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College Fashion’s Ultimate Guide to the Best Self-Tanners


Tan legs

I recently read something by Julie over at xoJane: Her comment was that she gauges how effective a beauty product is by how many compliments she gets while wearing it.

We all kind of do that, right? I mean, I know that if someone tells me they like my lipstick, I’m much more likely to wear it again.

In the past three weeks, every single person I’ve talked to has commented on how tan I am. My “normal” foundation shade is Revlon 001-Ivory. Yet, I am also able to naturally tan – albeit slowly. Because skin cancer runs on both sides of my family, I’m done with ‘authentic’ natural color. Bring on the SPF 50.

Tan button
If only it were this easy, right? ;)

Problem is, I still prefer the way I look with a little sun. And this tan that everyone is commenting on? Yep, it’s from a bottle.

Let me get a few things straight:

No, a good self tanner will not turn you into an Oompa-Loompa.

Yes, it can be sort of messy.

No, it’s not (necessarily) expensive.

Yes, the color looks real.

Like every single other makeup product, the market is over saturated, especially as we’re coming into the summer months. But we’re here to help you sort it out! Below are our seven favorite self-tanners that will fit every need (& budget!):

1. Best Color – St. Tropez Self Tan Bronzing Lotion

$40.00 at Sephora

I wrote a whole tutorial about this tanner a few summers ago. It’s messy and expensive but gives the absolute best, darkest color. If you’re looking for a super dark, believable tan after one application, then St. Tropez’s lotion is your goldmine.

2. Best Gradual Tanner – L’Oreal Paris Sublime Glow Daily Body Moisturizer and Natural Skin Tone Enhancer

$9.03 at Amazon

These days, it seems as if every single lotion also has a gradual self-tanning option. Usually, though, they’re orange or smelly or not moisturizing. L’Oreal’s option, however, smells awesome, is a great moisturizer and will give a realistic color in 4-5 days.

Remember that this does have a tanner in it – I swear, the lotion itself is so good and non-self-tanner-smelling that I forget – so use sparingly on your ankles, elbows and knees. If you’re looking for a gradual, light tan without the mess, stock up on this ASAP!

3. Cheapest – Banana Boat Sunless Summer Color Self Tanning Lotion, Deep Dark

$6.47 at Walmart

I love the St. Tropez brand, but it’s definitely a strain on my wallet. That’s why Banana Boat’s lotion is a godsend. For less than the price of 2 lattes, you get a fairly dark, realistic color. Fair warning: If you’re not careful and don’t rub it in all the way, it can come out streaky.

This can look a bit orange after two consecutive applications, but it’s plenty dark after the second anyway and I don’t see why you’d need three. At $7, this is definitely worth the two Starbucks trips you’ll skip.

4. Easiest to Use – St. Tropez Self Tan Bronzing Mousse

$40 at Sephora

If I were to only use one self-tanner for the rest of my life, it would be St. Tropez’s mousse. It’s so, so easy to use. It dries fast enough so that you can wear clothes over it less than 10 minutes later but the product is forgiving in that it won’t dry before you’re done rubbing it in.

A few weeks ago, a tan application looked incredibly streaky on my legs the next morning. (Note: exfoliate thoroughly before any application!) I applied the mousse, hid my legs under a long skirt and went on my way. A few hours later, I was telling a friend about it and lifted the hem of my maxi skirt – instead of a streaky mess was an even, dark tan.

If you’ve never used self-tanner before, get this St. Tropez mousse – and in the big size, because it’s that good.

5. Best Smell – Victoria’s Secret Sunkissed Bronze Instant Self Tan with Tint

$12 at Victoria’s Secret

Personally, I don’t mind the self-tanner smell. I’ve found that most guys actually think it smells good – plus, the ones I use tend to not have that extreme DHA reek. But, apart from the L’Oreal gradual lotion, the best most self-tanners can claim is that they don’t smell bad.

But, if you’re looking for a tanner that actually smells good, go for Victoria’s Secret’s. It smells good in that beachy-coconutty kind of way that makes me want to jet to Ibiza instead of studying for my Poli-Sci final. (Senioritis, anyone?) The color is realistic, albeit not as dark as others, and it’s tinted which makes application easy.

