After years of convincing myself that I was way too classy to ever try a spray tan (and telling those around me that I loved my natural paleness, thank you very much), I had a big mea culpa moment a few months ago. I went to go see Goop-approved spray tanner Anna Stankiewicz for my first ever spray tan, and now I'm hooked on the DHA. (That would be dihydroxyacetone, the chemical in self tanners that gives you the faux glow.)
It was time to see if I could replicate Anna's miraculous work in the privacy of my own bathroom. However, I didn't want to jump right to the full-on self tanners, so I decided to start with the gateway drug, so to speak: Gradual self tanners. Over the course of the last two months, I've slathered on six different brands' gradual self tanners. I compared them in pairs, one on each leg, then started a new pair when the previous glow wore off. I applied them all with tanning mitts for five days in a row, then compared my color results and their longevity. (I showered once or twice a day, and did absolutely nothing to try to prolong my results -- I just let the products run their course.) Here's what you need to know:
Elemental Herbology, available at SkinStore, $52
Consistency: This product, from UK-based natural skin care label Elemental Herbology, is a pretty thick and luxurious-feeling moisturizer that spread on easily with my mitt. It didn't feel sticky, which was an issue I had with a few of the other brands, and it seemed to absorb quickly.
Smell: Points off here, for both the pre-development and post-development scent. The smell right out of the bottle is a cloying combination of fruit and the rotten creme brulee smell of DHA. In the brand's defense, it doesn't use artificial fragrance in its products, which probably makes it harder to hide that signature self tanner scent. I smelled it on myself the rest of the day, though.
Results: This produced a lovely and truly gradual tan. By the third day I definitely had some color, and by day five it looked like a proper tan, though nowhere near as dark as my spray tan. (Note: None of these were as dark as the spray tan.) It lasted around four days.
Karora Gradual Tan (Light/Medium), available at Ulta, $25
Consistency: This one, from Dublin-based company Karora, is another rich moisturizer, containing jojoba and coconut oil. It left a bit of a sticky feeling on my leg, even after repeated buffing with the mitt, and didn't seem to absorb completely.
Smell: The brand boasts of "fresh orange oil for a blossomy skin scent," but the DHA smell sneakily lingered underneath. But after a few hours, it wasn't as strong as the Elemental Herbology smell, which was on my other leg at the time.
Results: If you like your gradual tans quick, this is the product for you. I saw results after the first day, and by day two the Karora leg was much darker than the Elemental Herbology leg, to the point that someone noticed it. I was afraid I was going to be the color of burnt toast after five days, but the effects were much more gradual with the final three applications. But this one was definitely the quickest and darkest of the six I tried. The color lasted almost six days after I stopped applying.
Jergens Natural Glow Daily Moisturizer (Fair to Medium), available at Drugstore.com, $13.99
Consistency: Arguably, this is the product that started the gradual self-tanning craze, and it's still the best value (read: least expensive) out there. The brand has made a lot of improvements to the product over the years, and debuted a larger pump bottle for 2014. My biggest issue here was that it took a longer time to dry, was a bit sticky, and didn't spread smoothly with my mitt, compared to some of the more "luxury" brands I tried.
Smell: After those first two, the fragrance on this product was a relief. Jergens chose a floral scent to mask the unpleasantness, and you can't detect a hint of DHA at all upon application. I didn't really smell any several hours later either.
Results: After two days, I definitely had a glow, and after five I had a pretty even, golden tan, perhaps more subtle than the previous two brands. (The product comes in two shades, and I tried the lighter one.) It lasted about four days before I noticed any fading.
Elemis Total Glow Bronzing Body Lotion, available at Nordstrom, $62
Consistency: This lotion acted like an expensive moisturizer, which is a good thing, considering it was the most expensive one I tried. It was a bit lighter than the other brands, and rubbed in smoothly, absorbed immediately, and left my skin feeling soft and hydrated.
Smell: The scent, while strong, was the most pleasing of the six I tried, a sort of posh flowery bouquet. I didn't notice any strong DHA smell later either.
Results: After three days I had a St. Barths-level glow, and it lasted for about five days. At this point, I was ready to pronounce this one my favorite, until another brand came in and won over my now DHA-saturated heart. (Read on for the big reveal.)
St. Tropez Everyday Gradual Tan for Body (Medium/Dark), available at Sephora, $30
Consistency: This medium weight moisturizer absorbed fairly quickly, though it left a bit of stickiness which dissipated within 30 minutes of application.
Smell: I loved the freshness of this scent, which had a hint of sweetness and didn't knock me out with how strong it is -- it's pretty mild for a self tanner. I caught a whiff of that telltale rotting cookie scent a few hours later, but those around me assured me they couldn't smell it.
Results: People generally rave about St. Tropez products, and I can see why. It's a solid product, and reasonably priced. My color was smooth, even, and pretty. It's been about three days, and is still going as we speak. Second place!
Vita Liberata Untinted Self Tan Lotion (Warm), available at Sephora, $33
Consistency: Let's get this out of the way -- this product won my top honors, not least because of the consistency. It's the least lotion-y of the bunch, and I was fine with that. It absorbed beautifully after mitt application, and left absolutely no trace behind.
Smell: I don't know how they did it, but the smell is subtle and only mildly sweet. Vita Liberata somehow figured out how to hide the DHA without burning the inside of my nose with excessive fragrance, with only a hint of DHA essence later on.
Results: Like the St. Tropez, which is currently on one leg while this is on the other, it's been about three days since I last applied and the color is still golden and even.