Self-tanning is one of those beauty habits that plenty of people try out reluctantly yet end up loving—myself included. There's nothing quite like the feeling of looking bronzed and glowy, sans sun damage.
However, this can be a slightly intimidating endeavor at first. To come, a full guide to self-tanning, from an expert-backed routine to shopping tips and more.
How to apply self-tanner
We'll dive into how to choose the best tanner next, but let's first get familiar with the application process:
Exfoliate a day before
Hydrate dry areas
The next day, take a shower to rinse off your body. If you're new to self-tanner or you're using a more pigmented formula, then you'll want to apply a light layer of moisturizer to the knees, elbows, and ankles.
These areas can suck up self-tanner, causing streaking and patchiness. If you apply lotion before, the self-tanner will blend a bit easier in those pesky spots.
Apply in sections
Now it's time to grab your self-tanner and your mitt if you have one. These tools ensure that your self-tanner stays on your body, not your hands. But if you don't have a mitt, just be sure to give your hands a good wash before and after applying the tanner.
Squirt your mousse, spray, or lotion onto the body and rub it in just as you would any other body product—but be especially mindful to get every inch. Doing this one area at a time (upper arm, then lower arm, then the front of the stomach, etc.) will make that a bit easier.
If you have a friend or family member close by that can help you apply it to the back and shoulders, you're in luck. Otherwise, consider getting a back applicator like this Two Piece Set from Steugo.
Blend difficult areas
"If you're self-tanning, try a Kabuki brush to blend out those hard areas such as hands, ankles, feet, and knees," Alysa notes. You can also use an old foundation brush if you have one lying around.
Let it dry & set
Once you've applied tan to your whole body, let it dry for a few minutes, or until you feel the product has fully soaked into your skin. Then, put on loose clothing (a baggy T-shirt, boxer shorts, etc.), and let it set for a few hours, or overnight.
Letting it set overnight makes this process a whole lot easier because you won't be exercising or sweating while the tan is on. Plus, you don't have to worry about tanner getting on your good daytime clothes.
Each tanning product is different, so be sure to check the label for the ideal setting time. Most of the time, letting the product sit longer than the allotted time won't do much, but cutting it short may result in a lighter tan than expected.
Rinse off in the morning
When you wake up (or when your set time is over) rinse off the tan using a gentle body cleanser. In the shower, stay away from things like plastic loofahs and other abrasive cleansing tools, as they might exfoliate the skin and take off some of the tan.
Hydrate your skin
This step is essential—hydrate your full body after you rinse off. After that, kick up your full-body moisturizing sessions to twice per day if you can swing it. "Moisturizing twice a day and keeping yourself hydrated throughout the day truly helps with keeping that tan lasting," Alysa explains.
How to apply self-tan on the face
As for the face, opt for a product specifically designed for the face, like the Typology Self-Tanning Face Serum. You'll follow a similar process but tailored for this gentler area:
- Exfoliate the day before: After you exfoliate your body, it's time to slough off the dead skin on your face. You can go for a chemical exfoliant serum or a gentle physical scrub—however you typically exfoliate will do.
- Apply your tan: You will either apply the tanning drops directly to the skin after cleansing or mix them into your moisturizer; just follow the directions on your product.
- Skip harsh ingredients: Using exfoliating serums and retinol after applying your tan may interfere with the finished look, so hold off for now. You can certainly use these products the next day, but you may put your tan at risk, so keep that in mind. Remember: You can always re-tan your face if need be, so put your skin health first.
How to pick your self-tanner
Now you have the basic routine down, so it's time to dive into shopping details. To follow, a few different things to keep in mind when you're looking for your next favorite self-tanner:
Many products come in two shades: fair to medium and medium to dark. Here's how to choose if you're unsure:
- Fair to medium: If you tend to burn easily, freckle often, or have cool undertones, this one is best for you. It offers a lighter tan that will better complement your complexion. However, coverage is relatively light, so you'll need to switch to the medium to dark shade for a deeper tan.
- Medium to dark: Meet the perfect pick if you have warmer undertones or tan easily. The final shade is a bit darker, so it's more noticeable on your skin if you're already naturally tan.
Type of product
You'll need to choose a type of product you want as well. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Clear vs. tinted: Tinted self-tanners will stain your sheets and clothing during the hours you let it set. This will wash out, but it can still be annoying to have streaks in your bed each time you tan. However, the clear self-tanners are a bit more difficult to use, as you can't tell what areas of skin have been covered or not—so pick your battle.