6. Best for Face – Jergens Natural Glow Healthy Complexion Daily Facial Moisturizer

$8.49 at

Self-tanning your face can be really frustrating. I usually mix 1/3 face lotion with 2/3 self tanner, but it always fades before the rest of my body. To counteract that, I moisturize in between with this Jergens Self Tanner for Face.

It’s a lightweight, face-safe moisturizer that gives a believable color – what else could you want?

7. Easiest to Find – L’Oreal Sublime Bronze Self-Tanning Gel

sublime bronze
$10.99 at Walgreens

It seems like every time I walk into CVS or Walmart, all the products that I want are out of stock. L’Oreal’s Sublime Bronze Self-Tanning Gel, though, is always in stock, even in the winter. If you’re in a pinch, this is a tanner you’ll be able to find.

The gel is clear, so if you’re not in good light, it can be hard to put on. It also dries fairly quickly, which is great if you want to get dressed right after but can make rubbing it in, well, a bit tough. The color, though, is not orange-y at all. Plus, some of the aforementioned  beauty writers at XOJane love it too. And, it’s only about $11. Not bad, right?

Your thoughts?

Do you use self-tanner? Which one is your favorite? Least favorite? Let me know in the comments!

Posted on on May 7, 2012 / Filed Under: Beauty & Hair / Tags: , , , ,

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49 Responses to “College Fashion’s Ultimate Guide to the Best Self-Tanners”

  1. 1
    May 7th, 2012 at 6:50 pm

    I usually use Jergens and I like the even, gradual tone it gives me. However, no matter when I use it, it always comes off in streaky, gross rivulets of sweat when I work out. I don’t know if there’s a way to avoid this, but I have found no solution! The pigment collects at my elbows and knees and its gross and embarrassing. If the only answer is to either be tan and sedentary or pasty and active, I think I’ll have to learn to embrace my pale skin…

  2. 2
    May 7th, 2012 at 7:22 pm

    I find Xen-Tan to be better than St. Tropez. I love it!

  3. 3
    May 7th, 2012 at 7:25 pm

    Thanks for this post. I have been wanting a self-tanning lotion but also am really low on funds, so I think I’ll try the L’Oreal Paris Sublime Glow.

  4. 4
    May 7th, 2012 at 7:32 pm

    Nivea Sun-Kissed Radiant Skin gradual tanner is the best one I’ve ever tried! I have fair skin, and this gives me a great, even glow without ever being orange or streaky – for a great price too! The lotion has a thin consistency so you only need a little bit and spreads great! After trying some many different kinds, I’ve found this one works best and is the most natural looking (I always get compliments after I use it, usually saying I look like I just went on vacation!)

  5. 5
    May 7th, 2012 at 7:34 pm

    L’Oreal spray tanner is my life saver

  6. 6
    May 7th, 2012 at 8:08 pm

    I actually try to stay pale in the summer! More often than not, what is natural is prettier, and I am naturally very fair. My fiance loves my skin tone (he actually notices that!) so I am happy to stay the way I am :)

  7. 7
    May 7th, 2012 at 8:18 pm

    I normally use the Jergens stuff year round to keep my legs from being pasty, but I’m going for L’oreal once I start going to the beach. And yay for shoutout to Julie–I love pretty much ALL of her articles on XOJane.

  8. 8
    May 7th, 2012 at 8:50 pm

    Clarins is actually the best I’ve used. Pretty pricey, but gives a really natural colour.

  9. 9
    May 7th, 2012 at 9:15 pm

    Thanks so much for this post! I’m quite pale and with my busy schedual, I hardly have time to sit out and get a tan. I’m quite reluctant with self tanners after a bad incident a couple of years ago ( I turned YELLOW and it was streaky) but I’ve heard so many positive reviews about St. Tropez that i’m willing to give it a shot!

  10. 10
    May 7th, 2012 at 9:33 pm

    I swear by L’oreal’s “sublime bronze” tanning mist. It’s like 10 bucks and you can find it at most drugstore/target type places. Sprays super evenly and dries amazingly fast! It’s even easy to get your back with this one. Love love love!

  11. 11
    May 7th, 2012 at 9:39 pm

    This was definitely helpful, but you overlooked the fact that most of these have chemicals that are harmful to the skin, even if it doesn’t show physically. I’d prefer to tan naturally, through little bits of sun exposure to keep it healthy.

