Evenly bronzed skin with a subtle glow is a coveted feature, as it’s generally an indication of bright, warm summer days spent by the pool or at the beach. The only problem is that achieving this the old-fashioned way—by basking in the sun—has skin ramifications in the form of sun damage, fine lines and wrinkles, and an increased risk of skin cancer. Fortunately, there’s an alternative way to get the bronzed hue you’re after: self-tanners.
We tested 12 of the most popular sunless tanners that give you instant results upon application. The Bali Body Self Tanning Mousse (available at Ulta) won our Best Overall title—it’s easy to apply and produces a beautiful, buildable faux tan. The L’Oréal Paris Sublime Bronze Self-Tanning Mousse(available on Amazon) snatched our Best Value spot because it costs less and develops into a subtle tan that fades evenly. We also named the Clarins Self-Tanning Instant Gel(available on Sephora) the Best for Beginners, as its no-fuss gel consistency results in a natural-looking tan.
Bali Body Self Tanning Mousse
Applying the Bali Body Self Tanning Mousse is easy; the formula has a “color guard” that lightly tints the skin so you can see what areas you’ve covered. I was able to coat my whole body in the mousse quickly enough that I didn’t need a protective mitt to keep my hands from staining and get an even result. The pleasant, clean scent is light enough to not bother you once the formula dries, though, like all the rest on this list, is not unnoticeable. The tanner comes in two shades, dark and ultra dark, and I chose the lighter of the offerings.
The instructions recommend leaving the solution on for one hour for a light tan, up to four hours for a medium to dark tan, and eight hours for the deepest tan possible. I applied one thin coat at the beginning of my workday and showered it off after seven hours. The result on my pale skin was a noticeable but not overdone tan that wasn’t orange or too golden. I was happy with the color, as anything too dark would appear unnatural on me, but I’d suggest applying a thicker layer or a second coat for the full eight hours if you want an even deeper effect.
The self-tanner faded evenly over the course of a week, making it great for either one-time use or a multi-day vacation or event where you don’t want to keep reapplying. And while on my skin, the product left behind no noticeable residue or staining on my clothes or bedding.
L'Oréal Paris Sublime Bronze Self-Tanning Water Mousse
Unlike the Bali Body, the L’Oréal Paris Sublime Bronze Self-Tanning Mousse does not have a color guard, which is where it lost minor points with me. Instead, you must use the colorless sheen that the formula leaves on your skin to guide you through the application process. I’d also recommend using a tanning application mitt for this product, because the longer the colorless formula sits on your palms, the more likely they are to become unnaturally stained. While all of this makes an even application more challenging, the tan you get is subtle and forgiving—good news, as it only comes in one “medium” shade. This self-tanner has a coconut scent that, while pleasant, is strong. If you don’t enjoy a fragrance other than your perfume lingering, you may find this bothersome. Luckily, it fades away post-wash, like others on this list.
The instructions recommend allowing the tan to develop over four to eight hours before showering. As the tan was developing, it looked patchy, but I washed my skin within the recommended window of time, and the next day, the color appeared much more natural-looking and not blotchy. The only problem area was around my ankles and feet where the contours are harder to cover evenly, which was true of many of the other tanners on this list.
The tanner lasted a few days, fading evenly throughout each day. While I would have liked a more noticeable tan from one application, the instructions recommend applying the solution three times over the course of 12 to 24 hours if you want deeper and longer-lasting color. If you’ve been unsure about trying tanner, this is an affordable option that’ll give you a taste of what the application process and wear experience is like.
While the L’Oréal is a great entryway into the self-tanning world because of its affordability and natural-looking hue, the Clarins Self-Tanning Instant Gel is the easiest to use of all of the products I tried and the most subtle, making it more foolproof for nervous beginners. The gel texture of this product, which mimics the texture of a body lotion that you’d likely already be familiar with, makes up for its lack of a color guard to guide you. The lightweight consistency glides with ease over the whole body without the need for an application mitt or any real skill, making it a top-notch choice for beginner self-tanners.
