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These self tanners gave us the perfect pre-summer glows — plus top-rated expert picks

Plus, award-winners and fan-favorite products to shop.

Most of us dread heading home after a tropical vacation, but if there's one perk associated with leaving, it's the post-vacay glow that we get to flaunt when we get back. But for those of us who want that bronze look all year round without having to book a trip, self-tanner can be a life saver.

Not to mention, self-tanning is a great alternative to sunbathing and tanning beds, which aren't exactly the most skin-friendly. Dr. Robert Anolik, a board-certified dermatologist, tells Shop TODAY that "ultraviolet radiation from both natural sunlight and artificial sources (such as tanning beds) is a known carcinogen." Dr. Marisa Garshick, a board-certified dermatologist, also tells us that "self-tanners provide a natural-looking tan without the need for UV exposure, helping to prevent premature aging and reduce the risk of skin cancer."

To talk all things tanning, we caught up with Natalia Radosz who is the founder and CEO of Glow 2 Go, a New York City-based spray-tanning company. With 14 years of experience in the tanning industry under her belt, Radosz knows all the tips and tricks when it comes to fake tan. No matter if you've been tanning for years or are a rookie, this guide will answer all you're questions and will help you obtain the a bronze even the gods are jealous of.

Keep reading to have all your tanning questions answered and to shop the award-winning tanning products that earned our stamp of approval.

How does self tanner work?How to prepare for self tanningHow to apply self tanner | What to avoid when self tanning | Dermatologist-favorite self tannersThe best self tanners, according to editorsBest self tan application accessoriesSelf tan removal products | Other self tanning accessories | How we choseMeet the experts 

Shop TODAY top picks: Best self tanners, tried by editors

How does self tanner work?

Is it paint? Is it bronzer? What actually is self-tanner? Radosz clarified: "A lot of people think that we paint on their skin, but it's actually a chemical reaction between the tanner and your dead skin cells."

Radosz went on to summarize that the dark color you see after applying a tanning mousse or getting a spray tan is makeup to ensure that the tan is evenly applied. This color will eventually disappear after a shower, leaving the actual developed tan in its place.

How to prepare for self tanning

There are a few things you can do to maximize your self-tanning experience, with the first being to exfoliate prior to your tan application. "The most important thing is going to be to exfoliate the night before because the tanner will be on the top layer of your skin. If you don't exfoliate, that top layer of skin is going to shed off within the next couple of days, then you're going to be complaining that your tanner is blotchy," explained Radosz.

Ami Desai, a makeup artist, recently shared self-tanner advice with Hoda & Jenna. She also advised exfoliating pre-tanning, and said, "I love using exfoliating gloves to easily and efficiently get rid of dead skin."

Besides exfoliating, putting lotion on before bed is the second best thing you can do to make sure your skin is hydrated and ready to soak up the tanner.

How to apply self tanner

While each product comes with its own set of directions, it's a pretty straight-forward process. Typically, you'll start by applying either a lotion or mousse onto a tanning mitt or brush and begin to massage the product into your skin in a circular motion.

You'll want to make sure you dilute the self-tanner on the knees, ankles and elbows, because these areas tend to absorb more self-tanner than the rest of your body. A great way to ensure that your tan doesn't stick too much along these areas is by applying a little bit of lotion to these targeted sections before you begin. "Lotion acts as a barrier that's gonna block the tan from sticking too much in those areas," said Radosz.

Dermatologist-favorite self tanners

Jergens Natural Glow 3-Day Self Tanner 

What we like
  • 20,000+ positive ratings
  • Helps hydrate the skin
Something to note
  • Some people dislike the smell

Size: 10 oz. | Shade: Fair/ Medium | Type: Lotion | Developing time: About one week when applied daily

Garshick recommends the Jergens self tanner. She tells Shop TODAY, "In addition to helping to achieve a tan, this moisturizer also contains antioxidants and vitamin E to nourish the skin."

Isle of Paradise Medium Self-Tanning Face Drops

What we like
  • Easy to mix with moisturizer
  • Natural looking
Something to note
  • May stain hands

Size: 1.01 oz. | Shade: Medium | Type: Serum | Developing time: 4-6 hours

These self-tanning drops are also recommended by Garshick, who says they "work to hydrate the skin using avocado, grapefruit and chia seed oils." She reveals, "These can be incorporated into a moisturizer or serum making it easy to apply, especially when applying to the face."

