How To Apply Self-Tanner Without Looking Like A Flamin’ Hot Cheeto

Foolproof expert tips.

by Anneke Knot
how to use self tanner
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Self-tanner has come a long way from that lingering burnt toast smell long after you’ve finished applying it and the leftover Oompa Loompa-like hue on your extremities. But even with all the innovation in the space, getting an even application is still intimidating, if not seemingly near impossible. However, with the a few key self-tanner tips, it is possible to achieve a professional-level sun-kissed glow from head to toe.

“Although tanning seems like an easy process, you need to give yourself an ample amount of time and attention to make sure the finish looks natural,” Alexandra DiMarchi, Tan-Luxe's global tanning expert, “For example, if you are using drops that you mix in with your moisturizer, you need to make sure you apply the same amount of drops to each body part or one leg might develop way darker than the other. When you try to speed up the process and rush through a tan, that's when it starts to look uneven.”

Ahead, TZR checked in with DiMarchi and other top tanning experts, to find out how to get a believable summer glow without over-exposing your skin to the sun. Keep reading for their simple yet effective self-tanner tips.

How To Apply Self-Tanner On Your Body

Before picking up your tanning products, it’s key to prep your skin. “One of the most common mistakes I see when people apply their tan is not prepping their skin properly,” says Daisy James, Bondi Sands tan specialist, “This is the most important step in your tanning routine, as it helps to provide you with a flawless base.”

An even surface is one of the secrets to a natural-looking, long-lasting tan. Before applying self-tanner, all of the experts TZR spoke with recommend exfoliating the skin the night before. “Exfoliation is essential because you're creating a smooth canvas for your product to adhere to. You don't want any flaky bits of skin that could make your tan look uneven,” says DiMarchi.

According to Sophie Evans, St. Tropez skin finishing expert and celebrity tanning specialist, timing is just as important as sloughing. “We want your skin in the best condition possible,” she says, “Exfoliation day of [self tanning] is better than nothing, but eight hours before is most ideal.” Make sure to pay extra close attention to thicker areas like elbows and heels.

Your Pre-Tan Exfoliating Tool Kit

Self-tan settles into dry patches which makes for an unnatural glow. To fend this off, make sure to moisturize following your exfoliation. Just like before, timing is everything. Lather up the day before your tan, so the lotion has enough time to sink into the skin. Creams create a barrier between your skin and the self-tanner which can prevent it from activating when not fully absorbed.

Post-Exfoliation Moisturizers

After you’ve finished prepping the skin, it is finally time to apply your tanner. In order to get the best results, it is important to use a formula that works for your skin type. Rhiannon Hall, founder and head of product development at Luna Bronze, recommends paying attention to the undertones of your self-tanning products. As a good rule of thumb, follow the color wheel: to counteract yellow tones, try a violet based product. For redness-prone or cooler tones, try a green base.

“Another factor to look at is the level of DHA, or Dihydroxyacetone, in self tanner,” explains Hall, “this indicates how dark the result will be.” When your skin goes orange, it’s usually due to two reasons: they used a product with too high of DHA or they left the product on too long. Dimarchi stresses to always use a self-tanner within the range of your skin tone even if you want a deeper tan. “A lot of people with fair skin choose a super dark color. Afterwards, it looks orange or unnatural because their skin can’t handle that level of DHA, she says.

Foolproof Self-Tanners For Your Body

No matter how meticulous you are with application, mistakes happen. Instead of dealing with them after the tan develops, attack them head on. Evans always works with an oil-free moisturizer and a pack of makeup wipes on standby. “Moisturizer dilutes color, so I have my clients apply to dry patches so the tan does not grab,” she says, “Any tan that has gone where we don’t want it like the hairline or nails, we wipe off with a cleansing wipe immediately.” Another pro tip: Use a fluffy brush to dab some translucent powder on areas that are prone to wetness like your armpits, under-boob, and the backside of your knee to prevent dripping.

Products For Self-Tanner Touchups

How To Apply Self-Tanner On Your Face

Just like the body, the skin on the face should be properly prepped before applying self tanner. Make sure to cleanse, exfoliate, and hydrate just like you normally would — just make sure to let your skin care products settle before applying your self-tanner.

The face has a tendency to develop darker than the body, Evans points out, so it’s important to use tanners specifically formulated for that area. Mix face drops with an oil-free moisturizer to dilute the potency. Celebrity makeup artist, Anton Khachaturian also believes less is more. “If you’re using a cream or liquid, start with a dime sized amount of product. Then, really work it in using a tanning mitt,” he says, “Finish off the process by using a blending brush. It really helps distribute the product and prevent streaks.”

Jenni Blafer, self-tanning specialist and founder of SKJ, agrees. “[A brush] gives the most natural realistic look,” she says, “You can buff into the hairline, you can omit under-eyes, and you can add extra to cheeks and nose for that sun-kissed look.”

Self-Tanners To Use On Your Face

Applying self tanner all over the face can end up making your complexion look flat. Instead, try tan-touring. “Use a makeup brush to buff the tan into the contours of your face — just like you would with bronzer or contour,” says James, “Then follow the product directions before washing off for a no-makeup/makeup glow.”

Alternatively, if applying self-tanner to the face is too intimidating, makeup will usually suffice. For beginners, Blafer believes bronzer drops are great for novices.

Cream bronzers are Khachaturian’s favorite way to create a natural-looking bronze. “Put the tiniest bit on your fingertips and start by applying it on your cheeks and around the perimeter of your face,” he suggests, “This will give you a natural-looking contour and that beachy blushed look. Applying cream blush on top warms up the product and makes it look more natural.”

Makeup Products For A Natural Glow

How To Care For Your Fake Tan

After applying your self-tan, proper maintenance is the key to longer wear. Unfortunately, fake tans are fairly fragile. “The slightest things can impact your tan,” says DiMarchi, “Limit your activity post-tan so you don't sweat any of it off by accident.” Avoid strenuous activities and hot water. Instead, opt for lukewarm showers and low-impact movement.

That said, proper moisturizing can help extend the life of your glow. Evans suggests lathering up an oil-free lotion every day after showering. “Heavy oils can take the self-tan off quicker,” she says. You can also swap out your regular lotion for one that’s a gradual tanner. This boosts your color and helps elongate your tan.

No matter how well you take care of it, a self-tan cannot last forever. Once a tan starts to fade, it can leave behind patchy discoloration. For easy removal, Evans suggests adding a few pumps of moisturizer on a clean applicator mitt. Then, buff over your problem areas.

The Best Products For Removing Self-Tanner