The gel has a clean, floral scent that makes it stand out from all of the other sweet self-tanner aromas. The formula also doesn’t require you to leave it on for any specified amount of time or wash it off, like many others. The instructions only say to wait until it dries before getting dressed—in my experience, it remained tacky even after 30 minutes, so you may want to build in time to sit around in your skivvies for a while. Once fully dry and developed, my skin had an even, light tan that could fool anyone into thinking I’d just spent a couple days in the sun and I could still see a slight hint of it a week after application, as it evenly faded away. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this for beginners as well as for people with very light skin who want a guaranteed subtle glow and easy-to-achieve tan.
Hi, I’m Jessica, the beauty editor at Reviewed. I’ve tested all things skin-, makeup-, and hair-related for our beauty section. But perhaps most pertinent for this article—I’m pale. I have a very light-colored complexion that can achieve a very subtle natural tan if I sit in the sun—something I don’t do often and never without sunscreen. I’ve received a professional spray tan once in my life and have occasionally used self-tanners for a once-a-summer experiment, but I never keep up with regular applications. But knowing that plenty of people prefer tan skin for vacations in warmer climates or special events, I embarked on this self-tanner odyssey. (You’re welcome!)
There are plenty of fake tanning products to choose from that claim to give you “instant” results (as opposed to gradual), developing within a few hours of application. I sifted through bestseller lists and retailer reviews to narrow my testing list down to 12 options from top brands in this category. Because of my paleness, I typically opted for the medium shade available in any product that offered a light-medium-dark range, and the lightest option in any that only offered deeper hues.
At the beginning of my tests, I tested two self-tanners at a time by applying one to each leg. Because these products are designed to last several days, this method would give me accurate results wear-wise while also speeding up the testing process. Then, I individually tested the four self-tanners that aced my first round of tests with an all-over application. I recorded my results on a scientifically calibrated rubric created by Reviewed’s team of scientists, rating the self-tanners on the following attributes:
Shade range: Does the tanner offer a very limited, decent, or plentiful amount of shades?
Application: How easy is it to dispense the tanner from the container? Do you need a lot of the tanner to cover the legs/body?
Wear: After following application instructions, how tan does your skin look? How does it feel on your skin? Does the color fade evenly?
Longevity: How quickly does the tanner fade away?
Scent: Does the tanner have a smell? Is it pleasant or unpleasant? How powerful is the fragrance?
Staining: Does the tanner leave any residue/staining on clothes or bedding?
What Should You Know About Self-Tanners
There are two main types of self-tanners: instant (which we tested) and gradual. Instant ones begin taking effect immediately and fully develop over the course of a few hours. This kind requires you shower it off after a few hours, or overnight for a deeper tan. The gradual ones require application over days to build up a subtle tan that fades away without regular maintenance.
There are several formulas available amongst instant self-tanners: mousse, spray, lotion, gel, and mix-in drops that you add to your lotion of choice. With any of these options, a self-tanning application mitt (I used the one that came with the Loving Tan bottle) is useful for evenly spreading and blending in the formula to eliminate the possibility of staining your hands.
Most sunless tanners, including the ones on this list, contain an ingredient called dihydroxyacetone (DHA) that reacts with the outer layer of the skin to temporarily darken it. To get an even tan, you should exfoliate the skin to remove flakes with a scrub or washcloth prior to application. Once skin is dry, apply the tanner with your hand or a mitt, blend it out like you would lotion (quick, circular motions work well for me), and let it fully dry before you get dressed.
Some self-tanners have a color guard, or a pigment that lightly tints the skin (though this is not the final color) to show where you’ve applied; other self-tanners are clear so you need to do your best to remember where you’ve applied it.