Coco & Eve Sunny Honey Bali Bronzing Foam

What we like
  • Has a nice "fruity" scent
  • Creates natural-looking tan
Something to note
  • Some disappointed with results

Size: 6.76 oz. | Shade: Medium | Type: Foam | Developing time: 2 hours (or overnight, depending on shade you're trying to reach)

This bronzing foam from Coco & Eve was recommended by Garshick, too. She says that it's "easy to apply" and "won’t leave the skin with any streaks." Garshick continues, "I especially love that it is lightweight and dries easily."

The best self tanners, according to editors

Bondi Sands Pure Self Tan Foaming Water

What we like
  • Easy to apply
  • Formula doesn't stain
Something to note
  • Some dislike the smell

Size: 6.76 oz. | Shade: Light/Medium | Type: Foam | Developing time: 6 hours (at least)

Emma Stessman, a commerce editor at Shop TODAY, tried this self tanner by Bonnie Sands that's "quick to start working," per Stessman. Plus, the product is easy to apply in "less than 15 minutes." Pleased with the results of this formula, Stessman said, "After a few days, multiple showers, a couple of dips in the pool and a decent amount of sweating, my full-body golden glow hasn’t faded."

Tanologist Express Self Tan Water

What we like
  • Colorless formula
  • Easy to apply
  • Develops in four hours
Something to note
  • Hard to see where applied

Size: 6.76 oz. | Shade: Dark | Type: Mist | Developing time: 1-4 hours, depending on desired shade

Anita Chomenko, a social media video producer at Shop TODAY, says she "recently tried this self-tanner and was impressed with the results!" Chomenko tells us, "The formula is a self-tan water, which I’ve never used before. Just spray it on your skin and blend using a mitt for even distribution. It comes on colorless, which means you don’t have to worry about color transfer on your clothes or sheets. You can see the color develop in just four hours! I ended up with a nice and noticeable glow. You’d think I just got back from vacation, instead of from my apartment. My tan lasted all week long!"

Bondi Sands Self Tanning Foam Light/Medium

What we like
  • Fades evenly
  • Buildable
  • Smells good
Something to note
  • Sticky while developing

Shannon Garlin, an associate editor at Shop TODAY, tried this self tanner and was seriously impressed by the results. She say, "As an obvious vampire, I’ve always been scared (and often scoffed) at self-tanners. That’s until I received a sample of this and out of sheer desperation for an upcoming vacation, I gave it try. I was SHOCKED."

Courtesy Shannon Garlin, Shop TODAY Associate Editor

Garlin continues, "The light/medium is perfect for those who just want to look “less pale.” As an amateur tanner, I love the foam consistency, too, it allows for a fool-proof application! The end result is a natural sun-kissed hue and doesn’t leave you orange or streaky. And when it fades, it evenly and slowly disappears."

Isle of Paradise Glow Clear, Color Correcting Self-Tanning Mousse

What we like
  • "Effortless" application process
  • Beginner-friendly product
Something to note
  • Some had pump malfunctions 

Size: 6.76 oz. | Shade: Light | Type: Mousse | Developing time: 5-6 hours, according to reviewers

This clear mousse from Isle of Paradise includes color-correcting properties to help you achieve a natural-looking tan. Coming in three different shades, you can choose how deep you want your tan to be. Even better, this product is a favorite of commerce editor Vivien Moon who said, “I love how lightweight this is and how the formula gives me a natural glow. I also appreciate how it fades without streaking, similar to a natural tan without the damaging UV rays.”

Beauty by Earth Sunless Tanning Lotion Self Tanner

What we like
  • Provides a natural-looking tan
  • Easy-to-use and apply
Something to note
  • Has a scent that some might find overwhelming
  • Some with sensitive skin experienced irritation

Size: 7.5 oz. | Shade: Fair to Medium | Type: Lotion | Developing time: 6-8 hours

If you're a self-tanning newbie, this lotion is a great starting point. Made with clean ingredients like aloe vera and green tea leaf extract, this gradual tanner won't leave you looking streaky and orange.

