For those of us with fair skin, achieving a natural summer glow can feel elusive at best and impossible at worst. Tanning often looks a lot like burning, and, as we all know, sun damage leads to premature signs of aging (think: unwanted wrinkles and age spots) and, yes, skin cancer. Enter: sunless tanning. At-home self tanners are a game changer for anyone who doesn't have the time (or budget) to make frequent trips to spray tan salons but is looking to safely warm up their complexion.
Since self-tanning products have gotten a bad rap over the years — especially for people with fair skin — we decided it was time to evaluate the faux glow market. Below, we’ve compiled advice from some of our favorite self-tanning brands and experts to learn the tips, tricks, and products that will allow you to get the most natural-looking self tan at home.
Expert Self-Tanning Tips for Fair Skin
Before we dive into the best self-tanning products for fair skin, it’s important to know what you should be looking for (hint: you’ll want it to be light with a cool undertone) and how you should be applying it (grab your moisturizer and a mitt). Read on for eight expert tips:
1. Strategically Moisturize First
The key to an even tan? Moisturizing the elbows, knees, hands, feet, heels, wrists, and any severe dry spots first. “Fair skin can show mistakes easily, so it is important to always work with a good moisturizer, no matter what self-tanner you are using,” explains Sophie Evans, an expert tanning artist and St. Tropez ambassador. But don’t go overboard. “Never moisturize the whole body, as your self-tan will develop lighter,” she adds.
2. Start with Tanning Lotions
“Generally, people with fair skin tones see optimum and more natural-looking results when using a lotion,” says Jordan Kelly, brand manager at VARI Beauty. Lotions tend to provide gradual, buildable color, which helps make the application process easier (for the same reasons, they are also great for beginners). “Compared to the foam and towelettes, the lotion doesn’t absorb as quickly into the skin,” she shares. “This gives the user more control of their tan during the application process.”
3. Choose Tinted Formulas for Easier Application
A tinted self tanner provides immediate color on the skin, so you can see where you have already applied. “A tint is always preferred because using a guide color ensures an even application,” says Silver Goodwin, brand educator at Vita Liberata. “Once developed, the real star takes over, which will be your actual tan.” In her opinion, a tinted formula “is almost always the best way to go on fair skin.”
4. Be Mindful of Undertones
You know how much time you spend obsessing over the undertones of your complexion products (think: foundation and concealer)? Well, you should be equally obsessive about the hue of your self tanner — especially if you are fair. For the most flattering finish, Goodwin says to avoid brassy- and ruddy-toned tanners. Vita Liberata, for example, only has cool-toned products as part of its sunless tanning collection.
5. The Lighter The Better
Are you a first-time tanner? Do yourself a favor and start with the lightest shade until you get the hang of what works best for you, says Blair James, co-founder of Bondi Sands. From there, you can gradually build up the color by applying more frequently or choosing a darker formulation with higher levels of DHA.
6. Always Use an Application Mitt
To prevent palm staining and to ensure the most natural-looking tan, Evans says it’s a good idea to apply with a mitt, like the St. Tropez Luxe Double Sided Applicator Mitt. Another tip? “Work in sections,” she notes. This is especially key when using clear water tanners. “Use a flat hand and a light stroke to smooth the product on — gently smoothing over knees and elbows — to ensure the moisturizer stays in place,” she explains.
7. Find a Face-Specific Product
Just like you wouldn't apply your favorite body cream to your face, don’t think one self tanning product is going to cover you from head to toe. According to Evans, face self-tanners are usually formulated to be lighter than body self-tanners, and, if they’re good, they won’t clog pores. “Make sure your skin is prepped,” Evans says. In this case, that means cleansed and exfoliated. “If you use eye creams and serums, you can apply prior,” she adds.
8. Exfoliate Regularly
It may sound counterintuitive, but the best way to extend the life of your tan is to gently exfoliate two to three times a week. “This will ensure your tan stays even and is always fading perfectly,” Evans shares. “It will also prevent any color build-up with repeat applications.” The St. Tropez Tan Enhancing Body Polish, for example, is designed to buff the skin without scrubbing off the tan. For best results, Evans recommends concentrating on areas that experience a lot of friction, either from clothing or contact with another part of the body.
