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It’s shine time.

Published on 08/16/23 08:30AM


A sun-kissed glow without sun damage? Sign us up. Self-tanning has never been easier, thanks to the products available to us in 2023. You can choose from lotions, mousses, sprays, and even moisturizer drops to get the look. But as any experienced self-tanner will tell you, there’s a catch: The application process can be pretty tough. If you’ve used any glow-enhancing products, chances are you’ve been left with orange hands or streaks on your fresh white sheets.

The key to applying self-tanner flawlessly (and having it look as natural as possible) is proper prep. So we went to the pros—dermatologists Caren Campbell, MD, and Joshua Zeichner, MD, and tanning expert Alexandra DiMarchi—to find out the best way to prepare before self-tanner. Read on for your most stunning glow yet.

Meet the Expert

  • Caren Campbell, MD, is a San Francisco-based board-certified dermatologist specializing in cosmetic and integrative dermatology.
  • Joshua Zeichner, MD, is an Associate Professor of Dermatology and the Director of Cosmetic & Clinical Research in Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.
  • Alexandra DiMarchi is the global tanning expert for Tan-Luxe. Her clients include Halsey, Shay Mitchell, and Molly Sims.

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Exfoliate Your Body

To prep for your self-tanner, you’ll want to exfoliate, shave, and soften your skin with your favorite moisturizing body wash to create the smoothest canvas possible for your tanning product. “If you apply tanner over dead skin, it’s bound to flake off, which could then make your tan look patchy,” says DiMarchi.

“Remember, areas of constant friction like soles, elbows, and knees get thicker to protect themselves, so exfoliation with mechanical exfoliators like pumice stones or chemical exfoliants like lactic, glycolic, or salicylic acids can be helpful,” Campbell says. DiMarchi prefers body scrubs, as does Zeichner: “I typically recommend using a manual scrub for exfoliation, as it gives immediate improvements in eliminating skin flakes,” he says. “If you are already using a chemical exfoliator on a regular basis, physical exfoliation right before the self-tanner may not be necessary.”

DiMarchi suggests shaving after exfoliating—not only will it remove hair, but it’ll also take your exfoliation up a notch and improve your self-tanning results. “Something that people also forget is that shaving actually is a form of exfoliation, so make sure you do that last,” she notes. “Shaving over a spray tan can strip off the color.”

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Exfoliate Your Face, Too

A strong argument could be made that your face is the most important part of your body when it comes to self-tanning: It’s where you’ll have to get into your most precise application. So preparing with a thorough cleanse and exfoliation is crucial. “I usually prefer and recommend chemical exfoliation, as it is less harsh and less likely to cause tears or abrasions,” says Campbell. Our picks? Ourself’s Daily Purifying Cleanser ($55) and Nuria’s Defend Gentle Exfoliator ($18).

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Moisturize Well—But Don’t Overdo It

After you’ve exfoliated and revealed your smoothest, most baby-soft, flake-free skin, it’s time to grab your lotion. Self-tanner is less likely to look patchy or streaky when applied to moisturized skin.

That being said, you should be deliberate (and don’t go overboard). “You’ll want to be strategic about how much you moisturize before you self-tan,” says DiMarchi. “Over moisturizing can prevent the color from developing, so it’s a good idea to apply more moisturizer to tricky areas like the hands, elbows, and knees, but don’t overdo it on the body. Otherwise, you might not get the best color payoff.” Campbell recommends using lotion on any areas that have thickened or rough skin—like your heels, knees, or elbows—after showering.

DiMarchi suggests applying a light coat of moisturizer on your face before adding tanner so the color looks more natural once developed.

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Timing Is Everything

When it comes to self-tanning, DiMarchi recommends saving the best for last and applying at the end of the day. That way, it can develop overnight.

If that isn’t possible (perhaps you’re getting ready for a special event), make sure self-tanning is the last beauty treatment on your list—and we do mean last. “If you are prepping for a big event, you always want your spray tan to be your last appointment,” says DiMarchi. “The slightest things can impact your tan.” For example: “If you are getting a spray before a vacation and still are trying on outfits, putting on a tight dress might cause streaks to your tan if it’s still developing,” she says.

Another reason not to squeeze in self-tanner before other activities? DiMarchi says getting too physical could lead to accidentally sweating off your self-tan.

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Clear Your Schedule

How long your self-tanner application will take is dictated by the formula you choose. Gradual self-tanning products, like Jergens’ Natural Glow ($11) or Tanologist’s Daily Glow ($14), won’t take long to apply (in part because you can skip the moisturizing step).

But if you’re using a water-based formula, patience is crucial. “If you are using a water formula, be more diligent and take your time,” DiMarchi. “Start with your upper body first,  then work your way down. Focus on the harder areas like elbows and knees.” She recommends blending everything out with a kabuki brush for a seamless finish.

How to Make Your Self-Tanner Last

You probably won’t be shocked to learn that the best way to preserve a self-tan is by ensuring proper application, and the steps above will help you enjoy your bronze or golden glow for longer. Still, there are ways you can further extend the life of your self-tan. “Don’t exfoliate every day, go to a sauna, or take super hot showers. Anything that causes you to sweat will cause your tan to fade earlier,” says DiMarchi. “If [you follow] proper post-tan protocol, then you should easily be able to get at least a week out of your tan, maybe longer if you have a darker skin tone,” she notes.