Winning the best gradual self tanner in our 2023 Shop TODAY Beauty Awards, this lotion became an instant favorite among our team. Assistant partnerships editor Lauren Witonsky has tried many tanners and said, "I've never had a lotion give me such a nice color, almost as dark as a [traditional mousse tanner]. I don’t have to use a mitt to apply or shower it off before wearing it out since it’s a regular white lotion."

St. Tropez Self Tan Purity Bronzing Water Face Mist 

What we like
  • Creates natural-looking glow
  • Many enjoy the scent
Something to note
  • Caused breakouts for some

Size: 2.7 oz. | Shade: "Golden" | Type: Mist | Developing time: 4-8 hours

I [Privette] love using this to get a subtle glow on my face. I normally apply after my skincare routine and wake up with a little bronzer color. My favorite part of this product is that you don’t have to wash it off in the morning like other self-tanning products. Plus, it smells amazing.

St. Tropez Self Tan Bronzing Mousse

What we like
  • Reviewers say a mitt and an exfoliating wash helps this tan turn out better
  • Looks like a natural tan
Something to note
  • Has a different formula compared to prior versions
  • Some reported it washed away; stained sheets

Size: 8 oz. | Shade: "Golden tan" | Type: Mousse | Developing time: 4-8 hours

If you'd rather use a traditional tinted mousse self-tanner, this is your best bet! Unlike a lotion, this mousse will give you that golden tint right away. Better yet, this mousse lasts 10 days with an even fade that won't leave you looking patchy.

Taking home the gold in our Beauty Awards "best overall self tanner" category, our reviewers had nothing but praise for this product. Former NBC news intern Jordan Greene said, "Out of all the self tanners I’ve used, this is the best one yet. The color spreads evenly and isn’t too dark."

+Lux Unfiltered N°32 Gradual Hydrating Self Tanner

What we like
  • Leaves skin feeling moisturized and hydrated 
  • Lightweight and buildable 
  • Doesn't transfer onto sheets
Something to note
  • Has a scent some might find overwhelming
  • "Sticky" consistency

Size: 6.8 oz. | Shade: Does not specify | Type: Lotion | Developing time: Does not specify

Made from shea butter, cocoa butter, squalane, avocado oil and passion fruit oil, this gradual-tanning lotion will subtly build your bronze. If you're looking for a tan that doesn't scream "this isn't real!" while still having a glow, this is the product for you. While you can always use more to build a deeper color, this is best for those looking for an under-the-radar color.

Moon is also a fan of this self tanner and tells us, "I’ve been using products from Lux Unfiltered for years and love their selection that always gives me a sun-kissed look without crossing over into orange territory." She goes on to say, "This specific lotion has been my go-to for a long time and I love how easy it is to apply, how buildable it is and (the best part) that I can sleep on my white sheets and not have to worry that the lotion will leave a stain after application."

St. Tropez Self Tan Suprême Violet Bronzing Mousse

What we like
  • Fast-drying formula
  • Long-lasting product
  • No strong smell
Something to note
  • May not be best for beginners

Size: 6.7 oz. | Shade: Deep, olive | Type: Mousse | Developing time: 3-6 hours

Witonsky also uses this self tanner by St. Tropez. She tells us, "I’m always searching for the bronziest, longest-lasting self-tan — and I think I may have found a new favorite. St. Tropez just released their 'richest, darkest, deepest' tan on Feb. 12 and it seriously lives up to the hype. It has violet undertones, so it leaves me looking olive (read: not orange) even though I naturally have super fair skin."

Tan-Luxe The Future Collection

What we like
  • Fades nicely
  • Very easy to apply
Something to note
  • "Very fragrant"

Size: 5 oz. | Shade: Golden or "deep bronze," depending on developing time | Type: Mist | Developing time: 2-4 hours

This new launch from Tan Luxe is the real deal. I [Privette] love the spray application and all the different technology the brand put into this product. It gives a glowing bronze that isn’t orange or streaky and it last all week for me. Also, if it’s good enough for Paris Hilton.. it’s more than enough for me!

