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I’ve tried facial self-tanners for 25 years, and this is the best one for a natural glow

Plus, it's under $20!
Courtesy of Colleen Sullivan

Out of college, I landed a job in the beauty department at Vogue Magazine. One day, a Miami-based dermatologist came to our office to discuss the dangers of sunbathing. Joining him was a woman in her late 30s. At first, his advice during the beginning of our meeting fell on deaf ears — I was in my early 20s at the time and spent my weekends baking on the beach at the Jersey Shore. Eventually, the dermatologist explained the woman he was with had been diagnosed with a serious skin cancer on her face — and to drive home his point about the risks associated with sunbathing, he had her remove her prosthetic nose (yep, you read that right). After that meeting, I never sunbathed again.

Over 30 years later, people often tell me my skin looks years younger than my natural age. When asked my beauty secret, my response is always the same: I avoid the sun as much as possible. That said, as I get older, I’m always looking for alternate ways to make my skin glow. As a beauty editor, I’ve tested a zillion self-tanners, yet I’ve never found one for the face that I’d strongly recommend. Until now.

L’Oréal Paris Self-Tanning Facial Drops

Size: 1 fl. oz. | Key Ingredients: Hyaluronic acid

What do the L’Oréal Paris Self-Tanning Facial Drops do?

L’Oréal Paris Sublime Bronze Facial Self-Tanning Drops come in a glass bottle with a dropper, allowing you to customize your color by adding as many or as few of the clear drops to your regular moisturizer as you’d like. (Prepare for some experimenting.) The formula contains a compound called dihydroxyacetone (DHA), the ingredient found in most sunless tanners, and works by combining with amino acids in the outermost layer of the skin to create a brownish tinge. I love that these drops aren’t sticky, don’t change the texture of my moisturizer, and are easy to use — simply cleanse your skin to remove any dirt which can affect the adhesion of the self-tanning ingredients (it’s also a good idea to exfoliate any dead skin cells before the initial application), mix the drops and some moisturizer in the palm of your hand and apply.

Courtesy of Colleen Sullivan

Why I like the L’Oréal Paris Self-Tanning Facial Drops

My friend, dermatologist Alexis Young, MD, an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Columbia Medical Center in New York City, checked out the product alongside with me. She was excited by the inclusion of hyaluronic acid, which not only adds moisture to the skin (many self-tanners can be drying), but also makes the product easier to apply. She stressed not to mix the drops with an AHA or retinol-based moisturizer (suggesting a hypoallergenic, non-comedogenic moisturizer instead), or risk possible irritation and/or shedding of your new glow. “See how well you tolerate the tanner as it does contain some potentially irritating botanicals and preservatives. And since the label doesn’t say non-comedogenic, it could potentially clog pores and worsen acne,” she says.

Dr. Young suggested a patch test, so I added the recommended minimum amount — five drops — to a dime sized drop of moisturizer and applied the mixture to the underside of my arm. The result was a too dark patch: Not something I would want on my face. I began my face treatment by adding two drops of the tanner only, but saw no change in my skin tone the following day (I self-tanned in the evening before bed). I bumped up the dosage to three drops and continued on that regimen until day five, when I achieved a soft glow that looked like I had spent a brief time in the sun. A little mascara, brow pencil and a swipe of lip gloss had me out the door, no foundation or tinted powder necessary.

Bottom line: These affordable drops (they cost less than $20) are ideal for anyone who wants to control their tan and wake up to a natural glow (unlike other self-tanners, you won’t wake up to stains on your pillowcase). Although the product is promoted as fragrance-free, like most self-tanners with DHA, there’s a bit of a chemical scent. (That wasn’t an issue for me because I masked the odor with the fresh, spa scent of my favorite moisturizer — Elemis Pro-Collagen Rose Marine Cream.) Keep in mind this self-tanner doesn’t contain a sunscreen, although you can add it to a moisturizer containing SPF for UV protection.

Some endnotes: It’s best to avoid contact with the eyebrows, lips and around the hairline and to not wash your face for up to eight hours after application. Try to avoid any brown spots on your face, which may appear darker with self-tanner, and don’t forget to apply the self-tanner to your neck (be sure to hit up the sides and under your ears for a more natural look). And finally, wash your hands with soap and warm water after using or you’ll end up with tanner-stained fingertips and palms (I learned that tip the hard way).

More tanning drops to shop

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

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

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)