We Test Drive the Newest Self Tanners on the Market

We did all the dirty work so you don't have to.
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Nora Crotty
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We did all the dirty work so you don't have to.
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Self tanners have traditionally terrified us. One glimpse at a paparazzi snap of Lindsay Lohan in 2008 and you’ll see why. As far as skin darkening options, you either had to tan the old fashioned way and get wrinkles and melanoma, or you could walk around with orange palms and ruddy knees for two weeks until you became pale once more.

But luckily, there’s a whole slew of brand new self tanning products promising to provide users with a faux glow to rival that Johnson & Johnson baby oil-fuelled day at the beach we KNOW you weren’t eventhinking about indulging in.

For several weeks, we got over our fears and tested out all the new products and here’s the result: Our ultimate guide to the best self tanners on the market today. Want to know which were winners and which made us want to bundle ourselves back up in one of those Poler sleeping bags in 90 degree heat?

He-Shi Quick + Easy Express Liquid Tan

Tester: Nora

Disclaimer: This was my first time using a self tanner EVER. They’re scary. That is all.

How it works: This two-step system includes exfoliating body wash and an express liquid tanner. After scrubbing off all your dead skin in the shower, you apply the tinted liquid tanner all over your bod with a mitt. In two minutes, it’s dry and you’re already sort of tan. A deeper tan develops over the next several hours. Also the name is hilarious.

Pros:

• Exfoliator smells like literal smushed up strawberries, which was kind of cool in a rolling around the garden in summertime kind of way. My skin felt seriously smooth after using it.
• Color is visible immediately when applied, making it easier to see where you’ve already put it on (though it still wasn’t entirely foolproof for a novice like me, anyway). It seemed fully developed by the morning.
• I repeated the application several days later and definitely looked darker and had an even tan. When my roommate (who didn’t know I was doing the experiment) saw me the next day after having been away for a week, she asked me when and how I’d gotten so tan. Success!

Cons:

• It’s kind of weird that the liquid just sort of drips out of the bottle–there’s no pump.
• When I got to work, I started noticing a slight lingering smell about me, even though I spritzed myself with Miss Dior prior to leaving the house.

Overall: I found the experience simple and quick. This was the tanner I came back to once I’d finished testing them all out–though the next time, I seemed to miss even more patches of skin. Self tanning is really hard, guys!

Best for: People with busy schedules who like to see what they’re doing, and where.

Jergens Natural Glow Daily Moisturizer, $7

Tester: Nora

How it works: The Jergens stuff is the OG of subtle self tanners–but this one promises it’s ditched the unpleasant odor entirely. The tan gets deeper over several days of application.

Pros:

• An easy-to-do, user-friendly application–though you can’t see where you’ve already applied.
• There was minimal smell!

Cons:

• It was hard to tell the real impact of the color since it happens so gradually… Maybe too gradual?
• Our face seemed to darken faster than rest of body for whatever reason.
• It left dark spots if not rubbed in completely, with some splotchiness around wrists and elbows.

Overall: We started noticing color developing on Day 3, and by Day 6, had a tan that looked more natural than other products we’d used before. Definitely a smart choice for self tanning beginners.

Best for: People with an overwhelming fear of turning orange over the course of an hour. When it comes to this self tanner, slow and steady wins the race.

Guerlain Terracotta Sunless Tinted Self-Tanning Gel, $52

Tester: Nora

How it works: This pump gel system from Guerlain acts as a moisturizer as well as a self tanner. Based on the packaging alone, it’s obvious Terracotta is in the upper echelon of bronzers.

Pros:

• We loved the smell of the lotion and the non-plastic feel of the bottle. It’s a very luxe experience.
• The color of the lotion was very aesthetically pleasing–a deep brown, no orangeness!
• The lotion leaves a subtle shimmer on skin after application, which develops into a really nice, natural and deep color.

Cons:

• It was really hard to tell where I had already applied the lotion–and it takes about an hour to develop completely.
• Instructions say to wash hands after application, but they were SO stained–water and soap wasn’t enough.
• I applied in the evening but waited the recommended development time (one hour) to go to bed. When I woke up, I noticed streaks, spots, and drips–which I frankly don’t understand at all, because it wasn’t liquid to begin with.

Overall: The color was gorgeous, but I wish it had been more even, and I’d definitely recommend applying this one with a mitt as the palm stains were a bit disheartening. Maybe leave this one to the self-tanning pros.

Best for: Ladies looking for a more luxurious self-tanning experience. Seriously, the smell on its own is worth the process.

L’Oreal Sublime Bronze Self-Tanning Mist, $10.99

How it works: Ok. So I applied this one to my friend, who may or not be still holding my application method over me. The bottle recommends spraying the stuff on at “an arm’s length”–and to be fair, I was probably a lot closer than that. To be honest though, I was really afraid I might miss and spray tanner all over my apartment.

Pros:

• Zero hand-to-tan contact means no orange palms!
• It was really quick to apply.

Cons:

• It sprays on clear, making it difficult to know exactly where you’ve put it.
• The next morning, the color was uneven and streaky depending on the varying lengths from which I’d sprayed the tanner. As per my friend, it looked like I’d sprayed random streaks of brown spray paint.

Overall: I think I was intimidated by the spray factor and the thought that I might get brownish stuff all over my bedroom rug. It’s probably best to use this in either a big tiled bathroom or outside if possible.

