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Top 10 Self-Tanners + Sunless Tanning Tips

Although I absolutely look best bronzed, I made a promise to my sunscreen — never shall we part. So that leaves me to rely on faux tanning products for my summery skin.

I’ve certainly had my share of mishaps — streaky legs, pigmented patches on my knees, an overall orange tint — but I’m here to tell you one thing: Don’t give up, my friends. The right sunless tanner is out there for you, and I’ve researched the tried-and-true favorites, as well as tips as to why your faux tan looks so…fake.

Read on for top self-tanner picks and fool-proof self-tanning tips:

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  • Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta® Glow Pads 1 of 10
    Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta® Glow Pads
    Everyone is raving about these wipe-on tanning pads, from beauty editors to customers. Apparently the Allure team is hooked on these self-tanning wipes (which are packed with Vitamin D and anti-aging properties), and their assistant editor says they changed her life. "There's no greasiness, no stench, no realizing you missed the entire right side of your face halfway through the day. They're easy to apply, and after only two uses, I looked like I had spent a few days on the beach," said Sophia Panych, associate editor at Allure.
    Buy from Sephora for $18 -$65
  • St. Tropez Self Tan Bronzing Mousse 2 of 10
    St. Tropez Self Tan Bronzing Mousse
    The entire St. Tropez line is my personal self-tanner favorite — it goes on smoothly, dries quickly, and lasts an impressively long time. I've never had any issues with streaks or Oompa Loompa orange. Thousands of Sephora reviewers agree, as do Elle readers who claim that the St. Tropez Self Tan Bronzing Lotion gives "the most authentic golden glow." This could be because St. Tropez's formulas contain green pigments to counteract any orange tint.
    Buy from Sephora for $40
  • Jergens Natural Glow Healthy Complexion Daily Facial Moisturizer 3 of 10
    Jergens Natural Glow Healthy Complexion Daily Facial Moisturizer
    A long-time drugstore favorite, this is an affordable way to gradually boost your color in a fool-proof way. It's been praised countless times, from beauty awards to online reviews. It won't give you an instant bronze look, but it slowly builds a summer glow.
    Buy from Drugstore.com for $6.79
  • Dior DiorBronze Self-Tanner Natural Glow 4 of 10
    Dior DiorBronze Self-Tanner Natural Glow
    I've heard plenty of rave reviews for this self-tanner from Dior. Allure editors reported that DiorBronze is one of the few self-tanners to give an instant deep color without the fear of streaking.
    And, I mean, it's Dior.
    Buy from Dior for $34
  • Clarins Delectable Self Tanning Mousse SPF 15 5 of 10
    Clarins Delectable Self Tanning Mousse SPF 15
    Another fan favorite, with many online reviewers claiming that this is a good option for fair-skinned gals. I especially like that this one has an SPF, unlike other self-tanners that not only leave you unprotected, but can increase your odds of getting sun burn. (Check the ingredients for Alpha Hydroxy Acid, AHA, which might make your skin more sensitive to the sun, and therefore to burns.)
    Buy from Sephora for $42
  • Kerstin Florian Sunless Tan 6 of 10
    Kerstin Florian Sunless Tan
    This won as the Best Self-Tanner For Body in SELF magazine's Healthy Beauty Awards 2012. One of their testers reported, "I usually use sprays, but this rich cream gave me the smoothest, most even tan I've ever had."
    Buy from Kerstin Florian for $50
  • Kate Somerville 360° ™ Tanning Towelettes 7 of 10
    Kate Somerville 360° ™ Tanning Towelettes
    SELF magazine put these tanning towelettes to the test, in which they dubbed them "bronzer for beginners." While they didn't find dramatic results instantly, they ended up with a "subtle golden glow" that was "foolproof" to apply.

    I especially like that these towelettes are made without parabens, sulfates, synthetic dyes, petrochemicals, or any other potentially dangerous ingredients.