The Best Self-Tanning Products for Fair Skin
Now that you know how to prep the skin (moisturize strategically), apply your tanner (don’t forget your mitt), and maintain your glow (hi, exfoliation), it’s time to pick a product. From face-specific formulas to innovative no-wash options, we’re rounding up the best self tanners on the market for fair skin:
Best Overall: St. Tropez Self Tan Express Bronzing Gel
Ideal for those with fair and/or sensitive skin, this cult-favorite gel gives you a light to golden bronze in under two hours. Infused with hydrating hyaluronic acid, the formula can treat while it tans and works well in cooler months when the skin could use a moisture boost. $44, us.sttropeztan.com
Best All-in-One: Vita Liberata Heavenly Tanning Elixir
Those looking for a streamlined self-tanning experience will love this face and body formula. Encapsulated technology allows the DHA to slowly release for 72 hours into a medium tan, while organic coffee butter, ginkgo biloba, and aloe nourish the skin. From there, the faux glow evenly fades over the course of 10 days. $44, ulta.com
Best No Wash: Bondi Sands Pure Self Tan Foaming Water
For tanning in a pinch, this convenient tanning water doesn’t need to be washed off, so you’re instantly good to go. An added benefit? The formula is packed with skincare-inspired actives. “Our PURE line is great because it provides skin-loving ingredients to the skin — enriched with hyaluronic acid, vitamin C, and vitamin E — for added hydration while you tan,” James notes. For best results, leave on skin for at least six hours. $27, bondisands.com
Best Towelettes: Vari Beauty Self-Tanning Towelette
Perfect for getting a glow on the go, these towelettes can be used on their own or in combination with lotions and foams for touch-ups. While the instructions recommend waiting four hours before washing off, Kelly finds that rinsing around the two-hour mark yields the most natural-looking result for people with fair skin. $33, varibeauty.com
Best DHA-Free: The Chemistry Brand Glow Oil
As a refresher, DHA is the active ingredient in most self tanners, but some people are allergic. This dry body oil replaces DHA with a raspberry-based keto-sugar oil for a golden glow that develops after two to three days of use. Anyone with sensitive skin take note: it is also free of water, alcohol, oil, silicones, nuts, and gluten. $27, chemistrybrand.deciem.com
Best Gradual: Tan-Luxe The Gradual Illuminating Gradual Tan Lotion
Perfect for tanning newbies or those afraid of getting too tan too fast, this gradual tanning lotion imparts a natural, buildable glow over time. Massage into the skin as you would a normal body moisturizer — lightly covering hands, elbows, and feet — and watch the color develop over two to four hours. Reapply daily (or as desired) to build a deeper tan. $29, ulta.com
Best For Face: St.Tropez Self Tan Purity Bronzing Water Face Mist
When it comes to self tanner application, it doesn’t get much simpler than this spritzer. Mist your face (down the center and each side) and your neck, and you will see a light tan in four to eight hours. “If you want your glow deeper, simply reapply the next day,” Evans says. Because it’s infused with hyaluronic acid, you can pare down your skincare routine. “If you have normal to oily skin, just apply onto clean skin — no need for moisturizing,” she adds. $30, us.sttropez.com
Best Oil: Josie Maran Argan Liquid Gold Self Tanning Body Oil
If you are looking for a nourishing body oil that also happens to provide a sunless self tan, this aloe vera-infused argan oil formula is it. It conditions the skin and soothes redness, while imparting a subtle, natural-looking bronze that can be built upon with additional applications. $39, dermstore.com
Best Long-Lasting: Vita Liberata pHenomenal 2-3 Week Tinted Tan Mousse
Need your faux glow to last? This fade-resistant formula can last 14 to 21 days with the proper application. In order to maximize results, Goodwin recommends re-applying the tinted mousse (the Medium shade is best for fair skin, she says) up to three times within the two- to three-week period to ensure a beautiful, long-lasting tan. Another tip? “Always start on clean, exfoliated skin,” she notes. $39, ulta.com
Best Budget: Jergens Natural Glow Daily Moisturizer
Specifically designed for lighter skin tones, this bronzing moisturizer is a favorite for its natural finish. The lotion format means the color builds gradually, making it perfect for those looking to dip their toes into tanning. Apply daily for a subtle glow over several days. $9, walmart.com
All products featured are independently selected by our editors, however, AEDIT may receive a commission on items purchased through our links.
More Related Articles
‘Try on’ aesthetic procedures and instantly visualize possible results with AEDIT and our patented 3D aesthetic simulator.