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CF’s Sunless Tanning Guide: How to Apply & the Best Drugstore Buys


Best sunless tanners 2013 - Tan girl on a beach
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Tanning has received a bad rep in the past decade – and for good reason. Prolonged sun exposure is incredibly dangerous, and can lead to everything from premature aging to deadly forms of skin cancer. It’s just not worth it.

Whenever my friends forgo their SPF 35 or step into a tanning bed, I can’t help but have a mini panic attack. But, I also get jealous of their glowing skin. Why does something so dangerous have to look so gorgeous? Not fair, guys. That’s where sunless tanner comes in.

I’ll admit, I’ve been terrified of self-tanner since I showed up to my ninth grade homecoming with Oompa Loompa legs. And don’t get me wrong, I love my pale skin. I can rock bold brows and a vampy lip like no other, but I also love experimenting. Sometimes, I just want to look like a bronzed beach goddess.

We’ve done lots of posts on sunless tanning in the past (see our guide to our favorite self tanners from different categories, and how to apply our favorite high-end tanner, St. Tropez) but since it’s a new soon-to-be-summer season, I thought I’d share my best tips for applying sunless tanner, as well as my favorite drugstore self-tanners with you guys!

If you want that bronzed glow on a budget, read on and find out how to do it the healthy way.

Application 101: How to Apply Sunless Tanner

  1. Exfoliate, exfoliate, exfoliate. This is by far the most important pre-tanning step. Dry skin is the number one culprit behind blotchy, uneven tans, because those rough patches absorb more color – hence that dreaded orange glow. Slough away dry skin with an exfoliating body wash – I like Olay’s Daily Exfoliating Wash – making sure to focus on rougher areas like the knees and elbows for a glowing, even tan.
  2. Shave. Shave before applying your tanning lotion to ensure you get the smoothest tan possible, as shaving afterwords can create blotchy patches.
  3. After you’ve shaved and exfoliated, let your body dry completely. Never apply self-tanner to wet skin – the streaks are a nightmare!
  4. Apply a thin layer of moisturizer to your entire body, again focusing on dry areas like the knees and elbows, to keep them from absorbing too much color. (I use Cetaphil Moisturizing Lotion for this.)
  5. Apply the self-tanner! Use broad, circular strokes and make sure the lotion is completely rubbed in. Don’t forget about places like your neck, behind your ears, and your mid-back. You can wear gloves if you want, but I think they make it harder to get the lotion to absorb.
  6. Wash your hands thoroughly. Grab your exfoliating wash again and scrub between your fingers and around your nails to keep them from turning that dreaded shade of orange.
  7. Wait. Ideally, you’ll need about an hour to prance around your room au naturale, but you should definitely wait at least 30 minutes before getting dressed to avoid staining your clothes. (Many girls apply self-tanner before they go to sleep – this works great, just so long as you wear dark clothes and don’t use your best white sheets!) After 20 minutes or so, apply another layer of moisturizer. This will even out your tan and help eliminate streaks before they’ve even formed. The color will start to show after 2-3 hours, so you’ll be bronzed and gorgeous in no time!

Best Traditional Self-Tanners

Self tanners come in two main varieties – traditional self tanners (which develop in a few hours), and gradual lotions (which slowly add color and require repeat applications over the course of a few days to a week). If you want to go from pale to bronzed in a few hours flat, traditional self-tanners are your best bet. Here are two of the best drugstore options:

1. Banana Boat Summer Color Sunless Lotion

Best self tanners 2013 - banana boat summer color
Banana Boat Summer Color Sunless Lotion, $6.54 at

This is definitely my Holy Grail sunless tanner. It takes me from ghostly pale to subtly bronze overnight, and the color is super buildable and completely natural. If you have a warm skin tone, this product is perfect for you. It’s yellower than most other self-tanners, which makes my skin look absolutely golden.

The best part is, I’ve had absolutely no streaks. The formula is tinted, so you can see where you’re spreading it, which speeds up the application process. The only thing I’m not a huge fan of is the smell. Although it’s not as heavy as most self-tanners, I can still smell it when I wake up the next morning.

2. Hawaiian Tropic Island Radiance Self Tanning Lotion

Best drugstore self tanners - Hawaiian tropic island radiance self tanner
Hawaiian Tropic Island Radiance Self Tanner, $7.99 at

This is a classically good drugstore buy, and comes in a few different strengths, depending on how dark you want to go. “Medium” is subtle and works great for super pale girls, but all other skin tones should opt for “Medium-Dark”. The color is natural, the smell is pleasant, and the creamy formula means no streaks.

This product is great for those with dry skin – the lotion is ultra-moisturizing and has ingredients that help lock in moisture to keep skin soft for hours. The downside, however, is that this lotion can feel sticky for a few hours after you apply, so it’s not the best if you need to put it on in a hurry.

