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How To Use Self-Tanners

Your doctor has told you not to use tanning beds anymore. Your skin is beginning to show more aging than your age should have. You have a family history of skin cancer and want to avoid it. Whatever your reason, you have decided to look at self-tanners as an alternative.

I applaud that decision, but remember to use safe sun practices and/or sunscreens as self-tanners offer no protection to your skin from UVA or UVB rays.

According to, self-tanners have been around in some form since 1960:

In 1960, Coppertone introduced its first sunless tanning product — QT® or Quick Tanning Lotion. This lotion produced an overall orange effect. Today’s sunless tanning products produce much more realistic results.


  • Cosmetic bronzers produce immediate effects that can be easily removed with soap and water. Bronzers are available as powders, creams, and lotions. Only lasts until it is washed off.

Sunless Tanning Lotions and Sprays

  • Most sunless tanning products are lotions and sprays containing dihydroxyacetone (DHA) as the active ingredient. DHA is a colorless sugar that interacts with the dead cells located in the upper layer of the epidermis. This interaction is why exfoliation of “clumps” of dead skin cells is so important in getting an even color. This change usually lasts about five to seven days from the initial application.

The magazine Elle has a nice article which offers this advise for choosing the product to use:

Locke says choosing the right formula also determines how your tan will appear. “Go with a reputable brand, one that uses a lower percentage of DHA so that you can build your color accordingly,” she says.

Bronze-seekers should also go for products infused with erythrulose, a sugar sourced from raspberries. The combination of DHA and erythrulose in a sunless tanning product is believed to yield longer-lasting, cosmetically pleasing color.

Some self-tanners, like those found in the St. Tropez collection, also contain green pigment to help counteract any orange.

Give yourself plenty of time, this is not something that should be rushed or can be done in 15 minutes:  “it will be around two hours before you can put on “street clothes” and go somewhere.” 

What will you need to have handy?

You will need a place to take a shower or bath, a cotton washcloth to exfoliate your skin, soap, skin lotion, self tanner, facilities to wash your hands frequently, a band or tie to keep hair off of your face, and a fingernail scrub brush.

If you are going to apply self tanner to your back, make sure you have a sponge paintbrush (the three inch size is good) with a handle of three inches or more. You may also want a loose outfit, such as a robe, to wear while the self tanner is drying. It’s also good to have a watch or clock around.

Before applying the self-tanning product, it is import to do proper skin-prep.  Your skin needs to be clean and freshly exfoliated:

Go for a scrub that is gentle (think spherical, man-made beads over granular ones with uneven edges) to avoid irritating the skin prior to tanning. The ideal scrub should also be oil-free (“an oil-based polish can act as a barrier between the self-tanner and top layer of the skin,” says Locke). When in a bind, using a loofah or muslin cloth with water will do the trick too.

Use the cotton washcloth to remove dead and dry skin by rubbing your skin gently in a circular motion. Pay particular attention to the lower half of your legs, knees, ankles, tops of feet, and elbows…

Important: Do not shave your legs if your skin is at all sensitive.

Next, apply a light layer of moisturizer to your skin, especially the areas like the elbows, hands, feet, ankles, and knees.

Time to apply to self-tanner

  • Take a look at the clock and note the time.
  • Start with your legs and work your way upwards doing the face and neck last.
  • Apply quickly but thoroughly, spreading in a circular motion to avoid streaking, being careful not to miss any areas.
  • In most areas apply the self tanner a little more heavily than you would apply ordinary lotion.  Exceptions: Do not apply it directly to your toes, your heels, or the sides of your feet.  The face and neck areas take the self tanner well, so apply sparingly. Don’t forget to apply it behind your ears.
  • Wash both of your hands thoroughly every 5 minutes to avoid getting color in your palm and between the fingers.  Don’t forget to use the nail scrub brush.
  • Next comes your torso and arms.  Use the sponge paint brush to apply self tanner to your back. Don’t forget under your arms and the sides of your torso.
  • Wash your hands again being careful not to splash water on any of the areas you wish to be tanned.
  • Now you have entered the drying zone.  After 15 minutes (preferably 30 minutes), you can put on a loose nightgown or Mumu to wear while you continue to dry. 
  • Avoid exercise or anything that will make you sweat for one hour.

To maintaining your tan, you will need to reapply self-tanner every three days.

From the WebMD article come these suggested self-tanners:

– Banana Boat Summer Color Self-Tanning Lotion ($6.99)

– L’Oréal Sublime Glow Daily Moisturizer ($11).

– Neutrogena MicroMist Airbrush Sunless Tan spray ($11.99).

– Clarins Liquid Bronze Self Tanning ($32.50)

– Sally Hansen Airbrush Sun ($9.95)

– Estée Lauder Bronze Goddess Golden Perfection Self-Tanning Lotion for Face ($22.50)

– California Tan Tinted Self Tanner Lotion ($27)


Summer Glow: Best Self-Tanner Tips (May 2010); Elle (source for tips on application, products, feedback)

You Asked! Expert A’s to Your Beauty Q’s About Self Tanners; WebMD Magazine, June 2010

*This blog post was originally published at Suture for a Living*

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