Courtesy Amanda Fama, Shop TODAY Editor

Amanda Fama, a commerce editor at Shop TODAY, tried this self tanner for the first time and instantly became a fan. She says, "In the past, self-tanning lotions haven’t really worked for me (they’ve always left streaks or uneven color). However, this tanning mist works so well and is simple to apply."

Courtesy Amanda Fama, Shop TODAY Editor

Fama says that "it includes a soft blending mitt that helps even the formula out, and it smells fine." She used it for a total of 2.5 hours in two separate sessions (the first one was quicker to see how her skin reacted), and she was pleased with the results. "I’m excited to use this throughout the summer."

See some of our favorite self-tanners in action:

Best self tan application accessories

Bondi Sands Self Tanning Application Mitt

When you use a mitt to apply tanner, you can guarantee that you tan will be streak-free while keeping your hands free from stains. To clean the mitt all you have to do is wash with warm water and let it air dry to remove build-up. Bonus: This application mitt comes highly recommended by the Shop TODAY editors themselves.

B.tan Back Self Tan Applicator

Unless you're extremely flexible, reaching every inch of the skin on your back to evenly apply a product is impossible! If you don't have a friend or roommate to jump in and save the day, this handy back tan applicator will be your saving grace. All you have to do is, "put a small amount of mousse or lotion along the applicator and pull it tightly across your back and glide all over your body in back and forth motions," according to the brand.

Isle of Paradise Shape and Glow Self Tan Blending Brush

This kabuki style vegan brush is great for those tricky areas like your hands, feet, elbows and knees. Similar to a makeup brush, all you have to do is squeeze some product onto the brush and buff and blend until your skin is completely covered with tanner.

However, it's important to note that reviews mention that this brush is best suited for a mousse tanner as it might be too dense for a lotion.

Best self tan removal products

St. Tropez Tan Build Up Remover Mitt

Like the soap, this mitt is specifically designed to correct any tanning mistakes and even out your skin texture before applying another layer of tanner. To properly utilize this mitt, the brand says to "use on wet skin in gentle circular motions with your regular bath or shower products. Apply extra pressure or use it with Tan Remover Mousse for elbows, knees, ankles, feet and hands, or where tan build up is obvious."

Other self tan accessories

The Bund Satin Robe

It's always recommended to wear loose, dark clothing after tanning to ensure that the product doesn't transfer or stain any of your clothes. This silk robe from Amazon is the perfect post-tan outfit since it won't cling to your body, thus allowing the product to properly dry. Even better, the low price point ensures you won't be heartbroken if it gets stained.

Tan Fan Self Tanner Sleep Sac

This silk-like sheet protector will ensure your sheets don't stain while you're catching up on your beauty sleep. Unlike cotton sheets, the brand specifically designed this sleeper sheet so it wouldn't absorb any product or drag and rub your skin. With a 4.5 star rating on Amazon, it's easy to see why people love this product. One reviewer wrote, "I didn’t want to get spray tan all over their sheets so I used this. It’s so comfy, you don’t get hot, you don’t get spray tan everywhere, it's easy to wash and you get ur own little sleeping bag. It’s literally so fun!"

Better yet, the company guarantees it won't stain or your money back.

SunFX Post Tan Translucent Finishing Powder

Chances are you've probably used translucent powder to set your concealer or foundation, so why not do the same thing for your tan? Right after you've completed your tan, apply this powder to "remove post-tan tack and help with any post tan odor. This bronzed translucent light powder provides a sheer flawless finish that doesn’t clog pores," says the brand. This is great to apply to areas where you sweat (under arms, arm creases, etc.) to prevent creasing or running.

How we chose

Before choosing the best self-tanning products, the Shop TODAY team spoke with a self-tanning professional about how they work (and how to apply them). We also spoke with a board-certified dermatologist about the importance of self tanners (versus UV tans), and then chose editor-favorite products.

Meet the experts

  • Dr. Robert Anolik is a board-certified dermatologist based in New York.
  • Natalia Radosz is the founder and CEO of a spray-tanning company in New York City called Glow 2 Go.
  • Ami Desai is an experienced makeup artist who's also an expert in lifestyle and beauty.
  • Dr. Marisa Garshick, MD, FAAD, is a board-certified dermatologist working in New York and New Jersey.