Best Gradual Self-Tanning Lotions

If you’re super pale, a regular self-tanning lotion might make your skin too dark, too fast. If that’s the case, (or if you just want to ease into self tanning), then a gradual self-tanning lotion is the way to go! Here are my two drugstore faves in this category.

1. L’Oreal Sublime Glow Daily Moisturizer

Best drugstore self tanners - loreal sublime glow
L’Oreal Sublime Glow Daily Moisturizer, $11.49 at

You’re about to call me crazy, but I promise you, this stuff smells AMAZING. The active ingredient in most sunless tanners, DHA, smells… bad. You know what I’m talking about. But this wonderful moisturizer smells like oranges and tea, and it gives my skin a beautiful, buildable glow.

Of all the self-tanners I’ve tried, I think this one gives the deepest base tan, but you have to apply it more often – at least 3-4 times a week. It’s worth noting that this moisturizer is not meant to be used on your face. Additionally, it does contains a subtle silver shimmer, and although I’m not a huge fan of that, if it doesn’t bother you I definitely recommend this product.

2. Jergen’s Natural Glow Firming Daily Moisturizer

Best gradual self tanning lotions - jergens natural glow
Jergen’s Natural Glow Firming Moisturizer, $6.79 at

Let me start this by saying Jergen’s formula has vastly improved over the years. I remember borrowing this lotion from my mom in high school, and it turned my skin into an orange, streaky mess. But, after giving this newly reformulated brand another shot, I’m impressed!

This is one of the many gradual tanning lotions that claims to zap away cellulite like magic. While no lotion, drugstore or high end, is really capable of that, this product does have some firming qualities. It doesn’t give me supermodel legs, but it did temporarily reduce the appearance of cellulite while giving my skin a healthy, warm, brown glow.

Compared to other drugstore brands, the self-tanner smell is minimal, and it even gives your skin a bit of sparkle. Definitely one of the best gradual tan products on the market.

Your thoughts?

How do you get your spring glow? Which self-tanners do you swear by? Be sure to leave me a comment and let me know what you think!

Posted on on April 28, 2013 / Filed Under: Beauty & Hair / Tags: , , , , ,

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22 Responses to “CF’s Sunless Tanning Guide: How to Apply & the Best Drugstore Buys”

  1. 1
    April 28th, 2013 at 6:31 pm

    I LOVELOVELOVE Loreal sublime bronze in the medium shade!! And it builds sooo well, plus it’s great to put on before you get ready to go out, since you can apply, and then by the time you do your hair, makeup, and finally pick an outfit, it’s dried enough to get dressed, plus the tint gives you a nice glow for the night! Then by the end of the night/morning it developed enough! Been using it for two years and swear by it

  2. 2
    April 28th, 2013 at 7:08 pm

    I LOVE Xen-Tan! It’s seriously the best fake tan I’ve ever used, and believe me, I’ve tried millions

  3. 3
    April 28th, 2013 at 7:30 pm

    If the Loreal Sublime is not meant to be used on the face, what do you use instead so your tan isn’t uneven between your body and your face? This concept has always tripped me up when looking at which self tanner to buy.

  4. 4
    April 28th, 2013 at 8:02 pm


    I have really sensitive skin so I never put self-tanner on my face, so I know your pain! I tend to just use a bronzer.

  5. 5
    April 28th, 2013 at 9:47 pm

    @Amanda Jergens has a self-tanner made specifically for the face! I’ve never tried it, though, so I can’t vouch for it

  6. 6
    April 28th, 2013 at 10:16 pm

    A big reason to use sunless tanner is that most people don’t have the same color on their legs as on their abs so it’s good to be prepared when you wear a two-piece.

  7. 7
    April 28th, 2013 at 10:24 pm

    I have the most pale skin of anyone I know! I’ve tried quite a few and lately have fallen in love with Banana Boat Summer Color Airbrush Mist. It’s amazing! It’s super easy to apply and doesn’t make me yellow like all the other tanners I’ve used. I don’t like the smell though, and you have to reapply it every 4 or 5 days otherwise it starts getting blotchy as it comes off. (I spent a whole lot of time today exfoliating trying to get it off because I now have large blotchy circles on my legs). I have 2 questions though, for all you other self tanner users.
    1) What do you do about your hands? I know lots of people don’t put it on their hands so they don’t get orange palms, but if I don’t put it on my hands, I have a line around my wrists where I’m tan on one side and white on the other.
    2) What do you do about your face? I put it on my face, but I use a salicylic acid face wash and it seems to take the color right off. Is there anything I can do, or do I just need to keep applying tanner to my face everyday?

  8. 8
    April 29th, 2013 at 10:39 am

    I scrub my hands with an exfoliant after i’m done applying the tanner, then I just apply a little bit of self-tanner to the back of my hands so there aren’t any weird lines on my wrist!
    I don’t recommend using self-tanner on your face, especially if you have acne-prone skin. I think a few brands make a “face only” self tanner which you could try out, but I prefer to use a bronzer instead!