  12. 12
    May 7th, 2012 at 9:54 pm

    st. tropez mousse is THE BEST. i’ve never tried the lotion, but when i love the mousse so much – why would i? ;)

  13. 13
    May 7th, 2012 at 9:56 pm

    Am I the only one who noticed how anorexic the legs of the girl in the photo look? As a recovering anorexic, I wish CF would be more careful when choosing photos.

    I also think being pale is beautiful and like Caitlin, my significant other likes my natural (pale) skin tone. Most people say I look exotic, but that might be the rest of my features…….

  14. 14
    May 7th, 2012 at 10:28 pm

    number 3 is fabulous! I use the light to medium skin tone because I am naturally super pale.

  15. 15
    May 7th, 2012 at 10:35 pm

    I think CF is quite inclusive with the photos they pick. I think if there’s a problem with models that look anorexic, it’s the ones in the runway photos, not in the ones CF produces themselves.

    I just thought I’d throw this in there, but I think it’s kind of funny how we always want what we don’t have. Like this article is about wanting to become darker when a lot of people in my Indian community use “Fair and Lovely” to make themselves paler. I think whatever colour you are, you should just love it because there is always someone who is envious of you. I guess this article kind of shows that.
    I liked the calculator joke btw, hahaha

  16. 16
    May 7th, 2012 at 10:42 pm

    You forgot the best self tanner on the market right now – FakeBake Flawless!

  17. 17
    May 8th, 2012 at 12:09 am

    @ Nicole,
    How does she look anorexic? Not everyone holds their extra weight in their thighs/legs. Stop generalizing.

    As for selftanners, I’ve only used Jergens, which seems alright.

  18. 18
    May 8th, 2012 at 12:33 am

    I’ve only used self tanner once and ended up with spots on my arm, accidentally spraying to much in some spots. I definitely think lotion would be easy to apply though and the Victoria Secrets one looks good because I’m naturally tan and don’t need to go to dark and I’ll definitely be picking up the face tanner because currently my face in three shades lighter than my arms ;)

  19. 19
    May 8th, 2012 at 1:01 am

    I am always so happy when I see sites mentioning St.Tropez. I’ve used both the lotion and the mousse, and the mousse is pretty much the best thing to ever happen to my skin. It imparts the most flawless, even tan. It’s seriously the closest thing to the sun! Try it!

  20. 20
    May 8th, 2012 at 3:20 am

    St. Tropez is the way to go, I don’t even mind the high price tag because it’s that good! I’ve also tried tried Jergens, which is also great, but the smell can get kind of annoying. Nivea also used to have a good gradual self-tanner, but I’m not sure if it’s still available.

    I’m definitely going to do self-tanner this summer even though I tan really well/easily. Now that I’m 20, I want to start taking care of my skin since I’m only getting older (crazy!).

  21. 21
    May 8th, 2012 at 3:51 am

    My favourite tanning mousse is st moriz, least favourite definitely those one-day ones that come off with any water.
    @Nicole my legs look like that and I am definitely not anorexic!

  22. 22
    May 8th, 2012 at 9:10 am

    This is totally off topic, but I love love the nail polish in that 2nd pic! Can somebody tell me what it is or a dupe?! Great article :D

  23. 23
    May 8th, 2012 at 10:34 am

    I don’t really self-tan much but I adore the way I look bronzed. Last time when I went to Miami in August 2010, I looked good in pics but my body was FRIED. Especially my face; LESSON LEARNED! So I enjoyed this guide and I hope to have better results other than the tanned-to-the-wrist-but-pale-hands-from washing off the tanner! hahaha Good times

  24. 24
    May 8th, 2012 at 11:44 am

    thank you, thank you , thank you! i have been looking for a self tanner and you answered all my questions! summer….here i come!

  25. 25
    May 8th, 2012 at 11:48 am

    I second the recommendation of Fake Bake Flawless! I just used it this week, and it was the best self tanner I’d ever used! No streaks, natural color, no smell, dried in probably five minutes, and application took less than 10 minutes!