    Buy from Sephora for $45 - $48
  • L’Oreal Sublime Bronze Self-Tanning Lotion 8 of 10
    L'Oreal Sublime Bronze Self-Tanning Lotion
    Another good drugstore self-tanner, but this one has a slight shimmery sparkle to it, and it's is a little stickier than most. Yet it's a good budget drugstore pick — one that won't leave you with orange streaks up and down your leg.
    Buy from Drugstore.com for $8.49
  • Fusion Beauty GlowFusion Micro Nutrient Face and Body Natural Protein 9 of 10
    Fusion Beauty GlowFusion Micro Nutrient Face and Body Natural Protein
    Anyone who has hunted through self-tanner reviews has come across a Fusion Beauty recommendation. It even ended up on Glamour Magazine's Ultimate Self-Tanner Guide, which highlighted its "subtle scent and gently bronzed finish."
    Buy from Skinstore.com for $58
  • Lancome FLASH BRONZER Tinted Self-Tanning Leg Gel 10 of 10
    Lancome FLASH BRONZER Tinted Self-Tanning Leg Gel
    Allure magazine pin-pointed this leg-tanning gel as one of the Top 5 Self-Tanners, mainly for its natural color on even the fairest skin tones. And, yes, it can be used on your face, despite its name.
    Buy from Sephora for $37

Even if you’ve read countless glowing reviews, your specific skin tone and pH balance can react differently to different formulas. But here are some tips on choosing the right kind and applying it correctly:

1. Exfoliate. This is the #1 tip from experts across the board, because dry skin patches can soak up more pigment, giving a tell-tale fake look. Not only that, but self-tanners only interact with the top layer of skin, so applying it to freshly exfoliated skin means that the skin cells won’t shed so quickly. Go for a non-irritating oil-free scrub or even a loofah to slough off dead skin. In fact, Sarah Leon from The Stylist claims that this is a 100% necessary step that too many self-tanners skip.

2. Prep dry areas. Although many experts say that applying all-over moisturizer can interfere with how your skin absorbs the color, moisturizing exceptionally dry areas (like your elbows, knees and knuckles) will prevent them from turning an orange-y color. If you have overall dry skin, opt for a gradual-tan moisturizer (like Jergens) or a formula with natural moisturizing agents (like Clarins and St. Tropez). Also apply a barrier ointment (like Vaseline or Aquaphor) onto your fingernails, toenails and cuticles.

3. Don’t go too dark. Most self-tanners come in a range of shades for a more natural look — and there’s a reason for that. According to St. Tropez expert Fiona Locke, many self-tanners contain a colorless sugar called DHA, which is what darkens the top layer of skin. And too much DHA is what causes an orange color — whether the product has too much DHA for your skin tone, or because you layered on too much product. Pick a product that’s only one shade darker than your natural color, and one with a lower percentage of DHA. If you’re scared, a gradual tan lotion is the safest bet.

4. Test it on your skin. Even if you pick a shade close to your natural skin tone, people tolerate DHA differently. Test a small amount of your skin before applying all over your body, just to see how the formula reacts with your specific skin type.

5. Apply carefully. You have several different options for applying self-tanner — sprays, lotions, towelettes, gels — but always be careful about your palms. I’ve read several tips on how to best apply self-tanning lotion, like using:

  • Disposable latex gloves
  • A round face-powder puff
  • A 3-inch wide sponge paintbrush (from your local hardware store)
  • An applicator mitt (sold for St. Tropez tanners)
  • Your hands — but make sure to wash your palms immediately after applying, preferably scrubbing with a nailbrush.

6. Go from the bottom up in a circular motion. Start applying self-tanner at your feet and then work your way up. When applying to your face, put a dime-size amount where you naturally tan (your forehead, the apples of your cheeks, your nose, and your chin) and blend outward. Avoid your eyelids and eyebrows.

7. Take your time. Hastily throwing on self-tanner as if it were ordinary body lotion is pretty much asking for streaks. Wait until you have some time.

8. Wait to get dressed. The experts at The Beauty Department recommend waiting at least 10 minutes before getting dressed, and to wear dark colors to avoid stains. If you’re heading out the door, Allure suggests using a hair dryer to speed up the drying process. Many people like to put self-tanner on at night (at least 20 minutes before climbing into bed) so they can shower and dress normally in the morning.

9. Prolong your tan by avoiding retinols/acne treatment, exfoliation, swimming in chlorine, and showering/bathing/swimming at least 8 hours after application. Keeping your skin moisturized will help lengthen your tan, too.

10. Try, try again. If one formula doesn’t work on your skin, don’t swear off self-tanner altogether. Locke suggests trying a product with a good reputation (like any listed in the slideshow above), a lower percentage of DHA, and products infused with erythrulose (a sugar from raspberries that’s believed to make tans last longer).

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Read more of Michelle’s writing at Early Mama.

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