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How to Apply Self-Tanner to Your Face for the Perfect, Non-Streaky Glow

Learn how to apply step by step, plus how to use self-tanner to contour!

Warmer days (and a higher UV index!) are just around the corner, meaning now is the time to practice and perfect your sunless glow. Using self-tanner is one of the best ways to protect your skin from the sun while still looking glowy and gorgeous, but it isn’t always easy to apply, especially on your face. One wrong move, and you could be stuck with inadvertent streaks and splotches for days. We were eager to master this delicate art before summer fully arrived, so we reached out to dermatologists and estheticians to find out the best way to apply self-tanner for face. Keep scrolling for their savvy advice.

Why apply self-tanner to the face? 

tan mature woman

Basking in the sun is one of life’s little joys, and self-tanning can be a lot of work. It might be tempting to just bronze yourself the natural way (or the old-fashioned way — baby oil and tin foil, anyone? Eek!) rather than going through the hassle of a DIY job — but not so fast. 

“I always recommend self-tanners over tanning outside,” says Helen M. Torok, MD, board-certified dermatologist and co-founder of HH Science. “Self-tanning products’ key active ingredient, DHA, reacts with the skin’s surface to give you a beautiful, sun-kissed look without any UV exposure. As skin cells shed, the sunless tan fades naturally, leaving you with a gorgeous glow that’s both safe and stunning.”

On the other hand, stepping into the sun without SPF is a fast track to premature wrinkles and sun spots. We’ve known for over a decade that using sunscreen can slow down signs of skin aging, including dark spots, wrinkles and decreased elasticity. Plus, SPF (dermatologists usually recommend 30 or higher) has also been linked to a decreased risk of developing skin cancer of any kind. 

But using sunscreen responsibly isn’t exactly conducive to achieving a tan, which is where self-tanner comes in. Put simply, using self-tanner is a shortcut to seriously sun-kissed skin without the wrinkles, aging and damage that usually come with tanning. 

How to apply self-tanner to your face

Social media platforms are chock-full of tanning tutorials for your body, including tips on where to buy the best tanning mitts, back applicators and pre-tan exfoliation. But things get a little bit trickier when it comes to your face. The skin here is more delicate and sensitive, and the stakes are higher — accidentally turn yourself a shade too orange, and you’ll be hard-pressed to hide it. 

But it turns out that just like tanning the rest of your body, adequate prep work can go a long way towards a successful self-tan on your face. 

How to apply self-tanner to the face step 1: Exfoliate

“Start by exfoliating the skin to remove dead cells and create a smooth canvas for application,” advises Alexis Pfropper, licensed esthetician and owner of ästhetik skincare.

Step 2: Choose your tanner

self tanning drops bottles to use to apply self tanner for face
Vera Livchak/Getty

According to Tricia Trimble, certified advanced esthetician and CEO of Suntegrity Skincare, self-tanning drops are a great way to gradually build up a tan without risking patchiness or Oompa-Loompa territory. “I recommend drops for the face because it’s customizable to the individual and you’re much less likely to get streaking,” Trimble says.

Self-tanning products come in a wide range of formulations, so you can also experiment and decide whether drops, mists, serums or mousse (such as this fan-favorite from Coco & Eve) work best for you. And if you have sensitive skin, you’ll want to look for a self-tanner “specifically formulated for sensitive skin to minimize the risk of irritation,” Pfropper advises. 

Related: Best Bronzing Drops for Women Over 50 + Why They’re the Hottest Trend in Makeup

How to apply self-tanner for face step 3: Massage onto face

Whatever type of formulation you choose, start off slow. Consider doing a patch test first on your ankle or another inconspicuous area to see how the product develops before tackling your face. “Then apply a thin, even layer of self-tanner to the face, blending carefully along the hairline, jawline and ears to avoid streaks or patches.”

Products that develop quickly, such as Arbonne’s FunSun Tinted Self-Tanning Lotion, “make it easy to build without over-applying,” says celebrity aesthetician Ian Michael Crumm. This particular product is also formulated with aloe vera and green tea extract, which can minimize any chance of streaking. 

Once you’ve applied the product, gently massage it into the skin with your fingertips in a circular motion. If you end up with excess product on any area, you can blot or gently wipe it away with a tissue. Avoid washing your face or touching it for at least two hours after applying. The exact amount of time you should wait before getting your skin wet depends on the product, and will likely be specified on the product label. 

What to look for (and avoid) in a self-tanner for face

As Dr. Torok explained, the active ingredient in self-tanner is DHA, or dihydroxyacetone. So at the very minimum, you’ll want to see this on the ingredient list. Other ingredients to keep an eye out for include hydrating and nourishing ingredients, “such as cocoa butter, vitamin E and jojoba,” says Rachel Lozina, licensed esthetician and founder of Blue Water Spa. “These moisturizing ingredients help maintain the hydration level in your skin to maximize tan retention.” 

As for what to avoid, “There’s no particular ingredient to counteract the DHA that is in self-tanners,” Lozina explains. Instead, she advises looking out for comedogenic ingredients such as mink oil and coconut oil that may clog your pores. 

How to contour your face with self-tanner 

Aside from creating a wrinkle-free glow, self-tanning your face can provide another beauty hack: Makeup-free contour. Sometimes known as “tantouring,” this beauty trend has become increasingly popular on social media platforms such as TikTok.

The video below shows how @haleyybaylee contoured when applying self-tanner for face


Contouring with self tanner?! Let’s try this again 😳😳😳 #selftanner

♬ original sound – haleyybaylee

To achieve a subtly sculpted look via self-tan, apply self-tanner only to the places on your face that you’d normally contour, such as beneath your cheekbones, along your temples and the top of your forehead and along the sides of the bridge of your nose. Use a light touch and be sure to massage the product into your skin to prevent streaks or inconsistencies. Click through for more tips on how to contour with self-tanner for a youthful, sculpted face.

As with any type of self-tan, you should leave the product on only as long as the instructions specify. And, voila — sun-kissed and sculpted, 24/7.

For more on of our favorite beauty secrets, click through these stories:

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