  26. 26
    May 8th, 2012 at 11:50 am

    I still maintain that I do not understand why artificial self-tanning is not a distressing cultural concept. Think about it: It’s altering skin color, people! Wouldn’t we find it shocking if there was a sudden trend for bleaching your skin? Why is dying it darker any different? And the social message of tan skin now is essentially the same message that pale skin used to send – that is, that you are rich enough to go jetting off on vacation, vs. in older times that you were rich enough to stay indoors all day. I just find it odd that in our era of body affirmation and increasing acceptance for individualized beauty, so many people (men and women!) don’t give any thought to intentionally altering a light skincolor. Natural sun exposure is one thing. Intentional alteration of what you were born with and a belief that your natural body looks “unhealthy” or “unattractive” seems very negative, if not dangerous, to me.

    And I do not say this from the point of view of an idle bystander. My pale white skin glows in the dark. I am not unhealthy. I am not a recluse. I am physically incapable of tanning, so I use SPF and caution and don’t try. And I have never once thought of using self tanner, tanning beds, or even darker makeup. My legs glow in the dark on a summer night, but that’s not unhealthy or dorky or pasty – that’s just me. I understand that tanning is a personal choice, but so are the early stages of many other body obsessions that can turn negative quickly.

    Just some thoughts for consideration.

  27. 27
    May 8th, 2012 at 3:19 pm

    In response to Cara’s comment, I’m black and I’ve seen many products aimed at people of my race to “lighten” the skin tone. They are essentially bleach products which often contain mercury along with other potentially harmful ingredients. Just wanted to add that it’s not only pale people who alter their skin tone.
    Also, I never really understood why my friends who aren’t black would go tanning, I always thought they looked fine without laying in the sun for hours or self tanning. To each their own, I suppose :)

  28. 28
    May 8th, 2012 at 4:01 pm

    I was recently diagnosed with the early signs of skin cancer. After years of religiously tanning, i was forced to quit cold turkey for the sake of my health, which obviously is most important. The past six months i have been on the hunt for a great self tanner. I always have a problem with the color gathering on my knees and feet. I have tried at least 15 to 20 different self tanners and Victoria’s Secret is by far the best! I live about an hour away from a Victoria’s Secret and made sure to stock up on the entire line of self tanning products. And ladies, remember there are safe ways to be tan, be smart about the sun, i was lucky enough to catch my skin cancer early. If you find spots on your body that are concerning don’t hesitate to have them checked!

  29. 29
    May 8th, 2012 at 4:42 pm

    (also… pretty nail polish in the calculator picture! What brand/shade is that?) :)

  30. 30
    May 8th, 2012 at 4:51 pm

    I love all the detail this article has! This summer will be my first faux-tan summer so all the different recommendations are so helpful!!!

  31. 31
    May 8th, 2012 at 7:16 pm

    Thanks for this… I’m always hesistant to try to tackle the many self-tanners which are out there as I have pale skin & I’m scared to come out orange looking…I will definitely try some of these!

  32. 32
    May 8th, 2012 at 10:14 pm

    Look out, summer! Here I come! :D

  33. 33
    May 9th, 2012 at 12:04 am

    i use sun labs! it looks AMAZING and everyone always thinks it’s real! my friends couldn’t believe it when they saw me apply it!!!

  34. 34
    May 9th, 2012 at 3:35 am

    I love seven nyne tanning spray. It smells great and goes on evely. You can decide how dark or light you want your tan. It takes a few hours to dry but is definitely worth it. Lindsey Lohan was one of the creators of this brand and it is sold at Walmart. I also found out that many female news anchors and celebrities love this self spray tan as well.

  35. 35
    May 9th, 2012 at 3:37 am

    Sorry it is sold at sephora, not Walmart

  36. 36
    May 9th, 2012 at 9:30 am

    I’ve used Le Tan’s Jet Dry in ‘Bronze’ for over a year now with no problems. I’m also a Revlon 001 Ivory and this never makes my skin look too dark, or orange. It also smells great, like vanilla. The best part is it’s under $10 for a can.

  37. 37
    May 9th, 2012 at 9:46 am

    I don’t know if I got the wrong one but I got the St. Tropez Bronzing Mousse 120ml Self Tan and I did a patch test and that patch of skin has gone to the colour of an oompa loompa

    L’Oreal always seems to yellowy and gold to look real… Johnson’s is quite good, but again, it gives a gold colour rather than golden brown. Both of these give a sallow yellow colour

    I quite like my Xen-Tan Transform Gradual Self-Tan – it smells AMAZING – but it doesn’t give that great a colour, more of a gold colour than olive or brown.

