Flawless Self-Tanning Tips
Our Experts Recommend
4 Steps to Prep Skin for a Flawless Self-Tan
Exfoliate in advance! Self-tanner saturates more intensely in drier areas of skin that are prone to built-up dead cells (knees, ankles, feet, elbows, and neck.). Even the playing field ahead of time by exfoliating with a washcloth in the shower, or better yet, use a leave-on AHA or BHA exfoliant for consistently soft, smooth skin days in advance. (AHA is ideal for normal to dry, sun-damaged skin; BHA is best for normal to oily, breakout-prone skin.)
For body: Paula's Choice Clinical KP Treatment Cloths, Resist Skin Revealing Body Lotion with 10% AHA or Resist Weightless Body Treatment with 2% BHA quickly get skin self-tanner ready while reducing bumps, breakouts, and signs of aging—all without fragrance or irritants.
For face: Paula's Choice Resist Daily Smoothing Treatment with 5% AHA or Resist Daily Pore Refining Treatment with 2% BHA.
Shave the day before. Pros recommend shaving a day in advance of applying self-tanner rather than waiting until immediately before—otherwise you can end up with tiny dots of self-tanner that accumulate in the pores (more accurately, hair follicles) of the shaved hairs.
You should also avoid shaving right after applying self-tanner because it will decrease the longevity of your tan color; shaving naturally exfoliates the surface layer of skin.
Moisturize key areas. It’s best to start with clean skin and apply a layer of moisturizer/lotion over your drier areas and where dead skin cells tend to accumulate (ankles, knees, heals, and elbows) to prevent those areas from soaking up more self-tanner than the rest of your body and looking patchy.
Have a game plan of where you want the color to start and stop. Do you stop at your ankles or continue down to your toes? Are you going to be sporting a bikini or a back-bearing sundress? These are all things you need to think about to ensure you cover all the areas that are going to be exposed.
Essential Self-Tanning Application Tips
Apply self-tanner when you have time to spare. Self-tanners can take several hours to develop into their final tan color on skin, so it’s crucial to give yourself ample time to see if you’ve missed any areas or ended up with streaks that need to be corrected. Also, keep in mind that most self-tanners take a while to absorb so may you need to wait 15 minutes or so before getting dressed to avoid staining your clothes or sheets.
Helpful hint: Try a fast-absorbing self-tanner that doesn’t use skin-damaging alcohol, such as Paula’s Choice Sun 365 Self-Tanning Foam, to cut the dry time in half.
Wash your hands every few minutes during application. Don't wait too long or you can end up with orange palms and cuticles.
Pro tip: Prep hands and the insides of your wrists with lotion because those areas will be in constant contact with the self-tanner as you rub it into other areas of the body.
Mimic a real tan. For natural looking results, think about the way your body would naturally tan. Case in point, certain areas of the body rarely see the sun (like the insides of arms) and so they naturally look lighter when you get a suntan. You can mimic that by applying a more diluted layer of self-tanner in these areas for a more believable faux glow.
Helpful hint: Pay attention to the parts of your body that tend to absorb the self-tanner color the most so you can adjust your application the next time around. For some people, their legs get the darkest; for others it can be the face or neck. Knowing your unique spots will allow you to perfectly fine-tune your self-tanner application from here on out.
Applying self-tanner to your back? Enlist the help of a friend or spouse, or a tool such as this skincare applicator for hard to reach areas.
Stay dry for six hours (or more). To get the biggest bang for your buck, the self-tanning experts we spoke with recommend staying dry (no showers, baths, hot yoga, or dips in the pool) for at least six hours after a self-tan whether you apply it yourself or have a spray tan done at a salon.
Self-Tanner Troubleshooters and Quick Fixes:
- If you find it tricky to get smooth, even color around your nose, eyes, ears, hairline, and lips, use a cotton swab to help blend a thin, amount of self-tanner sparingly around those areas.
- Afraid self-tanner will make you break out? Try a self-tanning concentrate, which allows you to add a drop or two to your favorite serum or moisturizer. Bonus: You get to customize the level of bronze by tailoring how many drops of concentrate you use.
- Hands can be a particularly tricky area to achieve a natural-looking tan. Apply self-tanner as you would a moisturizer, but then quickly wipe your palms off on a slightly soapy washcloth or a disposable cleansing cloth.
- Have a nail brush or nail polish remover handy to get self-tanner off cuticles—don’t forget to swab around toenails, too, assuming you self-tanned the tops of your feet.
- Carefully wipe down the area between your fingers with makeup remover to avoid dark color build up there.
- If you make a mistake and end up with streaky or dark areas of skin, manually exfoliate those areas with a wet washcloth or use Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% Beta Hydroxy Acid Liquid for overnight results. Voila! Bye-bye, streaks!
- Exfoliants, Retin-A, and topical disinfectants can shorten the life expectancy of a self-tan. Consider decreasing their frequency in the days following self-tanner application, and at the very least, avoid using them the same evening that you apply your self-tanner.
The Best Skin of Your Life Starts Here: The same type of research used to create this article is also used to formulate Paula’s Choice Skincare products. You’ll find products for all skin types and a range of concerns, from acne and sensitive skin to wrinkles, pores, and sun damage. With Paula’s Choice Skincare, you can get (and keep) the best skin of your life! See Paula's Choice Self Tanning Products.