I remember being in college and having a salesperson swear up and down that the product they were trying to sell me was a "universal" bronzer. It disappeared the second I swatched it on my arm. That was only five or six years ago, but in the time since, the beauty industry has made strides in making bronzing products that give a sunkissed glow to all skin tones.
When Rihanna launched Fenty with 40 shades of foundation in 2017, it reset the industry standard for what it means to have an inclusive shade range. In the last half-decade, we've seen a number of brands expand their offerings with complexion products suited for darker skin tones, and this level of intentionality has trickled into bronzer and self-tanner.
"Black people, we've always loved glowy skin, oils, and all of that," says Emily Amick, a celebrity makeup artist in New York City. "With Fenty coming out and a focus on broadening the spectrum of shades that companies are producing for people of all skin tones, it's really opened up the door for everyone to experiment with the trends that have always been popular for lighter skin."
The beauty industry's shade expansion has happened alongside a broader societal shift in skin tone acceptance. Since the time of slavery, light-skinned or mixed-race Black women have been prized against dark-skinned Black women, and as a community, we've internalized that—which meant having a tanned look on a deeper skin tone wasn't "desirable." We've still got a long way to go in dismantling colorism—skin bleaching creams are still popular among communities of color in many parts of the world (though in recent years, brands including Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, and L'Oréal pulled their offerings from the shelves), and it's worth noting that white women have long been using self-tanning products to fake the sort of deep complexion that Black women have historically been ridiculed for—but as we've progressed, little by little, showing off a bit of extra color on deeper complexions isn't so scary.
"I feel like it's almost going back to this sort of mentality of embracing what you've got and showing it off," says Amick. "Natural-textured hair, skin—all of these things are nothing to try to change or conform anymore." Case in point? Google searches for "self-tanner for Black skin" have spiked over the past few months, and more and more Black girls are showing up on my TikTok feed trying it out for the first time. Seeing this move toward owning our complexions and embracing a tan is a massive step in the right direction, and the industry has stepped up to deliver products to help us get there.
The benefits of bronzer and self-tanner on deeper skin tones
The most important benefit of using products like bronzer and self-tanner is that they give you a healthy-looking, sun-kissed glow without having to spend time in the sun. Although Black people are less likely to burn or get skin cancer than fairer people, it can still happen—and can be far more dangerous.
"People with darker skin tones can still get skin cancer," says Ivy Lee, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Pasadena, California. "And oftentimes, when we do develop skin cancer, it is caught at a later stage, and we are less likely to survive or have a good outcome with skin cancer." According to an analysis by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), between 2001 and 2014 the relative five-year melanoma survival rate among non-Hispanic Black populations was 66.2 percent, compared with 90.1 percent for non-Hispanic white populations.
"Many of my patients say,' 'Well, I don't really burn. I just tan,' but there's no such thing as a 'safe tan," says Dr. Lee. "Any time we are getting exposed to ultraviolet rays from being outdoors, we're accumulating DNA damage in our skin cells."
Bronzers and self-tanners can also help to even out discoloration, which is especially important for deeper skin tones, which are more likely to develop hyperpigmentation due to excess melanin production. The condition is notoriously hard to treat (and is made worse by UV exposure), so color-correcting with a complexion product can be a helpful alternative when over-the-counter skin-care products can't quite cut it.
"The absolute best part about self-tanning is how it evens out your overall skin tone," says Laura Daly, head of innovation and product development at Future Beauty Labs, who is Black and first tried self-tanner for a bachelorette party. "Whether this is on your face, or any part of your body, self-tanner actually helps even out any ashiness or gray undertones on darker skin. When using self-tanner on my face, it leaves my skin looking even and glowy for days. It’s so good, it’s honestly replaced my foundation on most occasions—my skin looks so even that I don’t even need it."
Getting that sun-kissed look
Traditional self-tanners tend to evoke images of streaky, orange skin, but we are (thankfully) far past formulas that will leave you with a pumpkin hue. These products take the melanin that you have and make it darker, which means that any skin tone can use them.
"Self-tan, it doesn't come in shades like 'terracotta' or 'mahogany,' but obviously, you have light, medium, and dark, [which denote how intense of a tan they'll give you]," says Sophie Evans, an ambassador for St. Tropez Tan who has tanned stars like Sade and Mel B. "Self-tan works off your melanin, your pigmentation, and the pH level of your skin, so if you and I both used the same 'extra dark' product, my 'extra dark' isn't going to look like your 'extra dark'—it will look like it comes from within." No matter your skin tone, you can choose any shade of self-tanner based on how dark you want to get. Light will give all complexions a subtle tan while extra dark will give any complexion a deeper tan.
On deeper complexions, self-tanners tend to last for about two weeks, but if you're looking for something even more temporary, that's where bronzers come in.
When choosing the right bronzer for your complexion, think about your undertones. "My skin is more golden, so I want to look for something in that gold family, kind of orangey, burnt orange," says Amick. "Someone who has a lot of red in their skin might want to look for something that's a few shades deeper than their skin with more red [tones]. Or if someone has blue [tones in their skin], they might want to go cool. It just depends on what your own skin tone is. That's why it's really important for cosmetic companies to have a vast range."
Unlike foundation and concealer, bronzer isn't meant to be an exact match, so you a line doesn't need 40 shades to be considered inclusive, but "if it's not coming in at least four or five shades, there's no way it's going to work for even a majority of people let alone everyone," says Amick.While many brands have launched inclusive ranges, it's Black-owned brands like Juvia's Place, LYS Beauty, and (of course) Fenty, that are truly leading the way in creating bronzers that complement and enhance deeper complexions.
Shop self-tanner and bronzers for Black skin below
Daly uses this all over her face to replace foundation. In addition to tanning your skin, it’s made with moisturizing and conditioning raspberry seed oil and hydrating aloe vera to leave your skin soft and nourished. It’s available in two shades so you can choose how much deeper you’d like your complexion to get. Daly uses medium/dark.
Use this mousse to get a streak-free, natural-looking glow. It’s made with niacinamide to soothe and visibly even skin tone; vitamin E and echinacea to protect skin from environmental damage, soothe, and reduce the look of redness; and high-molecular-weight hyaluronic acid to hydrates skin.
Use this moisturizing foam to get quick-drying color from an easy-to-use formula. It comes with a fluffy kabuki brush to help you get into smaller areas like the face.
Use this bronzing foam to get that fresh-off-the-beach look. It’s fast-drying and develops in just two hours. Get just the foam for $35 or add on a brush and mitt for $47.
This long-wearing, soft-matte cream bonzer is great for blending your way to the perfect glow. It comes in three just colors but is buildable, so you can use a little or a lot so you get the perfect outcome.
This silky-smooth bronzer has a matte finish and is packed with niacinamide to reduce the appearance of pores and limit excess shine; green tea extract to provide antioxidant benefits that soothe and replenish skin, and sodium hyaluronate to help skin retain moisture and visibly plump fine lines.
This long-wear, transfer-resistant bronzing powder will bring your skin to life. It’s available in nine shades so you can find your perfect match.
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