Other Self-Tanners We Tested
Coco & Eve Sunny Honey Bali Bronzing Foam
If you love a mousse formula, this is the option I’d recommend after the Bali Body one because it has a good shade range, a long-lasting formula, and gives a beautiful hue to the skin. That said, prepare to work quickly when you apply it: The mousse formula seemed to froth up rather than blend into the skin at first and I had to spread it fast in order to avoid a patchy finish, but the color guard helped. The instructions recommend waiting at least two hours—or overnight for a deeper tan—before showering. I used the shade medium (it also comes in dark and ultra dark) and received a noticeable but not-too-dark tone that looked akin to what I’d get from several days in the sun. This wore away evenly over about a week and I enjoyed the tan while I had it.
The smell of this mousse has a strong and very sweet scent. I blindly described it as caramel-esque, but Coco and Eve says that the sweetness I’m smelling is tropical Balinese mango and guava. Almost all of the tanners had a strong scent that lingered until the formula was washed off and sometimes even for a few hours after a shower and this was no different.
If you’re not a fan of the typical self-tan fragrance (which multiple brands refer to as a “biscuity” aroma), you may like the St. Tropez Self Tan Classic Bronzing Mousse. The brand refers to this as its “mood-boosting signature fragrance” with notes of bergamot and green apple. To me, it smells more like the fresh scent of a hair product, like dry shampoo. Either way, you won’t get a sickenly sweet cover-up scent or the as-is chemical smell.
This is another great option for a self-tanning mousse and I think most people would be happy with the results. This self-tanner has a dark color guard that makes it easy to apply in an even layer. I showered this off after four hours—the instructions recommend waiting four to eight and I wasn’t sure what to expect color-wise, as this only comes in one shade called “classic.” Post-wash, I was impressed to see zero blotches around my knees, ankles, or feet—quite the feat for me. I’m not sure if I should toot my own horn or the product’s, but I know I was pleased with the results. However, I also noticed that my thighs appeared tanner than my calves. This could be user error or because below my knees never gets as tan as the rest of my legs (I blame 10 years of wearing shin pads to play soccer) and my base color may have differed between those two areas.
The Isle of Paradise Self-Tanning Drops are unlike any of the others on this list. They are liquid drops that you add into any moisturizer of your choice to apply on the face or body. I chose the medium shade, but they also offer light and dark shades.
The instructions suggest adding one to 12 drops into moisturizer: two to four for a “sun-kissed" tan, six to eight for “golden,” and 10 to 12 for “bronze.” A little confusing, but I pressed on. Then the next problem occurred: I went to drop the clear solution into my Cerave Daily Moisturizing Lotion and noticed that the formula was thick enough that it wasn’t coming out as definitive drops and instead more of a stream of fluid. I don’t know how many “drops” I actually got but it was less than the dollop of lotion. After mixing the two in my palms, I rubbed it haphazardly all over my leg like I would with any body moisturizer. I didn’t have to rinse it off, per the instructions, so I didn’t.
The tan I got with this was fine. It wasn’t as tan as I would have preferred and, while I could use even more drops next time, I think I’d go through the tiny 1.01-ounce bottle quickly that way—a worry I didn’t have with any of the other tanners on this list. The experience of using the drops was pleasant despite the confusion at the beginning. I liked the clean, subtly sweet scent and how moisturized my legs felt due to the mix-in mechanism. I’d be more likely to recommend this as a face tanner than a body one.
My experience with the Loving Tan 2 HR Express Self Tanning Mousse in the medium shade was a perplexing one. It started off great—I appreciated the noticeable color guard and easy-to-blend mousse formula. It felt comfortable to wear on my skin while it dried and didn’t stain the robe I was sitting on while waiting. The bottle came with an application mitt, which is a nice bonus. I even noted that I thought this could soar above the pack. But when I showered after the recommended two hours, I was surprised to see… pale.
