Best self-tanners under the sun

Get a glow without risking wrinkles

Published: June 09, 2014 12:00 PM

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Craving a gorgeous summer tan but want to stay out of the sun? Maybe you’ve thought about using a self-tanner but didn’t want to wind up orange or splotchy. And with so many brands out there, where do you start? To help you make the right choice, we checked them out.

Our testers reviewed six top-selling products (four sprays and two lotions) over several weeks with a panel of volunteers. The results: All of the self-tanners gave us some color, which took about 4 hours to kick in and lasted several days. (Reapplying the next day intensified the results.) But the L’Oréal product shown above did a bit better than the others. 

Our top self-tanner, from L'Oréal, won't turn your skin orange.

If you’re wondering how they work and  whether they’re safe, a self-tanner’s “tan” comes from a color-producing chemical called dihydroxyacetone (DHA); it reacts with amino acids in the outermost layer of your skin to create a darker pigment. It’s considered safe for home use by the Food and Drug  Administration, but our safety experts say that some people might experience an allergic  reaction. So be sure to test the product on a small patch of skin first (try the underside  of your arm), and wait a few hours to see how you tolerate it.  

And skip salon spray jobs. DHA has not been approved  by the FDA for use in  commercial spray-tanning  booths, where it is sometimes used anyway as an all-over body spray in higher concentrations than the products you can buy for home use. The risk, according to the FDA, is that you could inhale the spray or get it in your mouth and eyes. Also keep in mind that  self-tanners won’t protect  you from the sun. “You still  have to wear sunscreen,” a dermatologist, Amy Newburger, M.D., of Westmed Medical Group in Scarsdale, N.Y., said.

L'Oréal Sublime Bronze

Best sunless tanner

L'Oreal Sublime Bronze Pro Perfect Salon Airbrush Medium Natural Tan

Price: $9.80 for 4.6 ounces
Why we like it: This spray gave our volunteers the most natural-looking tan. It's the only product that didn't look orange or green to any of them. The results intensified after reapplication, and the tan lasted several days. Bonus: It wasn't too smelly.


Clinique Self Sun Body Tinted Lotion, $23 for 4.2 ounces

Equate (Walmart) Beauty Self Tan Bronzing Spray, $8 for 6.7 ounces

St. Tropez Self Tan Bronzing Spray, $35 for 6.7 ounces

Banana Boat (left) and Neutrogena


Banana Boat Summer Color Self-Tanning Lotion, $7.80 for 6 ounces

Neutrogena MicroMist Airbrush Sunless Tan (spray), $11 for 5.3 ounces

Both gave a slightly lighter tan than the others. And the Banana Boat lotion gave some of our panelists an orange color that was sometimes streaky or blotchy.

The tricks to applying it right

Always read instructions; they vary from product to product. Also, follow these expert tips.

• Cleanse and shave. Use a body cleanser with salicylic acid, alpha hydroxy acid, or urea (up to 20 percent). Those ingredients will help remove any dead skin. If you don’t exfoliate first, said the dermatologist Amy Newburger, M.D., “the product will appear darker in areas with more dead skin, such as knees and elbows.” It’s also a good idea to shave your legs—but be sure to do it the day before, or any little nicks or cuts will let the chemicals sink into your skin.

• Lube up. Before spraying on the self-tanner, apply body lotion all over, especially on your elbows, knees, and anyplace you have age spots, which might wind up looking even darker. Also dab some body lotion on your fingernails to avoid staining.

• Open a window. Spray at arm’s length in a well-ventilated area, slowly and continuously. To make sure you don’t inhale the mist, hold your breath or use nose plugs. If you’re using a lotion, wear gloves.

• Start at the top of your body. Then work your way down. Apply sparingly around your joints. Do the backs of your hands last.

• Skip your face if you're using a spray. You don’t want to risk inhaling it. Also, Newburger says, self-tanners might make your pores look bigger and darker (almost like blackheads). So you’re better off using a bronzing makeup on your face instead.

• Let it dry before getting dressed. “Plan to stay home for a few hours, and don’t sweat,” Newburger said, because it could cause the product to run or streak, and possibly stain your clothes. (We didn’t test for that.)

—Sue Byrne

Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the July 2014 issue of ShopSmart magazine.

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