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.
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?
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.
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.
What to avoid when self tanning
A few things to avoid in the hours immediately before tanning is lotion, deodorant and makeup. These products will block your pores from properly absorbing the product, leaving you more susceptible to streakiness. Another tip Radosz gave is to not apply anything to your skin for a minimum of eight hours after tanning as this can interfere with the developing process.
How long will fake tan last?
When it comes to how long your bronze will last, it varies. "It really depends on the person and their natural skin cycle. If their skin is shedding and very dry, then it's going to only last five to seven days," she explains. "If they're the kind of person that drinks a lot of water, hydrates and moisturizes their skin two times a day, it can last up to two weeks."
How to remove self tanner from your hands and body
"The reason why it's really hard to remove a spray tan or a self-tan is because you need to get that top layer of your skin off since it [experienced] a chemical reaction," explains Radosz. "Use a wet towel and scrub that area. If it's something like your palm that's dirty, you can mix a little bit of baking soda and lemon juice and then just let it sit there for five to 10 minutes, it's going to help lighten that area."
"If you altogether want to remove some of that tan because you feel too dark, then I would just do a hot steam shower and use soap because that's going to get that top layer of your skin off much faster," Radosz adds.
The best self tanners
Beauty by Earth Sunless Tanning Lotion Self Tanner
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 Bronzing Mousse
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. 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
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.
Isle of Paradise Glow Clear, Color Correcting Self-Tanning Mousse
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."
Tan-Luxe The Express Water
If you're in a hurry but are in need a glow, look no further than this express water from Tan-Luxe. This product is totally transparent with skin care ingredients that will help create a long-lasting tan in as quick as 30 minutes. If you're looking for a darker color, leave the product on for up to two hours and you'll be bronzed in a blink of an eye.
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
ModelCo Exfoliating Self Tan Remover Soap
As Radosz said, if you want your tan to properly stick to your skin, you need to do your due diligence and exfoliate, exfoliate, exfoliate! This soap by ModelCo is specifically formulated to both remove your tan and prep your skin for the next application. Made with goats milk to nourish and natural pumice to exfoliate, this soap will have no problem removing any build-up. Plus, if you accidentally slip up and apply too much tanner in one area, this will easily remove any mistakes.
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.