    I’m gonna try the Jergens one next. I just want to go golden brown, like I do in the sun! But I don’t want cancer and it’s been raining for like over a month in England lol

  38. 38
    May 9th, 2012 at 9:48 am

    Also, the Dove Summer Glow gives off more of a yellow tone, and it’s quite shimmery lol :)

  39. 39
    May 10th, 2012 at 12:10 pm

    I’ve been using mark. by Avon’s gradual tanner, I think it’s called Gotta Glow, or something to that effect? I’ve actually found it to be a really good moisturizer, and while it doesn’t give great results from one or two applications it does give a very natural looking tan if you use it daily, you start to see a real tan in around 4 or 5 days.

    Also to Cara – I see where you’re coming from but don’t understand how it’s any different than anything else we do. Covering faces with makeup, painting nails, and perhaps especially, dying hair.

  40. 40
    May 10th, 2012 at 12:14 pm

    I’ve found that the Jergen’s natural glow foaming daily moisturizer to have the easy application qualities of St. Tropez plus the cheapness of Banana Boat. It dries in a few minutes, never streaks, and I use it every day and am not orange!! Great buy!!

  41. 41
    May 12th, 2012 at 11:50 am

    i just recently tried Tanwise ($6 at sally beauty supply) and it is amazing!!!!!!! its tinted so you look tanner right away but after about 3 hours its the perfect, even tan. Its a dries quickly so you need to wash your hands a few times while you are putting it on, and i would reccomend putting on body lotion before tanwise so it goes on easier. Its AWESOME

  42. 42
    May 17th, 2012 at 12:10 am

    I love Nivea Sun-Kissed Radiant Skin. It is cheap (about $8 for 8.4oz), smells good, and it gives a deep, even, and natural looking in tan in 4-5 days. Initial color begins to show-up in about 2 days. I love that I can use it on my arms and chest because it is so lightweight. It is also very moisturizing and I normally have dry skin on my legs so I have high standards for moisturizers. I am very pleased with this product more than any other self tanner I have used in the past.

  43. 43
    June 10th, 2012 at 6:47 pm

    victoria’s secret also has scented self tanners in their vs fantasies collection. So you can pick which fragrance you want! I haven’t tried it yet, but I might buy some next week when its on sale!

  44. 44
    June 30th, 2013 at 1:17 am

    On very pale skin, does anyone who uses the self tanners notice an “orange peel” look to the skin after a few days of using them? It seems to happen with any self tanner I use. I do exfoliate all the time (I’m an Aesthetician so I know about the importance of exfoliation!)….. Does anyone have any suggestions.? I’ve even tried putting on a light layer of moisturizer before I apply self tanner, but doesn’t seem to alleviate the problem either. I’ve been using self tanners for years and I find this very frustrating. HELP!

  45. 45
    March 29th, 2014 at 10:11 pm

    I have used self tanners for over fifteen years now and find gradually is the best for everyday color as well as moisturizing. I recently tried the new Suave Invisible Glow and love it. Better than Jergens. Not as thick, smells better and less expensive. Since I find that rotating between two gives me the most natural shades and prevents that sometimes dry patchy look I go back and forth between the Suave and Malibu Tan Gradual Tan. P. S gradually building up is much less mistake proof. Happy Tanning

  46. 46
    April 11th, 2014 at 4:00 am

    Cosmetic companies STILL have yet to find a self tanner that actually imparts a NATURAL looking tan! I have tried MANY self-tanners (Mystic Tan, Banana Boat, Jergens, Alba Botanica, L’Oreal, Coppertone, Fake Bake, Clarins…) and ALWAYS they look too yellow or orange on my Fitzpatrick Type I skin! It is unfortunate that these companies produce products that do not cater to the people who desire them (pale and fair skinned women & men). DHA (dihydroxyacetone) is an inferior compound and companies need to find or formulate another alternative that will impart the natural looking tan color that fair skinned individuals desire. Companies seem more concerned with the odor of self tanners as opposed to the color.

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