder brush and allowing the formula to dry completely (!!) before putting on clothes.
As for the tricky areas like the knees and elbows? “Do a layer normally and let it dry. Then, do a layer [with the joint] bent,” Feldman advises.
The Best Self Tanners of All Time
Best Wash-Off Formula
St. Tropez Self Tan Express Bronzing Mousse
With this hydrating gel, you can alternate your glow to suit your mood: subtle for brunch, extra for the beach. The formula is easy to apply and spread. The biggest plus? It’s tinted, so you know exactly what real estate you’ve already covered, for a consistent end result. One thing to remember with this lotion though, is that it’s a wash-off formula that gets deeper the longer you leave it on. For beginners, shower after one hour.
Best Gradual Formula
+Lux Unfiltered N°32 Hydrating Self-Tanning Cream
If you’ve accepted the fact that self tanner wasn’t made for you, this gradual lotion is about to seriously shake up your status quo. The bronze build is *actually* gradual, so you can customize the intensity of the color over the course of a few days. It doubles as a moisturizer too, making it a one-stop-shop for your post-shower routine.
Best Tanning Mist
Isle of Paradise Self-Tanning Water
This user-friendly spray pump, which is available in three shades, makes application feel like a breeze. Expect a glowy tan to appear four to six hours post application. Even better? This organic blend is formulated with color-correcting actives that are clinically proven to even your skin tone and brighten your complexion. (Editor’s note: This product works best when exfoliation takes place a full 24 hours ahead of time.)
Best Lightweight Option
Bali Body Self-Tanning Mousse
Streaks are a dead giveaway, and a mousse makes application that much easier. You’ll want to use a mitt to spread the product from your ankles to your chest. Just pat any excess on the tops of your hands and feet. The lightweight formula dries fairly quickly, so you won't be staining your couch or favorite sweatpants.
The Australian Glow Dark Self Tanning Mousse
Need your tan to kick in ASAP? You’ll want to have this mousse on standby. In just 60 minutes, your skin will have settled into its darkest shade. Once your body is prepped and ready to go, use the mitt to apply the mousse all over, using long, continuous motions. (Pro tip: Save tricky spots like your knees and elbows for the end to avoid excess product). Oh, and an extra shout out to the brand for the recyclable packaging.
Miami Gorgeous Self-Tanning Mousse
If the smell of self tanner is your main pain point with the whole process, allow us to introduce you to Miami Gorgeous. Not only does the entire product line deserve a chef’s kiss for its sweet scent, but the fast-absorbing formula makes for the easiest application. Even though it’s a mousse, don’t be afraid to apply the product directly with your hands—just make sure to wash them after the fact. A few pumps is all you need and expect to get around 10 to 12 uses from one bottle.
Best for Beginners
M-61 PowerGlow Peel Gradual Tan
Getting a great facial tan literally couldn’t be easier with these all-in-one pads. One swipe truly does it all in two seconds flat. The glycolic acid-packed formula takes care of the exfoliating skin prep, while gradual pigment simultaneously kicks into gear. The wipe doubles as a foolproof applicator too, so you can get your ears, décolletage and chest bronzed to perfection.
The Best Drugstore Buy
L'Oreal Paris Sublime Bronze Hydrating Self-Tanning Water Mousse
For experienced self-tanners, this bronzing mousse offers quick, impactful results like no other. The lightweight formula spreads easily, doesn’t streak, and leaves skin nicely hydrated. Also, the coconut scent transports you right to the beach.
Best Facial Tanning Drops
St. Tropez Luxe Tan Tonic Glow Drops
Please, we beg you: don’t go wiping your body self tanner all over your face—it’s a hard no from us. Instead, you’ll want facial tanning drops that are specifically formulated for your face and won’t clog pores. With golden ingredients like hyaluronic acid (hydration!) and niacinamide (redness-reducing!), two to six drops of this St. Tropez formula will have you ditching your bronzer altogether. While you can totally apply the product directly onto freshly washed skin, we’re big fans of mixing this in with a serum or moisturizer.
