It’s no industry secret that the best way to protect your skin from harmful UV rays is to wear SPF (even on overcast days!) and avoid prolonged sun exposure. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t safely get a sunless glow. Self tanners are your best bet for a safe tan without going to the salon for an expensive airbrush tan. But self tanners aren’t exactly goof-proof, and they can be a little tricky to apply. And if you have sensitive skin, acne or eczema, they can be even more intimidating. But there are still products on the market that will give you a sun-kissed, lit-from-within radiance without irritation.
So we reached out to expert estheticians for their professional recommendations—but before we get to our picks for the best self tanners, first a few application pro tips from Sophie Evans, St. Tropez’s celebrity tanning artist. When it comes to tanning, she knows everything under the sun.
“For sensitive skin, always patch test the tanner first,” advises Evans. “The best place to test is in the crease of the arm or behind the ear, where the skin is most sensitive but also not as visible,” she says. “Then wait 24 hours to see how the skin reacts. If you do have any sensitivity or allergic reaction, do not continue using the product and take an antihistamine.”
As to what ingredients to look for? Evans explains that most self tanners work off the tanning agent dihydroxyacetone (DHA), and so under the ingredients list, you want to look for “Natural DHA.” “Make sure the product states that their tanning agent is 100 percent natural, not chemical-based, and doesn’t have added synthetic fragrances,” says Evans.
Hydration is also key for sensitive skin, and so that’s why you’ll want to moisturize before. Moisturizing may seem counterintuitive, since typically exfoliation is what’s stressed with self tanners so the product can penetrate the skin. “But if you have sensitive skin, make sure you use a non-oil based moisturizer on any areas that are particularly dry–elbows, knees, hands and feet, etc,” says Evans. “This way the self tanner won’t ‘grab’ to those dry areas and look uneven.”
Finally, never apply self tanner if you’re having an active flare up of eczema or any other skin condition. And remember that everyone’s skin reacts differently, so if you have especially sensitive skin or any concerns, consult your dermatologist first.
Best self tanners for sensitive skin
These tanning wipes have a major following among beauty enthusiasts, and for good reason. You just swipe over your face in a process that takes mere seconds. The result? A flawless, radiant glow. They’re great if you’re experiencing dryness on your arms or legs and don’t want to risk irritating them with extra product, but you still want a subtle glow on your face. Plus, they’re TSA-approved and perfect for travel.
Aggressively rubbing in a thick lotion can irritate sensitive skin. So if you prefer a lotion formula, you’ll want something that is non-greasy, spreads evenly and absorbs quickly. This vegan tanning lotion from Beauty By Earth is packed with natural ingredients like shea butter, coconut oil and Japanese green tea.
If you’re new to self tanners, start with a gradual glow lotion that builds over time. “I recommend my clients ease into it with a product like Kora Organics gradual self tanner,” says Sarah Akram, expert esthetician and owner of Sarah Akram Skincare. “The DHA ingredient is naturally derived from sugar, which ferments and turns brown over time, organically bronzing the skin.”
“If you want something specifically for the face, I’d recommend St. Tropez’s bronzing mist,” says Evans. “It’s lightweight and infused with hibiscus extract.” It’s also excellent if you’re short on time. Just spritz under or over your makeup, and the tan will develop over four to eight hours. No need to shower or rinse.
Paola Campos, expert esthetician and founder of SBH Cosmeceuticals, recommends this foaming self tanner from Coco & Eve. “It’s formulated with antioxidants, is very hydrating and streak-free,” she explains. And it’s made from ingredients that have a “low comodogenic rating,” meaning it won’t clog pores. Translation? It’s great if you have acne-prone skin.
Campos also loves this sunless tanner from Skinerals. “It’s gentle enough to use on your face and the foaming applicator makes it easy to use all over your body, streak-free,” she explains. It’s also free of synthetic fragrances, which is excellent if you’re prone to redness or inflammation.
Made with natural ingredients like avocado and grapefruit oil, Jenae also loves this self tanning mist from Isle of Paradise, which enjoyed quite a bit of TikTok fame last year. “The water consistency mixes well with a light moisturizer for a smooth application, evening out skin tone” she explains. “I love to apply this with a BeautyBlender sponge, which helps the product blend seamlessly.”
“This self tanner is made with ingredients like shea butter and elderberry extract to moisturize and nourish skin,” explains Chanel Jenae, expert esthetician and owner of Arcona Skincare. “The sheer formula provides easy application and alleviates friction,” meaning you don’t have to aggressively rub it in, which can irritate skin.
Evans recommends this glow kit as one of the best for sensitive skin from St. Tropez’s line. “The foaming mousse is made with a hyaluronic acid complex that not only hydrates the skin, but also calms and soothes,” she explains. And it comes with a mitt, which is super helpful for non-streak application, especially if you’re new to the self tanning game.
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