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You don’t need a wedding, a tropical vacation, or another glamorous event as an excuse to get your tan on. And, thanks to self-tanner, you also don’t need the aforementioned vacation to even get bronzed. (Plus, when you choose self-tanning over laying out in the sun, you protect your skin from harmful UVA and UVB rays.) All you need for a beautiful, even wash of color are some trusty products, easy-to-follow instructions, and a touch of patience.
Step 1: Assemble your products
There are dozens of self-tanners for the face and body out there, most of which use dihydroxyacetone (DHA), an ingredient that reacts with surface skin cells and darkens them, as well as added ingredients that moisturize your skin.
To help you decide on your first self-tanner, we suggest choosing one that reviewers say is beginner-friendly, like the St. Tropez Tanning Essentials Self Tan Classic Bronzing Mousse, which is quick-drying and lightweight on the skin. If you have dry skin, you may consider a lotion instead of a mousse, like the beloved Beauty by Earth Self-Tanner that gives natural-looking results but is buildable for a deeper color. If you only want your tan for one special occasion or you’re worried that you won’t enjoy the application process enough to do it again, you can also snag an affordable option with the Jergens Natural Glow Sunless Tanning Mousse, which dries in one minute and develops over the following several hours.
Once you’ve chosen a self-tanner, consider buying a tanning mitt, which evenly distributes the product for a smooth application, and helps you avoid orange tinted hands. Try the St. Tropez Luxe Double Sided Applicator Mitt, which Ulta reviewers say is durable, easy to wash out, and helpful with blending in tanning products.
You can apply self-tanner with bare hands in a pinch, but make sure you wash your hands thoroughly as soon as you’re done to avoid infamous “tan hands.”
Step 2: Prepare your skin
You can have a great self-tanner, but if you don’t properly exfoliate and moisturize before applying it, you probably won’t love the results. Before you pick up the tanning solution and mitt, hop in the shower and gently massage a scrub or washcloth over your whole body or just the areas you plan to “tan,” spending extra time on areas like the knees and elbows where the skin is a rougher and may catch onto the tanner. This process sloughs off dead skin cells and leaves behind a smooth canvas that is less likely to cause blotches when pigment is applied. This is also the time to shave your body hair, if you plan to, because using a razor on the skin also has an exfoliating effect and can therefore remove your self-tanner once it’s applied.
Once you’ve exfoliated, dry off your body and follow up with a moisturizer. This replenishes your skin barrier, which protects you from outside bacteria that can cause irritation or an infection, but in this case, it also further helps create that smooth surface you want before applying a pigmented product, like tanning solution. Consider this the primer before your paint.
Allow time for your moisturizer to soak in and make sure you’re not still dripping anywhere from your shower—you want to be completely dry to avoid anything mixing with your self-tanner that may cause streaks and unevenness that make it look unnatural.
Step 3: Apply your self-tanner in sections
When your skin is prepped and dry, you’re ready to get your bronze on! Just like you may section off your hair to blowdry it, you want to take this in parts and only focus on one area at a time. You may find it helpful to start with a smaller portion that is easy to view in a mirror, like your chest, while you get a hang of the application.
Apply a dollop of your tanning product, whether it’s mousse or lotion, to your mitt and start massaging it into your skin using small circles, working your hand across the surface area of the skin. You can even do a patch test and apply the tanner to one small area of skin to see how it develops before you commit to coating your body in it.
If your tanner has a color guard, you'll see pigment as you're applying it (though it's not the final color) and you can use that as your guide to know where you've missed a spot. Remember: your tan may take some time to develop (check the instructions for your specific bottle), so don’t base how much you apply on what you’re seeing in the moment. If your tanner doesn’t have a color guard, meaning you can’t see any color as you’re applying it, try not to overthink it! Be diligent about where you’re applying and try your best to get an even coat, just like you would when applying a body moisturizer. Don’t skimp out on the back of your hands and tops of your feet, as a harsh line is a dead giveaway that your “tan” is faux.
The trickiest areas are the joints. This is because the tanner may cling to rough spots or gather in the folds of your skin, like at your knee cap, behind your knee, your elbows, or your ankles. To combat this, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends diluting your product by either dabbing the area with a damp towel or applying a light layer of lotion over the self-tanner.
Step 4: Leave enough dry time
With your tan developing, you may be eager to get poolside and go for a dip, but hold off! Let your self-tanner completely dry before you put on clothes, hit the sack, or hop through a sprinkler. Some take a little longer to dry and require you to wear them for several hours before rinsing off. Others dry within minutes of application, require no wash-off, and can immediately be strut around. Pay attention to your specific application instructions and aftercare recommendations to get the most out of your efforts.
Enjoy your sunless tan and don’t forget the SPF!
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