Self Tanner 101: A Beginner's Guide To All The Types

Self tanning is the best way to go when you want a summer glow but don't want to damage your skin. It's the safest way to fake a tan while keeping out of the sun and prioritizing sun protection. The most important step of any summer (or winter, frankly) skincare ritual is SPF. You want to consider what level of SPF you're using, as well as whether your sunscreen protects against ultraviolet (UV) A and B rays.

Once you have sun protection checked off your daily routine, you can start to think about sunless tanning. These products use dihydroxyacetone (DHA) to darken the outer layer of the skin. There are actually several different tanning product types, and while the final goal of using all of them is to get a sun-kissed glow, the application can be quite different. You'll need to consider which products you use on your face compared to the rest of your body — but there's no need to feel overwhelmed. We've got you covered.

The perks of sunless tanning mists

While there's always the option of getting a professional spray tan, you may be interested in spray products you can use at home. There's no doubt that it's cheaper and you also have more control over the level of darkness.

The first step for any self-tanning product is to shower and deeply exfoliate your skin, particularly around your knees, elbows, and ankles. This is also a good time to shave if you plan on doing that. "Self-tanners work much like a food coloring to stain the dead skin cells at the skin surface," dermatologist Loretta Ciraldo told Byrdie. "Exfoliating before application of the self-tanner results in an even appearance to the tan."

Towel dry and moisturize these areas, but keep the rest of your body clean from any products. Then, hold the can roughly 10 inches away from your body and make sure that all areas are covered. The perk of tanning mists and sprays is that they don't require a mitt for blending, and you can reach your back — your whole body is evenly covered. The cons are that the spray can also get all over your bathroom floor. To mitigate the tanning spray, lay down an old towel or newspaper to stand on when you're applying the mist. Let the product dry on your skin before putting on clothes to avoid streaks and patchiness.

How to use sunless tanning mousse

Tanning mousse is another effective way to get a fake tan. You can follow the same practice of exfoliating and showering before putting it on. Once the skin is dry and elbows, knees, and heels are moisturized, simply apply the mousse to a tanning mitt. Use long, sweeping motions on your body to get the best streak-free application.

Sunless tanning mousse and foams are traditionally applied with a mitt, but TikTok creators @hondroutwins shared a special hack for sunless tanning mousse. After spreading a towel down on the bathroom floor, they applied the mousse using a rubber glove instead of a mitt. The rubber glove didn't absorb any of the product, leading to less waste and higher pigmentation. They let the first coat dry, and then applied a second coat. Then, they used a makeup body brush to blend the tanner around the ankles to create a seamless final effect.

Pay attention to the instructions that come with your mousse. Some products are leave-on, and your skin darkens over several hours. Other mousses require that you shower after applying it. Typically, you wait one to four hours after application, and then wash the mousse off to reveal your newly tanned skin. Mousse is a straightforward way to get a tan, but it can be messy. Be sure to use the product over an old towel to avoid staining your floors.

Tanning lotions and drops do double duty

Sunless tanners also come as lotions and drop formulas. Lotion formulas, in particular, can be beneficial because the product often does double duty: you get tanned and moisturized at once. Application is usually easy, and you hydrate your skin in the process. In many cases, you can simply apply it to your wet skin after showering. Afterward, you gently towel-dry, and there's no wait time required before getting dressed. The only downside to lotions like these is that they don't offer a dramatic tan like mousse products do. Lotion self tanners tend to build over time, so you'll need to continuously apply it throughout the course of a week to build up your base color.

Self tanning drops also make it easy to moisturize and tan at once. Self-tan drops are concentrated, so you can add them to your daily body moisturizer or hydrating oils. The more drops you add, the darker your tan will be, so it's an easy way to control how much color you develop. The only caution with both drops and lotions is that you need to wash your hands after use to avoid orange streaking around your fingers and palms.

Everything to know about tanning water

One of the newer products in the world of sunless tanners is tanning water. The formula is clear, made with water, dihydroxyacetone, and vitamins. The best part about tanning water is that there's no mess and it moisturizes while serving some solid glow. Many come infused with hyaluronic acid. "A tanning water is a self-tanner in which the tanning agent known as DHA (dihydroxyacetone) is suspended in water, making the self-tan formula clear, so there is nothing to transfer onto clothing or bedsheets," celebrity tanner Sophie Evans told Who What Wear. "Plus, the water base makes the formula incredibly hydrating to the skin."

Tanning water tends to come in a spray form, but you can also get it as a gel formula. You'll need a mitt to apply it — spray your body thoroughly and then rub the product with a mitt to soak up the excess and even out the application. The only con to tanning water is that it's clear, so there's no guide color to see missed spots. This is why it's imperative to apply it liberally, so you don't wind up looking patchy.

Self-tanning your face

Applying self-tanning products to your face can be a major beauty hack for the summer. Tanned skin can help disguise discoloration, meaning you'll be less likely to reach for foundation and concealer. Let's be honest: when you're hot and sweaty, a face of makeup is a lot less appealing.

There are several self tanners that are specifically formulated for the face, and this is particularly important if you have oily or acne-prone skin. A tanner for the body might be too heavy for your skin and clog your pores. Much like tanners for the body, make sure that your face is cleansed, makeup-free, and dry before applying your product. If you're using a tanning mist, keep the bottle 4 inches away from your face and spray downward. If you're using a mousse, it can be effective to use a kabuki brush to blend the product all over, using circular motions. Don't forget the hairline, jawline, and neck for a seamless finish. If you're using drops, simply mix them in with your moisturizer. If you're using a lotion on your face, blend it the same way you would any moisturizer.

Many face tanners do double duty. You can look for one that exfoliates the skin, targets anti-aging signs, and tans your skin. Just don't forget to apply sunscreen after any tanning application.