Best for Lighter Skin Tones
SOL by Jergens Deeper by the Drop Serum
This moisturizing, serum-like formula is made with vitamin E and coconut water to keep your skin looking (and feeling!) smooth and soft. Color develops in four to six hours, so it's best to incorporate it into your morning routine—especially if you have a big event at night!
Best for Darker Skin Tones
Loving Tan 2 HR Express Self Tanning Mousse Dark
Don’t want to bother with touch-ups? This formula will have you bronzed and glowy for a full 10 days. While you can leave this easy-to-apply mousse on for two hours for maximum color, having it on for just one will still do the trick. Its olive undertones are best suited for medium to darker skin tones, so anyone on the paler side might want to look into other options.
Best All-in-One Set
Il Makiage 85/66 Magic Moisturizing Sun Foam
If you don't want to buy a mitt and a brush separately from your self-tanner, this set from Il Makiage has it all in one handy bundle. The small, dense kabuki brush makes hard-to-reach places and buffing a breeze. As for the formula? It’s packed with good-for-you ingredients like hyaluronic acid and aloe vera to keep skin feeling soft and hydrated.
Best SPF and Self Tanner Duo
Supergoop! Healthy Glow Sunless Tan SPF 40
Vow to avoid that fake tan look that took over the early 2000s at all costs. Opt for more subtle self-tanners that bring out your skin's inner glow. On those especially sluggish days, lean on this tanning mist. It will enhance your skin's natural glow while protecting it from harmful UV rays with a hefty dose of SPF 40. Think of it as a mist that will give your face and body an extra pep in its step in the glow department.
Best Tanning Moisturizer
COOLA Sunless Tan Anti-Aging Daily Moisturizer
Ok, you hit the beach, and you've got a *flawless* base tan. To achieve the same radiance on your face, a subtle daily-use cream is the ideal solution. The sugar beet-derived DHA helps gradually build and maintain that glow while it hydrates and softens skin.
Best Tanning Oil
Josie Maran Argan Liquid Gold Self Tanning Body Oil
Dry, rough skin around the elbows and knees can be a dead give away when it comes to your faux glow, as pigment will flake and settle into lines. This hydrating formula contains Argan oil and vitamin E to condition skin, and the mitt will buff away the dry patches.
Best Luxe Option
Omorovicza Glam Glow
This citrus-scented lotion treats skin while giving it a gradual glow. Plum almond oil improves elasticity while apple pectin makes skin more supple. A little goes a long way with this product, so a pea-sized amount should be all you need for full-face application. Just use a little extra caution around your eyebrows!
Best for Traveling
James Read Tan Click & Glow
Whatever your destination, this click-and-go pen is easy to use and transport. Layer it with your favorite all-over tanner of choice. It’s perfect for fixing up awkward tan lines, correcting missed spots, or just dabbing here and there as your summer color fades.
Best Tanning Foam
Coco & Eve Sunny Honey Bali Bronzing Foam
This weightless, easy-to-spread formula actually treats the skin while it absorbs. It helps hydrate and plump the skin so your bikini looks that much cuter. You’ll notice that this foam has a gray-ish hue (as opposed to orange), so rest assured you’ll look au naturale with your fake tan.
Best for a Sun-Kissed Color
Sisley Paris Self Tanning Hydrating Body Skin Care
This supremely hydrating body treatment imparts a sun-kissed color that makes it look like you spent an afternoon lying by the pool (with appropriate sunblock). Because it’s so nourishing, it can also soothe your parched skin after you’ve actually been at the beach.
Best Tanning Serum
TAN-LUXE Super Glow Body Hyaluronic Self-Tan Serum
This self-tanning serum does for your body what skincare does for your face. Hyaluronic acid traps moisture so you don't get any of those dry, patchy tanned areas. Caffeine in this serum helps firm your skin, so you can leave your house feeling toned and tan.
Samantha Holender is the Beauty Editor at Marie Claire, where she reports on the best new launches, dives into the science behind skincare, and keeps up with the latest trends in the beauty space. She has previously written for Us Weekly, Popsugar, Makeup.com, Skincare.com, and Philadelphia Wedding. Follow her on Instagram @samholender.
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