Yes, there was a slight tan and it was even looking, but it was not nearly as noticeable as others on this list. I felt like it never fully developed on my skin and considered even redoing it. I opted not to re-test it because I followed the instructions correctly and couldn't think of how this would be a user error—except maybe that I should have gone with the dark solution or the “deluxe bronzing mousse” line instead of the two-hour express one. I’ve heard nothing but excellent things about this brand, and my experience with using this tanner was a positive one aside from the color that developed. For that reason I wouldn’t discount Loving Tan, but I wouldn’t recommend picking up this particular one in the medium shade.
The Beauty By Earth Self-Tanner is a thick, white lotion that I found difficult to blend into the skin. My whole leg was covered in an opaque white tint at one point while I was spreading it, which led me to think that I applied too much. Still, it took less than five minutes to do my whole leg and the result was a smooth feel. After a few hours, it developed into a nice, natural-looking tan everywhere except my feet, which looked patchy. I was quick to chalk this up to user error, but then remembered that the thick formula didn’t do me any favors. The instructions recommend letting the tanner dry for 15 minutes before putting on clothing and there is no wash-off necessary.
A week after application, the tan was still present, but there were large patches on my leg where the tanner had faded more quickly. This could have been from me sitting down or crossing my legs within hours of applying the product, but even if that’s the case, I’d prefer a less finicky product.
The Jergens Natural Glow Instant Sun Body Mousse is as easy to apply as all of the other mousses on this list. The light bronze shade is spreadable and it has a color guard that helps with even coverage. I tried this product toward the beginning of my testing and I wanted to know if letting the self-tanner develop overnight would be a way of testing I’d like because many instructions allow for it. I applied this on clean skin to one leg and waited until I thought it was dry. It felt tacky, but not any more than a moisturizer does for sometimes hours after application. The result was some patchiness around my ankles and feet, but an otherwise nice color. I showered and saw a big improvement—my skin looked much more even and the color was even more natural without the residue from the color guard. The result lasted a few days before fading gradually.
This reminds me a lot of the L’Oréal Paris tanner and it’s another decent drugstore option. I’d prefer a formula that dries faster and doesn’t feel tacky for hours post-application, but it works in a pinch.
The Bondi Sands Self Tanning Foam fell flat for me. It has a color guard, but I still had a hard time applying this evenly—it wasn't streak-free. Almost all of the self-tanners left at least a little residue on my robe, but this one transferred a lot, causing me to worry that there wouldn’t be any formula there to actually tan my leg. The instructions say that you can shower this off after one hour but wait for up to six if you want a deeper tan. After a few hours, I showered it off and barely saw a tan. At the time, I was just relieved to see that my leg wasn’t a patchy mess after the streaky application and transfer onto my robe. While I’m sure this could be built up for a deeper color, there are too many good options on this list for me to recommend this over any of the ones above.
To apply the Sally Hansen Airbrush Legs Makeup, you shake the can, spray it into your hands, and rub it onto the skin. This is considered makeup, so it won’t create a lasting tan, but we opted to include it on this list because it’s a popular product that gives an instant result.
I found it awkward to rub into the skin because the can produces a frothy liquid, sort of like spray paint. Of course, the color showed up right away, but it looked too orange on my skin tone. An upside was that it made my leg look overall smoother in appearance and even added a sheen to my skin with tiny flecks of glitter. I wouldn’t choose this for a special occasion because of the color on me, but I can see the appeal of a product like this.
The instructions for the Neutrogena Micromist Airbrush Sunless Tanning Spray recommend applying it in a well-ventilated area. I wanted to avoid putting on a show by standing outside my apartment building to apply it, so I stood in my shower instead. This way, I could walk away from the spray once I was done and hose down the shower in case of staining.
The formula is clear, making it hard to tell where you’ve applied it except for a slight sheen it leaves behind. It also felt way less precise to use a spray than to use my hands to apply a mousse, gel, or lotion. I applied it in vertical motions up my leg and hoped for the best. After a few hours, the tan started to develop and it looked somewhat natural but streaky in some areas. There was even a big white spot in the middle of my shin, which could have been from me crossing my legs under my desk, but it’s hard to say. In the end, there are too many great options on this list to settle for this so-so one.
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