Mackenzie Dunn
Updated May 26, 2020 @ 1:23 pm
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In the year 2020, we are well aware of the damage the sun can do to our skin (hello, UV rays are responsible for causing over 90% of non-melanoma skin cancers and up to 85% of melanoma). With those kinds of stats, gone are the days were it was “cool” to slather yourself in baby oil and fry outside in the name of getting a good tan. Instead, self-tanning products allow us to get that golden-bronze glow, without the harmful effects of UV rays. And honestly, they’ve come a long way from your mother’s OG Jergen’s lotion (which, by the way, still holds up).

How does self-tanner work?

Self-tanners, which are a safer option for getting that just-stepped-off-the-beach tan, wore thanks to an active ingredient called DHA (dihydroxyacetone).

“When applied, DHA comes into contact with the amino acids in the surface layer of the skin, creating a pigment or melanoidin,” explains Harold Lancer, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist.

Gabriella Baki, Ph.D., a cosmetic scientist and assistant professor of pharmaceutics at The University of Toledo College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, explains that the higher the percentage of DHA, the more pronounced the tanning action will be. “Products available in stores usually contain 3% to 5% DHA,” she says. “They are usually labeled as light, medium, and dark, which can help consumers pick the right product.”

DHA is also the ingredient that gives a lot of products an unpleasant “self-tanner smell,” but luckily for us, modern formulas have come a long way in masking it with fragrances such as coconut, aloe, and watermelon.

How long does self-tanner last?

“This skin coloration is temporary, and often only lasts only about one week, as the skin will naturally shed its dead cells,” says Dr. Lancer.

It’s also worth noting that it usually takes anywhere from between eight to 48 hours for the skin to fully develop a ‘tan’ from the DHA, so if you’re in search of a more immediate tan, look for tinted or instant options.

From beginners who just want a subtle glow to those who want to become a full-blown bronze goddess, we rounded up some of the best self-tanners on the market.

Best self-tanners:

1Best self-tanner with SPF: SuperGoop Healthy Glow Sunless Tan SPF 40


Get a sunless tan and feel good about it with this two-in-one product. It provides a gradual tan for the face and body while also giving you the daily UV protection you need. It’s mitt-free and scentless, giving you buildable, long-lasting color in an easy-to-use, fine-mist spray.

2Best self-tanner towelettes for face: Haute Bronze Face Towel

Haute Bronze

For those hoping to get a sun-kissed glow without having to spend time in the sun, these bronzing face towels—which took home one of our 2020 Beauty Crush Awards— are a holy grail, and they’re so easy to use. Just unfold the towel, and using circular motions, apply it to dry, clean skin. That’s it! Plus, it’s carry-on approved.

3Best self-tanner towelettes: Kate Somerville 360° Tanning Towelettes


Tanning towelettes are a great way to apply self-tanner in one easy, fast-absorbing swoop. They’re mess-free and can be discarded after one use, cutting down on those pesky tanner stains some formulas transfer onto your towels and clothes. The towelettes are formulated with all skin types in mind, so they can be used on both the face and body without worrying about clogged pores or reactionary breakouts.

4Best self-tanner for a natural tan: Tan-Luxe The Gradual Illuminating Tanning Lotion


For a natural tan that’s not streaky or blotchy, opt for a gradual tanning lotion. This one has a silky, weightless formula that’s made with skin-beneficial raspberry seed oil, vitamin E, and aloe vera to hydrate skin at the same time. You’ll notice a soft glow (no orange-y tint here) and more supple skin within just days of use.

5Best self-tanning mousse: Isle of Paradise Glow Clear Self-Tanning Mousse


Made with coconut, chia seed, and avocado oils, this mousse is deeply nourishing and helps create the ultimate hydrated, natural-looking tan. It took home a 2020 Beauty Crush Award for the Best Expert-Recommended Body Self-Tanner for its quick-drying properties and ability to deliver a believable, golden glow.

6Best instant self-tanner: St. Tropez Self Tan Express Bronzing Mist


Kind of like a spray tan in a bottle, you can control the depth of your color with this customizable mist that delivers near-instant results. Depending on how long you leave it on before you shower, it will give you either light, medium, or dark color since you determine how long to let the DHA develop. Unlike some of the more gradual formulas, you can achieve a true golden color in just one use—making this one ideal for quick on-the-go tanning.

7Best self-tanner for face: Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta Glow Pad for Face


Finding the best tanner for your face can be a serious challenge. It can’t be too orange, too dark, or too blotchy. That’s why tanning towelettes that are specifically designed for your visage are your best bet. These are infused with alpha-and beta-hydroxy acids to exfoliate your skin and reduce the appearance of pores, leaving you with a bright, evenly tanned face.

8Best self-tanner serum: HauteBronze Sun Drops Self Tan Anti-Aging Serum


Add a drop or two of this tinted serum to your everyday face moisturizer or body lotion for a customizable, healthy boost of color. Ideal for those with pale skin, the more drops you use, the more color you’ll notice. Plus, it’s loaded with glycerin, a mega-hydrating product that will help maintain your skin’s healthy moisture level.

9Best anti-aging self-tanner serum: Tan-Luxe Super Glow Hyaluronic Self-Tan Serum


Our Beauty Crush Award expert and Deputy Beauty Editor of Health and Real Simple, Lisa DeSantis, describes these luxurious drops as an anti-aging serum and tanning formula rolled into one. “It helps me cut down on my skincare steps every morning and night, and I’m left with a believable bronze that scores me tons of compliments,” she says.

10Best self-tanner for fair skin: St. Tropez Self Tan Purity Bronzing Water Mousse


This hydrating, lightweight formula is great for building a tan that’s natural and subtle without overdoing it, making it ideal for those with paler skin tones. The clear, transparent formula goes on best when applied with a tanning mitt; once it’s dry, it won’t transfer or stain your clothes. Like most self-tanners, it develops over time, so you’ll see a golden bronze in four to eight hours after application. It’s so good that we gave it a Beauty Crush Award.

11Best moisturizing self-tanner: Tarte Brazilliance PLUS + Self-Tanner with Mitt


Tarte’s self-tanner comes with a mess-free mitt for easy application, making it the best self-tanner for avoiding stained hands. It’s also formulated with hydrating maracuja oil for smooth, moisturized skin, which will help your overall glow. Even better? This self-tanner is alcohol-free and vegan, so it’s nice to your body and animals.

12Best drugstore self-tanner: Jergens Natural Glow 3 Days to Glow Moisturizer


Jergins has been around since the very beginning of our self-tanning obsession, and if you love its original, this one is even better. Delivering quicker results in just three days (as opposed to the original, which gradually tans over about a week), this rich, hydrating lotion has antioxidants and vitamin E help to keep skin healthy.

13Best Drugstore Body Self-Tanner: L’Oréal Paris Sublime Bronze Self-Tanning Water


This lightweight and transparent mousse will give you a natural-looking tan that you can build up with multiple applications. You’ll get a vacation-worthy look in four-eight hours.

14Best quick-drying self-tanner: Coola Sunless Tan Dry Oil Mist


Made with 70% organic ingredients, this dry oil gives you a luminous, dewy, and sun-kissed finish that can be layered for an even darker tan. It’s streak-free and transfer-resistant, and comes in a convenient aerosol can that makes spraying on easily. Just make sure to apply in a ventilated area.

Now, go get your glow on with the best self-tanners out there.