- Mousse vs. spray vs. lotion: Instant tanning products often come in the form of mousse, spray, or lotion. If you opt for mousse, note that you'll need a mitt for proper application. As for spray, be sure to really rub in the mist, don't just spray it on the skin. For lotion users, be sure to let the product soak in fully before putting on clothes or hopping into bed.
- Gradual vs. instant: Lastly, you'll need to decide if you want a gradual tan (meaning the darkness increases slightly with each use) or an instant tan. For those wary of self-tanning in general, it's best to start with a gradual tanner and work your way up.
The active ingredient in these topical tanners is referred to as DHA, an abbreviation for the compound dihydroxyacetone. This ingredient temporarily stains the skin but will wash away within a week or so.
Thanks to modern formulation trends, naturally derived DHA can be found in a plethora of tanning products, including many of the mbg preferred picks. Apart from a natural tanning agent, keep an eye out for products that contain even more skin-loving ingredients like hyaluronic acid, shea butter, botanical oils, etc.
How to make your tan last
After putting in all of this work, you'll want your tan to last as long as possible, so keep these tips in mind:
- Avoid sweating with your tan on: If you apply tan during the day, make sure you avoid sweating excessively until it has fully set and been rinsed off; otherwise, you risk creating pale streaks.
- Limit hot tub use: Alysa notes that steamy environments like hot tubs can reduce the longevity of your tan, so limit your use if possible.
- Avoid exfoliation: Set aside the dry brush, body scrubs, exfoliating gloves, shaving, and retinol body lotion until your tan begins to fade or you're ready to start the process all over.
If you choose a high-quality faux tanner (like those mentioned in this article) self-tanning is generally considered to be a safe beauty step. However, it’s important to note that safe tanners do not offer any form of UV protection—so when you’re outside and exposed to the sun, you must still apply sunscreen in order to protect your skin.
As for ingredients to look out for, board-certified dermatologist Apple Bodemer, M.D., notes, “Dihydroxyacetone is considered safe when applied topically, but can be of concern if it is ingested or inhaled, like in professional spray tans. If someone goes that route, they should protect their eyes, nose and mouth.”
Best way to apply self-tanner mouse?
Apply your self-tanner mousse using a mitt. Apply the product to freshly cleansed skin that's been exfoliated (via a body scrub or shaving) a day before. Let the product set for the instructed time period on your product before rinsing it off.
How to apply self-tanner without a mitt?
If you don’t have a self-tanning mitt, you can use your hands. Be sure to thoroughly wash your hands after to ensure you don't have any tan under your nails or in crevices on your hands.
Can I apply self-tanner with a washcloth?
Applying self-tanner with a washcloth may result in the product being absorbed into the towel rather than your skin. Instead, use a tanning mitt or your hands, and be sure to wash your hands with soap and water afterward.
Do you moisturize before self tan?
Tanner is more readily absorbed on dry, parched skin. Be sure to hydrate consistently leading up to the day of application. On the day of, you’ll want to spot-hydrate especially dry skin, such as that on the knees, elbows, hands, etc. Do this about an hour before application.
Should you shower before fake tanning?
Yes, you should shower before fake tanning—as you’ll want to apply the product on freshly cleansed, dry skin. After applying your self tanning product, let it set and dry. Each tanning product is different, so be sure to check the label for the ideal setting time. Many folks recommend doing this before bed, so the tanner can set overnight. After or in the morning, rinse the product off.
Can you shave right before self-tanning?
You should shave before tanning, but not immediately before. For best results, shave the day before you plan to apply fake tanner.
Once you know how to self-tan and you've found a great product, a bronze, glowy look is always at your fingertips, without having to sunbathe and risk damaging your skin. Ready to shop for a self-tanner? Check out this curated list of the best options on the market.
Hannah Frye is the Assistant Beauty & Health Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.S. in journalism and a minor in women’s, gender, and queer studies from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Hannah has written across lifestyle sections including skin care, women’s health, mental health, sustainability, social media trends, and more. She previously interned for Almost 30, a top-rated health and wellness podcast. In her current role, Hannah reports on the latest beauty trends and innovations, women’s health research, brain health news, and plenty more.