  9. 9
    April 29th, 2013 at 11:10 am

    St. Tropez is more expensive, but it is BY FAR, the BEST self-tanner I have ever used!! It’s so easy to apply ( and they sell a mit you can use that helps a lot), not streaky at all, looks so natural, and lasts for a long time. When you apply, it almost makes your skin look green, which seems weird, but it helps you to keep track of where and how much you’ve applied. I just started using this last summer and I got so many compliments on my tan! I’ll use this tanner forever!

  10. 10
    April 29th, 2013 at 1:14 pm

    I’ve tried the Jergens face self tanner and even that broke me out.Try the Dr Denis Gross self tanner pads from Sephora. They tan and exfoliate your face.

  11. 11
    April 29th, 2013 at 2:45 pm

    Hi there! If you’re willing to spend a little more, I think Clinique’s Self Sun and Adonia’s self tanners are pretty good too. I found out about both of them on They also have your number one product ranked in there top 10!

  12. 12
    April 29th, 2013 at 2:47 pm

    I always use the loreal sublime bronze AND banana boat tanners. Together. I apply loreal first, all over, and then banana boat on top, all over. Bessssssssst tan results ever. You get an awesome dark EVEN tan in one application an it STAYS for days without fading, so you dont have to apply and re apply to build a good base. Also, i always always always use the same tanners on my body and face. I have very sensitive skin and ive never ever had a problem. I personally think its a marketing scam to get you to spend extra cash on more products.

    Everyone at work asks me how i get so brown…and considering i live at the beach and they are comparing my tan with another girl i work with whos second job is outdoors, i consider that a great success. Lol.

  13. 13
    April 29th, 2013 at 9:11 pm

    damn why can’t white girls just be happy with the color of your skin

    if you all are gonna be constantly painting your skin, why not do an interesting color like blue or something

  14. 14
    April 30th, 2013 at 4:22 am

    @J – Adding to your question, why can’t girls be happy with fine/flat/frizzy hair; no make-up; no push-up/padded bras; hair all over their bodies, etc??. Answer #1: because we’re taught from a young age to hate our bodies/what’s natural and apply, apply, apply that product in hopes to make up for our unGodly deformities!! Answer #2: Grooming habits/preferences vary from girl to girl: Some may do it because they actually like it; some may do it b/c they are shamed into doing it; and some may never feel the need or desire to do it.

    And as a side note: Not being accepting of your natural skin color isn’t just for white girls…a lot of girls from all ethnicities and races strive for the same perfect golden brown tone. Some people achieve this “ideal” by tanning, some do it by using skin lighteners.

  15. 15
    April 30th, 2013 at 3:42 pm

    @Jackie and some of us ethnic girls naturally have this golden coloring and are happy with it. It must be a nightmare for pale girls to have to do so much work!

  16. 16
    May 2nd, 2013 at 3:52 pm

    Hey you’re definitely right about washing your hands after applying the tan! I made the mistake once and never again! soooooo embarrassing haha

  17. 17
    August 20th, 2013 at 2:38 am

    I prefer sunless tanners with moisturizers, they seem to really prolong the effects of the tan and keep my skin glowing.

  18. 18
    January 7th, 2014 at 9:12 pm

    Im happy in my brazilian skin. I have the perfect skin tone and dont get burnt in the sun. I can go to the beach without any problems. What im trying to say is;

    Love yourself, your skin, your hair and ethnic background. Your beautiful no matter wat :)

  19. 19
    January 29th, 2014 at 2:20 am

    I’ve tried the Jergens self tanner and really loved the natural look that it gave. I’m not sure if the firming elements quite worked (didn’t see much results for that), but loved the tan results.

  20. 20
    February 20th, 2014 at 7:33 pm

    I prefer Loreal actually. Because it is more effective than any other tanning lotion. You may also go to Portland’s most desirable tanning salon at 2160 West Burnside Portland OR 97210 or just call this phone number 503.926.8622.

  21. 21
    July 8th, 2014 at 9:45 pm

    I used Nivea gradual tan lotion last couple years and now can’t find it in stores near me, (I’ll probably end up ordering online) wondering if anyone has tried and if so which one of the above is similar? I hate jergens, it’s too thick.

  22. 22
    December 13th, 2014 at 10:54 am

    Personally I just love Unreal which for me has to be the best. It’s a real high quality tanning product and I use it on my face. It has lots of great ingredients to keep your skin from drying out which is what I find annoying about other tanners I’ve used. I use their Unreal Personal Tanning Mist, usually opt for the Light version in the winter and the Medium version all other times. I don’t like to go too dark though, best to keep it natural looking. I think other brands should have the different degrees of bronzer to suit all skin tones. A great tip for hands is to just use the excess on your tanning mitt without adding any more product. Always moisturise your feet before you tan those as well.

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