A Simple, Step-By-Step Guide on How to Apply Self-Tanner

January 26, 2024
Skincare.com by L'Oréal
By: Skincare.com by L'Oréal | skincare.com by L'Oréal

Self-tanner is our secret weapon for a sun-kissed, bronzed complexion that looks even and has a natural-looking glow. In a mere few hours, it can make it appear as if you just stepped off the plane after spending a week somewhere tropical—minus the sun damage (and maybe the vacation). 

Better yet, learning how to apply self-tanner is simple, and today’s formulations are elegant and easy to use. In other words, you can forget everything you know about tales of orange streaks or patchy results. Ahead, we’re sharing our best self-tanning tips for all skin tones to help you get gorgeous bronzed skin. 

How to Prep for Self-Tanner

If there's one key rule you take away from our guide on how to use self-tanner, it’s that pre-tanner prep is crucial for an even application. Here’s the lowdown on skin prep for tanning.Step 1: Exfoliate the night before

Celebrity makeup artist Sir John recommends exfoliating the night before applying self-tanner. Doing so helps remove any buildup of impurities and dead surface cells to reveal smooth skin. The smoother your skin, the easier your application will be, so don’t skimp on this part of your self-tanning routine. 

Step 2: Cleanse your skin

After exfoliating your face and body, follow up with a gentle face cleanser and nourishing body wash in the morning to ensure a clean and hydrated canvas for your self-tanner. 

Step 3: Moisturize your skin

While your skin is still damp from cleansing, moisturize with a lotion or cream. Blend it all over your face and body, paying extra attention to areas where skin tends to be thicker or rougher, like your hands, knees, elbows, and ankles. Skipping this step is a common mistake people make when first learning how to apply self-tanner and can result in an uneven application. These areas tend to soak up excess self-tanner, but moisturizing thoroughly helps avoid any pesky dark patches. 

How to Apply Self-Tanner

After following the self-tan prep tips above, it’s officially time to learn how to fake a tan. Follow these guidelines on the best way to apply self-tanner and you’ll be, quite literally, golden!

Step 1: Make sure your skin is dry

If your skin is still damp from moisturizing, hold off for a few minutes before applying your self-tanner. The product applies more evenly on dry skin.  

Step 2: Work in sections

Make sure to work in sections when applying self-tanner. Start with your arms first, then legs, then torso, etc. This ensures you’ve covered all areas thoroughly. Every self-tanner product is a bit different, so follow the on-label directions to ensure a consistent and natural application.


For your face, stand in front of a well-lit mirror and apply the self-tanner in small sections, like your cheeks, forehead, and nose to ensure you don’t miss any spots. If you’re using tanning drops like L’Oréal Paris Sublime Bronze Self Tanning Facial Drops, add six to eight drops to your moisturizer and apply per usual. If a mist is your product of choice, saturate a cotton pad and sweep it across your face. Tanning serums and creams, on the other hand, should be applied as you normally would. Make sure to spread the product to your jaw, neck, and décolleté to prevent any harsh or obvious lines.

Editor Tip: Wondering how to get tanner off your hands? Either wear protective mitts, or apply a heavy layer of lotion to your hands prior and wash them as soon as you finish self tanning. 

Step 3: Stay put for 10 minutes

After applying self-tanner, wait at least 10 minutes before putting on clothing or lying down. After the time has passed, you can put on some comfortable, loose clothing for at least the next three hours. This allows time for the self-tanner to settle without staining your clothes, smearing, or transferring. 

Step 4: Hold off on the shower

It’s also good practice to avoid showering or washing your face for at least four to eight hours following application. Otherwise, you risk undoing all that self-tanner application work or creating unwanted streaks. 

How Does Self-Tanner Work? 

Most self-tanners are formulated with a special sugar (dihydroxyacetone, also known as DHA), which reacts with the amino acids in the top layer of your skin. This creates a glowy, bronzed complexion that mimics a natural tan. Since it only dyes the outer layer of your skin, the color fades as your skin cells shed. Exfoliating and moisturizing before applying self-tanner can help your fake tan last longer because those dead skin cells are buffed away. 

Types of Self-Tanner Formulas

The world of faux tans has come a long way since those early formulations. Now, there are all sorts of ways to apply self-tanner, ranging from ultra-moisturizing serums to quick-drying mousses. 

  • Lotions and Creams: These are arguably the most common types of self-tanners. They’re applied just like regular lotions and creams. 

  • Wipes and Towelettes: Wipes and towelettes are excellent self-tanners for beginners since they’re pre-loaded. Simply wipe them over your skin to get that bronzed glow.

  • Foams and Mousses: Foam and mousse self-tanning formulas are beloved for their lightweight texture and quick dry time. 

  • Serums: Serum-based faux tanners have concentrated formulas that deliver a more targeted application. They’re also often very hydrating. 

  • Sprays: Sprays emit a fine mist of faux tanner. They can cover a lot of ground at once, though might be a bit tricky to control for newbies. 

  • Drops: Tanning drops are added to your existing skincare products for a more controlled faux tanning experience. They’re a great way to get a bronze skin effect on your face, too. 


Self-Tanning Tips for Fair Skin Tones

Those with fair skin should be the most diligent when applying self-tanner. Every missed spot and streak is more noticeable, so it’s important to choose a self-tanner that’s easy to apply. Try the L’Oréal Paris Sublime Bronze Self-Tanning Water Mousse. It has a lightweight finish, delivers streak-free results, and offers a gradual tan. 


Sir John also recommends the L’Oréal Paris Sublime Bronze Self-Tanning Body Towelettes. “The towelettes are literally foolproof—you just use them all over the body for a streak-free tan. Plus, they are travel-friendly,” he says.

L’Oreal Paris Sublime Bronze and L'Oreal Paris Sublime Bronze ProPerfect Salon Airbrush Self-Tanning Mist products collaged on light orange background

Self-Tanning Tips for Medium Skin Tones

Medium skin tones can go in a couple of different directions—up a few notches from your everyday complexion to a deeper tan or a step down for something less committal. If you’re looking to go with the former, try the St. Tropez Self Tan Classic Bronzing Mousse. It’s formulated to provide a streak-free, easy-to-apply tan that can last for up to 10 days.

St. Tropez Self Tan Classic Bronzing Mousse 

Self-Tanning Tips for Dark Skin Tones

Darker skin tones can choose from a wide array of self-tanning formulas, such as mousses, lotions, serums, mists, and more. Depending on the results you’re aiming for—think: weekend at the beach or a subtle faux glow—you can build layers to reach your desired bronzing preference. 

To achieve a lit-from-within glow, we recommend the L’Oréal Paris Sublime Luminous Bronzer. This streak-free formula will give you a naturally bronzed glow for up to two weeks. If you want to look extra sun-kissed, try the L'Oreal Paris Sublime Bronze ProPerfect Salon Airbrush Self-Tanning Mist in the shade Deep (also available in Medium). The 360-degree wide-angle applicator covers ground quickly and makes for a streak-free finish. 

L’Oreal Paris Sublime Bronze

The Bottom Line

As you can see, learning how to self-tan is as simple as exfoliating, moisturizing, and applying. The results are a golden glowy effect that gives “just got back from Cabo” vibes, and you can rest easy knowing you’ve protected your skin from damage going the faux route.

Next Up: How to Make Your Spray Tan Last Longer

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