Get your Glow on: How to Self-Tan Properly

Remember those days of jetting to sunnier lands with not a care in the world? Well, until those days return (and we’re confident they will), faking a Caribbean tan might be your only option. Heck, it’s the safest option anyway.

When we talk about sunless tanning, however, we do not mean those day-glo tans your big sis/mom/girlfriend/maybe even you might have sported back in the ‘90s. Let’s not even go there. Instead, the key word for the hottest glow this side of the equator is ‘natural-looking.’ Sure, you can contour your face with makeup to your heart’s content, but for truly glowing, bronzed skin, subtlety is everything.

But let’s first take a second to talk about the number one thing going in a faux glow’s favor: your health.

Tanning, either outdoors or on a tanning bed (cue: group gasp of horror) is one of the worst things you can do to your skin. And that’s a fact. UV damage causes an incredible 90 percent of external damage, and not only does it age your skin faster than you can say pass the Botox, but according to the AAD (American Academy of Dermatology), choosing never to tan your skin significantly reduces your risk of developing skin cancer.

We’re left with the following options: reduce premature aging and lower your chances of skin cancer… or work on a tan that might last for like a week at the most? No contest.

So let’s get down to some serious self-tanning nitty-gritty info to ensure you avoid stripy arms and a patchy face.

How to Prepare for Self-Tanning

Ever wonder why your elbows and knees always end up looking darker than the rest of your beautifully self-tanned bod? That’s because you have not prepared your skin properly. Prepping is literally the most important step in self-tanning. OK, so it may take a little time and forethought, but trust us, it’s so worth it.

Here are the most important things to do before even looking at your bottle of self-tan…

Exfoliate before self-tanning

Undoubtedly, the most important step is to make sure your skin is exfoliated as this helps remove dead skin cells to create a smooth, even surface for your tan to hold onto. Most sunless tanners work through an FDA-approved active ingredient called DHA (dihydroxyacetone), which reacts with dead cells on the skin’s surface to temporarily darken your skin. It figures then that if your skin is not properly exfoliated, a self-tan will look patchy and uneven. To add insult to injury, it won’t last as long either. Uncool.

If you’re exfoliating immediately before self-tanning, try a gel-based formulation rather than anything too oily because oils will create a film on your skin, which is great any other time but not the ideal pre-tan base. Work your scrub in circular motions all over your body, and take extra time over dry, often neglected areas like your ankles, knees, and elbows. For extra sloughing power (which is not advisable if you have sensitive skin), you could also try an exfoliating mitt. We love Earth Therapeutics Exfoliating Hydro Gloves.

Right before you tan, make sure you also shower to remove perfume, deodorant, and anything else that might get in the way of a flawless tan. Make sure you dry your skin thoroughly afterwards. That may sound obvious, but it’s super-important if you don’t want to end up patchy and uneven.

For an effective, pre-tan face exfoliation, try our Overnight Star Lactic Acid Treatment to resurface, revive, and renew your skin while you sleep. Like glycolic acid, lactic acid is an AHA (alpha hydroxy acid) that works to gently break down and dissolve dead skin cells without the need for scrubbing the delicate skin on your face. Unlike glycolic acid, however, it’s great for sensitive skin, which is why we thinks it’s the bomb.

Avoid Hair Removal

Don’t panic because we’re not demanding you grow out all your unwanted hairs for the sake of a golden glow. We just need you to carefully choose your timing, which is not immediately before applying self-tanner.

The best time to remove hair is at least 24 hours beforehand. This gives your skin time to heal from any cuts or nicks from shaving and allows open pores to close from waxing. Also, it’s not a good idea to go for a wax straight after tanning. Wax will do a real number on your tan, whipping all that hard work straight off again.

Moisturize With Care

Moisturizing daily before self-tanning is great for ensuring your skin is as soft and smooth as possible, but please avoid overloading your entire body with heavy creams or lotions on the day of your tan application. Like oil-based scrubs, moisturizers containing oils will sit on your skin and interfere with the even finish of your tan.

For your face and neck, apply an oil-free moisturizer at least 20 minutes before self-tanning, and apply an oil- and fragrance-free body lotion like CeraVe Daily Moisturizing Lotion on super-dry areas like hands, knees, feet, and elbows to avoid them absorbing more pigment than the rest of your body. But if you can, leave the rest of your body alone.

Another great trick? Apply a little around your hairline and eyebrows (especially if you’re fair) to avoid them from turning orange.

Choose Your Weapons

There are more self-tanners on the market than you can shake a stick at, and choosing the right one for you is a very personal thing.

Here are a few pointers: if you have dry skin, tanning oils or lotions are good options whereas mousses are super-easy to use and very fast-drying. Gradual tanners are perfect for pale skin types while instant, wash-off tans are ideal for first timers. And if you like to keep up with the Kardashians? Then try St. Tropez, which is one of Kim’s favorites, or go for Bondi Sands, which is a big hit with Kylie Jenner.

Once you’ve picked your potion, grab a tanning mitt to protect your hands and then move to a cool room before you begin. A warm room = sweaty skin = a streaky tan. You do the math.

The Tan Application

Your best time to self-tan is before bed, and the reasons are two-fold. First, most self-tanners take eight to 12 hours to develop, and you don’t really want the world to see you gradually turn a different color throughout the day, right? That’s just weird. Secondly, you’re more likely to perspire during the day, which will not only interfere with the color, but will cause staining all over your clothes.

After prepping to your heart’s content, the best place to start tanning is your face. If you like a truly natural look, apply your tanner and a little oil-free moisturizer to the base of your mitt then close your hand and mix it together. Stroke it all over your face, using light, sweeping motions to give yourself the most even distribution, and take care around your nostrils and mouth area.

When it comes to your body, most experts advise starting with your ankles and working your way up. Why? No one seems to know, but if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for us.

Again, apply product to your mitt (no moisturizer this time), and stroke it up your legs from your ankles. Then go back to the top of your feet (without adding more product to your mitt), and stroke lightly all over to ensure a natural-looking finish.

Next, work on your stomach, sides, chest, shoulders, and neck. Then flip the mitt back to front so that the product-laced side is sitting on the front of your hand. This makes it easier to tan your back. After doing your back, flip the mitt back to normal and work on your arms and then down to the wrists. To finish, remove your mitt and lightly brush any excess product over the tops of both hands and blend the wrists one last time.

Once you’re done, check yourself out in the mirror. Lift your arms above your head to make sure you have not missed anywhere, and then wipe your nails (fingers and toes), cuticles, palms of your hands, and eyebrows with a tissue or cleansing wipe. To finish, apply a little oil-free moisturizer to the palms of your hands between your fingers and over the insides of your wrists. This will help minimize any chances of a tan line.

Wait a few minutes before jumping into some comfortable clothing, and you’re done.

The Maintenance

Most self-tanning products last around five to seven days as long as you look after your skin. And the golden rules for a long-lasting glow? Simple:

  1. Moisturize daily.
  2. Cleanse with gentle, oil-free products only.
  3. Don’t shave for at least two days.
  4. Avoid baths and swimming as these will literally soak your tan away.
  5. Gently exfoliate after two or three days to ensure an even fade.


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