“If you can’t tone it, tan it,” I whisper to myself whenever I slide on a fuzzy mitt, ready to do the deed. I’d first heard the motto from Tan-Luxe® founder, Marc Elrick, back in December 2018 — and, as someone who lacks an exercise routine and avoids the sun like a vampire, I’ve held this motto near and dear ever since.
Typically, I slather myself in bronzing concoctions once per week. I am impartial to texture; I test pretty much every mousse, oil, and lotion I can get my pale little hands on (which, thanks to my job, is quite a few). If, after sleeping with the formula, I wake up glowing, the product secures a spot in my overstuffed self-tanner drawer.
In my estimation, self-tanners are one of the most rapidly-improving categories in the beauty industry. Once inevitably streaky and smelly, formulas today are much easier on the eyes and nose. Below, eight formulas that prove tanner comes in myriad forms — from a glow-inducing overnight oil to a lotion that smells like dessert. One thing they share in common: no streaks or splotches in sight.
If you were to peel the label from this invisible bronzing foam, even the most discerning tanning buff might have trouble guessing that it’s a drugstore formula. Similar to its high-end counterparts, the L’Oreal invisible mousse truly is clear — as in throw-on-your-most-precious-ivory-dress clear.
Formula: A clear, fluffy foam that dries quickly enough so that you don’t have to wait around. Thankfully, it doesn’t dry so quickly that you can’t remember where you applied it when you go in for the next sweep.
Smell: Like you just bathed in a basin of coconut water.
Color payoff: More terracotta than olive, without looking fake.
Watch-outs: While convenient in many ways, invisible formulas are trickier to apply than formulas with guide colors (simply because you can’t see whether you’re missing spots).
If I were limited to one beauty product to take on vacation, self-tanner would be it. But, as I’ve learned the hard way, large bottles of bronzing mousse don’t fare well in a carryon. (I do hope a TSA agent has made use of the tanning mousses I’ve forfeited.)
Similar to K-Beauty sheet masks, each disposable mitt is individually packaged and basking in tanning solution. One mitt delivers enough color for your entire body to look bronze for a few days. Two-week vacation? Pack a few. After all, these stackable slivers take up virtually no suitcase real estate.
Formula: A thin, clear solution that seems to evaporate on the skin. Plus, there’s no stickiness after drydown.
Smell: Zesty. Imagine one of those disposable wipes you get on airplanes — but less synthetic.
Color payoff: A subtle sun kissed glow that develops over 2 to 4 hours. More bronze than olive.
Watch-outs: Similar to opening a serum-soaked sheet mask, be sure to hold the packaging upright so that you don’t spill. That said, the formula itself is clear, so it hardly matters if you do end up dripping some on anything other than your skin.
I learned about this mousse via an Instagram® DM, where the founder had pitched it as the first chocolate-scented vegan self-tanner. Add these seemingly contradictory qualities to the fact that I’d never heard of the brand, and you can imagine why I wasn’t holding my breath for anything particularly miraculous.
But boy, did the formula prove me wrong.
Formula: A moussey, airy whip. Dry time and feel are comparable to other luxury brands within the same price point.
Smell: Like cocoa, without veering tacky or saccharin.
Color payoff: Far on the olive end of the spectrum. In fact, I was concerned that the foam looked slightly green at first. My fears were vanquished when I began to rub it in, though. The next day, a colleague asked whether I’d been on vacation. (If that’s not a self-tanner success story, I don’t know what is.)
Another hidden gem in the tanning category, I’d be remiss not to mention this brand. Notably, the formula is spiked with skincare ingredients you’d be pleased to put on your face: peptides, aloe, and argan oil.
Formula: Colorless and thin. It’s hydrating without leaving any semblance of residue, making it ideal for sticky summer nights.
Smell: Exactly like vanilla pudding. This is perhaps the most delightfully-scented self-tanner I’ve ever tried.
Color payoff: As pasty as I may be, even the deepest shade of this lotion looks astonishingly natural. The brand is known for its deep olive undertones — so you can rest assured that there will be no orange in sight.
Watch-outs: This formula dispenses via a spray top (instead of a pump), which makes it a bit tricky to apply. That said, the juice is worth the squeeze.
Tan-hungry face oil fanatics will love this stuff. Plus, the packaging is ridiculously chic.
Formula: Slightly occlusive and thick — conceivably good qualities in an overnight skincare product.
Smell: Enough like DHA to be a giveaway that you’re wearing self-tanner. (However, this fact is irrelevant unless you’re sleeping next to someone you’re trying to impress.)
Color payoff: The formula is initially clear, but you’ll look significantly more bronze by sunrise. I was so wowed by my realistically-tanned face that I ended up using it three nights in a row. Turns out, two days in a row is enough if you’re particularly pale.
Watch-outs: It tastes how I imagine arsenic might. Do not apply to lips or allow your partner to give you a goodnight kiss.
This watermelon-scented tanning lotion is as seasonally appropriate for summer as sandcastles and croquet.
Formula: Like your favorite body lotion: emollient, non-greasy, and spiked with skincare goodies like hyaluronic acid.
Smell: In transparency, I despise everything about watermelon — especially its smell. However, I can appreciate the brand’s commitment to accurately recreating the aroma. If you’re pro-watermelon (as most people are), you’ll love the fragrance.
Color payoff: The formula has the same lightweight, fast-absorbing texture as the original ST. TROPEZ lotions. Another similarity is the color payoff, which is equally gradual and incredibly natural-looking.
Watch-outs: If you, like me, detest watermelon, I would steer clear. Otherwise, slather away.
I have a soft spot for sexy Australian beauty products, which is the reason I tried this stuff in the first place. That, and I love anything that leaves my skin sheeny.
Formula: Dry oil at its finest. In other words, all the lustre of an oil without any greasiness.
Smell: Tropical, subtly sweet.
Color payoff: Pearly, luminescent bronze. The formula dries quickly — and, unlike other tanners, does not require you to rinse off the guide color a few hours later.
Watch-outs: The color payoff isn’t as deep as some other tanning formulas. If you want to deepen the hue, simply wait for half an hour and apply another layer.
The original Vita Liberata Body Blur is reportedly responsible for numerous runway-ready limbs. Anecdotally, it has the power to make an average Jane like myself look infinitely more enticing in an instant. (It’s why I dubbed it one of my must-have sex appeal products.) The only downside to the original formula is that it only lasts until you wash it off (think of it like foundation for your body). So, when the brand released a Body Blur spiked with gradual self-tanner, I was thrilled.
Formula: Creamy, semi-opaque, and truly transfer-resistant. Plus, it’s spiked with finely-milled light reflecting particles for a boost of luminosity.
Smell: I can’t say it has one, but it certainly doesn’t have that DHA smell.
Color payoff: Buttery, full-coverage perfection. The tan part doesn’t kick in until a few applications, but it’s worth the wait. Plus, you get to enjoy the coverage from the makeup part in the meantime.
Watch outs: Anything that creates a barrier between the skin and the self-tanner (e.g. lotion, sunscreen, etc.) can interfere with the development of the tan. For this reason, it’s imperative to use self-tanner on clean, dry skin.
Unfortunately, the 2-in-1 body makeup/gradual tanner setup means that you can’t apply sunscreen without compromising color payoff. So, if you’re planning on exposing your limbs to the sun, it’s best to use the original Body Blur and layer SPF underneath. I like to use the sunless glow version for nighttime.
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