Best for: Mystic tan fanatics craving a bit more control in their tan routine–with long, steady arms, of course!

St. Tropez Bronzing Mousse, $18

Tester: Nora

How it works: Hayley swears by this tanning mousse for vacations, so as a self-tan newbie, I was eager to try it out. The directions recommend applying it in a circular motion with a tanning mitt, and waiting 4+ hours before getting wet.

Pros:

• This was super easy to apply and spread.
• The resulting color looked natural, but was a bit patchy. It goes on clear, so it’s hard to see where it has and hasn’t been applied.
• We didn’t notice any odor.

Cons:

• The color clung to dry spots on my skin much more than others I’d tested–thorough exfoliation prior is a must.
• I was self conscious my face looked kind of dirty, but the ladies of Fashionista disagreed.
• The color stained my white sheets the first night I applied it (Probably my fault but I might as well throw that in there).

Overall: We loved the light feeling of the mousse and how dark we got with just one application–but next time we’ll exfoliate better and choose darker bedsheets!

Best for: People who can’t deal with the smell of self tanner and want serious color fast.

June Jacobs Glow Radiant Self Tanning Lotion, $38

How it works: This goes-on-white lotion is paraben and preservative free, and definitely felt good lathering on. The ingredients claim to “neutralize free radicals, protect skin from environmental toxins and combat the visible signs of premature aging.” I can’t technically vouch for that, but it was certainly one of the more pleasant ones I tried.

Pros:

• We loved that it was lotiony, which reminded us of applying sunblock, which reminds us of summer. Ta-da: Tan!
• Didn’t stain hands too, too badly (I washed them immediately after application).
• It didn’t feel like a big deal to apply–more like normal lotion than the others we tried.

Cons:

• I definitely missed some spots, so I applied a second coat to certain areas later, which seemed to minimize the problem.
• A faint scent appeared after it developed.

Overall: I really liked the June Jacobs tanner. The lotion felt safer to use in terms of both dying my skin (I’m mean, that’s what it is, right?) and not messing up.

Good for: People who have no idea what they’re doing when it comes to applying self tanner.

Josie Maran Glow Self Tanning Body Wash, $38.64

Tester: Cheryl

Confession: Despite the fact that I’m a beauty editor, I’ve never tried self tanner. I’m terrified of it, plus I like being pale. So of course I decided to try the weird one that supposedly works in the shower. A word of advice: Make sure you leave your contacts in when you try this one. I didn’t. Der.

How it works: It’s a two-in-one body wash and self tanner. It comes with gloves and an applicator on a long wooden stick. You’re supposed to squirt one pump for each limb you want to cover. It claims to be gradual and subtle.

Pros:

• The included gloves were a lifesaver (once I actually put them on after staining both of my thumbs mahoghany).
• The applicator, which is like one of those plastic loofahs, was really helpful for buffing out areas where color got saturated (namely, my dry knees.)
• The color really IS gradual. I didn’t wait the full recommended 30 secs and I had the barest glow when I stepped out of the shower.
• It didn’t stain my towels or sheets.

Cons:

• You have to huddle in a dry corner of your shower to apply and while you’re letting it sit for 30 seconds. Also the directions recommend shampooing first because otherwise it will make the tanner streak.
• Using the applicator to apply the first dose resulted in a big dark patch on the top of one thigh and paleness below the knee. I learned my lesson on the second leg and dotted it evenly down the length of my leg, then buffed it in.

Overall: I was pleasantly surprised, and will go back to my shower and try for darker legs.

Best for: People who want to multi-task, and/or want the next new cool thing ALWAYS.

St. Tropez Self Tan Bronzing Spray, $35

Tester: Hayley

How it works: I’m already a devotee of St. Tropez’s Self Tan Mousse so I was curious to see how I liked the spray. The spray comes out dark brown so you can see where it’s going–I kind of felt like I was spray painting my body. It comes with a mitt and you definitely need it–I had to rub really hard to get it not to look patchy. Despite the fact that the product supposedly has 360° spray technology, it’s definitely tricky to get it in certain areas, and if you turn it upside down–to spray the backs of your thighs for instance–it comes out a little drippy. I can’t even begin to guess how people get it on their backs without a partner. Luckily my boyfriend was on hand to finish the job.

Pros:

• Natural-looking color
• Very minimal smell
• Didn’t stain sheets or towel
• Foam mitt was super useful and prevented any weird hand staining
• Because the spray comes out brown, it’s easy to see where you need to blend and prevent patchiness

Cons:

• Unless you’re a contortionist, you’re going to have to ask someone to help you spray your back and rub it
• You have to rub really hard with the foam mitt to make sure the color is even
• Because you’re supposed to hold the spray six inches from your skin, it’s easy to get it all over your bathroom

Overall: Loved the color, hated the application. Definitely sticking to the mousse.

Best for: Very flexible people; people looking for a way to trick someone into giving them a backrub

To Fix Mistakes… We used the Bronze Buffer, $10 for two.

These little star-shaped sponges are great for blending in streaks and spots you may have missed on your quest for the perfect fake tan. The Bronze Buffer works best on small areas–not for removing entire tans. Just run them under the sink, and buff away.

But be warned: Rub too hard, and you’ll end up with dry, broken skin that takes a while to heal. We learned the hard way and ended up with a scaly forehead–thank god for bangs!