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The Secret to a Natural-Looking Sun-Kissed Glow All Year Long — No Sun Needed

Discover how to fake a tan with gradual self tanners

No matter the time of year, golden, sun-kissed skin is in and for good reason. The warm color helps our pale, sallow or red skin look healthy and glowing. Sure, we know the best way to achieve the look without basking in the sun’s dangerous rays is by slathering on sunless tanners. But as even the most detail-oriented user will tell you, self tanner can end up streaking here and there, leaving behind tale-tell signs that your tan is fake. And the application errors become even more common as we get older and crepiness, rough texture and fine lines start to set into skin. Enter gradual self tanners. They’re easy to use and will give ensure your skin glows as beautifully (and as streak free) as it would after a day spent in the sun. Keep reading to discover the best gradual self tanner recommended by skin pros.

What are gradual self tanners?

Gradual self tanner product

Gradual self tanners are emulsions that contain DHA (Dihydroxyacetone), a sugar-derivative, the main ingredient in all sunless tanning products, says Rachel Lee Lozina, licensed esthetician, laser technician and founder of Blue Water Spa in Oyster Bay, New York. What sets gradual self tanners apart from regular self-tanning formulas is the amount of DHA they contain. “They are developed with a low percentage of DHA to produce very natural results over time and with daily reapplication,” she explains. 

That means that they build a glow over days — plural — instead of just one. The benefit here is that if you do manage to get a streak or two, it’s not as noticeable, as it will be light and hidden by the next day’s layer. “They are great for beginners and also if you are unsure of how dark you want to go!” adds Lozina. “If your skin is very fair and you’re apprehensive about getting too dark too quickly, gradual options are the best.”

The benefits of gradual self tanner

The golden glow created by self tanner is especially great for aging skin, as it can distract from imperfections like fine lines, spider veins, cellulite and more. That’s because it works like a makeup but for the body. Explains Lozina, “self tanner acts almost like a filter or a tinted moisturizer because it helps even the skin tone, plus it helps blur blemishes, redness and dark circles.”

And while you may think of tanning as a summer endeavor, there are reasons you might want to reach for a sunless formula in the colder months, too. “Winter is a time when we are outdoors less due to the weather and shorter days so we are not exposed to the daylight as often as we would like,” says Lozina. In other words, a light layer of color may help warm up your skin and bring you a glow 365 days a year – and not just during swimsuit season.

Related: “I’m a Dermatologist and *This* Is Why It’s So Important to Wear Sunscreen Year Round — Especially in Winter!”  

The 6 best gradual self tanners

For help on what formula is best to use, Lozina says, “self tanning mousse and creams are the easiest to work with, in my opinion, because they are ready to go.” Another option are tanning drops, which are great to add to your favorite moisturizer is, but Lonzina says it’s imperative to mix the drops in well so your tan doesn’t look uneven. Here, the 6 top picks from Lonzina and Munro.

1. Best customizable splurge

Isle of Paradise Self Tanning Face Drops
Isle of Paradise

Isle of Paradise Self Tanning Face Drops (Buy from Amazon, $27.55)

This pick made Munro’s list for the ultra-natural results it gives. To use, add 2-12 drops of this self tanner to your moisturizer for a custom daily tanner that’s infused with grapefruit, chia seed and avocado oils to hydrate and nourish skin as it darkens.

2. Best customizable drugstore option

SOL by Jergens Deeper by the Drop Serum

SOL by Jergens Deeper by the Drop Serum (Buy from Amazon, $12.88)

These drops allows you to customize your own gradual tanner out of anything you spread onto your skin. “I like these because you can add as many drops to any formulations such as creams, foundations, sunscreens, etc.,” says Lozina. “You can also adjust your tan level depending on how many drops you put in.”

3. Best budget lotion

Coppertone Glow Protect and Tan

Coppertone Glow Protect and Tan (Buy from Amazon, $6.99)

You can’t go wrong with this formula, which Munro points out “is a great price point and also has sun protection of SPF 45. It will develop a nice subtle glow that works on all skin tones!” For $7 and an amazing formula, it was a no-brainer that this is one of the best gradual tanning lotion finds out there.

4. Best lotion for dry skin

Jergens Natural Glow In-Shower Lotion

Jergens Natural Glow In-Shower Lotion (Buy from Amazon, $10.47)

A gradual self tanner you apply after you turn off the water in the shower, Lozina says, “is a great alternative for people who want a lotion and tanner in one and don’t feel like drying off to do it. Simply apply in the shower right before you get out and voila — you’re bronzy and hydrated!

5. Best lotion for anti-aging

Infinity Sun Tan Me BB
Infinity Sun

Infinity Sun Tan Me BB (Buy from Infinity Sun, $35)

Munro’s formula makes the list for being geared toward mature skin. She says, “I recommend it especially for people with dry, lackluster skin, as it contains renovage, a French anti-aging technology, and hemp seed oil, which softens the skin and smooths out fine lines and wrinkles.”

6. Best gradual self tanner mousse

L’Oréal Paris Sublime Bronze Self-Tanning Water Mousse
L’Oréal Paris/Amazon

L’Oréal Paris Sublime Bronze Self-Tanning Water Mousse (Buy from Amazon, $8.75)

Made to provide a noticeable tan in three days, “This tanning mousse provides streak-free applications and guarantees a perfect glow,” says Lozina. “The mousse absorbs quickly and leaves zero residue.”

How to apply gradual self tanner

Woman applying one of the best gradual self tanner options to her skin
Rick Gomez/Getty

As far as what you use to apply self tanner with is personal preference. Some women find they like the control they get when applying gradual self-tanner by hand. However, if you go this route hands should be washed quickly as the DHA will darken your palms if left on your skin. For those who don’t want to use their hands, Munro recommends wearing latex gloves, or even better, reach for a tanning mit, which is designed to spread tanner on smoothly. And many self tanning users are fans of using a mitt as they find that it gives them a better result. 

To start, “always apply on clean, dry skin and start at your feet, working your way up,” says Lozina. This prevents you from smudging the areas you’ve already covered when you lean down to reach your lower body. Lonzina advises to make sure you take time to rub the self tanner into your skin thoroughly. And, she adds, “don’t forget your ears, under your breasts and around your hairline.” 

All you have to do from there is allow the tanner to dry on your skin, and then get dressed as usual. Then you can add another layer of of your gradual tanner the next day. “Apply daily until you reach your desired tan, and then wait three to four days to reapply to maintain your perfect glow,” says Lozina.   

For more tips on applying self tanner, watch the below tutorial from @JeanWatts on YouTube.

Related: How to Apply Self Tanner Without Staining Hands + Easy Ways To Remove It if You Do

How to extend the results of gradual self tanner

As mentioned above, a lasting tan starts with good prep work. “To make your tan last as long as possible, always follow best practices for preparing the skin by cleansing, exfoliating and removing unwanted hair,” advises Munro. And Lozina adds, “avoid using cleansers that have sodium laurel sulfate that strip and dry the skin,” as that can make the color fade more quickly. 

Also, after you’ve reached your desired color, Lozina recommends avoiding scrubs so as not to remove the tanned top layer of skin. And last but not least, moisturize, moisturize, moisturize with both your favorite lotion and also from the inside out by drinking plenty of water. Says Munro, “the more hydrated you are, the longer your tan will last!”

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