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How to buy the best self-tanner

There are lots of fake tanning options out there. Find one that smells good and goes on smoothly and naturally.

squirting self-tanner on arm

Faking it with self-tanning products

We've all seen the result of self-tanning gone wrong, leaving some poor soul looking more Oompa Loompa-orange than blended-in bronzed. So how do you make sure you don't look like you've just spilled a can of Fanta all over yourself, or worse still, have the dreaded stripes and streaks? 

CHOICE has looked at all the important factors to ensure your fake tan is a success and not a disaster. The bottom line, however, is that fake tanning products are highly personal, so you may need to try a few before you find one that suits.

What to look for

Form: Fake tanning products come in a variety of forms, including lotion, spray, mousse and gels. Mousses are the most popular option – they dry quickly and deliver a deep tan, though it may not last as long as a lotion. Lotions are the next most popular – they're simple to apply and often recommended for beginners. Spray products allow you to apply it to hard-to-reach places, such as your back.

Tinting: A tinted product allows you to see where you've applied it straightaway. Some other products are clear (your skin becomes tanned as a result of the chemical reaction with the product over time) and it can be difficult to judge the evenness of the tan as you're applying it. 

Scent: Some fake tans can have very strong scents, which can linger on the skin and in some cases even transfer onto clothes. That being said, whether the smell is pleasant or not is clearly a very personal preference. So when you're out shopping for a fake tanning product, make sure you check whether you can live with the smell before buying it.

Staining: Fake tans can stain towels, clothes, bed linen and carpets. Check for information on transference on packaging, but bear in mind not all products that stain will have warnings on them. 

Duration: Don't expect your tan to last more than a few days without reapplying. If you're after something that will last a while, check the packaging to find out the expected duration – some last better than others.

Gradual tan: Some products, when applied daily, gradually build up a natural-looking tan, rather than turning you bronzed overnight. 

Drying times: Drying times vary between products. Some dry in less than a minute, while others take 20 minutes or longer. Look for a product that absorbs quickly and doesn't leave you feeling too greasy afterwards.

Sun protection still needed

Self-tanning products don't protect you from exposure to the sun, except for a short burst when first applied if they contain a broad spectrum sunscreen. Even fake tans that do have sunscreen only provide short-term protection for two to four hours after application, not for the length of time the tan remains on the skin. 

Top fake tanning tips

  1. Exfoliate with a body scrub or loofah before applying self tan. Pay particular attention to dry areas such as elbows, knees and ankles. 
  2. If it's the first time you've used a product, test it on a small (and inconspicuous) patch of skin first to see if you like the colour.
  3. Use fake tan sparingly around your elbows, knees, ankles and hairline.
  4. Wear a tanning mitt, or disposable latex gloves to avoid staining your hands. If you're applying tanner to your arms, a good trick to avoid the colour stopping at your wrists is to rub the backs of your hands together with a little tanner so your palms aren't stained.
  5. Try to avoid contact with water for about three hours after applying the tan. This includes activities that'll make you sweat, as it could streak the tan.
  6. If you've had a tanning disaster, there are some self-tan remover products available.

For more on fake tan, see our review of ten different fake tan products.

Leave it to a pro?

A spray-on tan is a popular alternative to DIY tanning products. This involves an operator spraying the tanning product onto your skin with an airbrush. You can get it done at a salon, but there are also a number of mobile tanning companies that will come to your home. While it will cost more than a bottle of fake tan from the supermarket, the tan should last longer – around seven to 10 days.