Scout's honor, these won't make you look Cheeto orange.

By Brittany Loggins
August 17, 2020
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If you're seeking the glow of a week spent in Cabo—without having to book a flight or subject your skin to the sun's harmful UV rays—luckily, self-tanner can help you achieve post-vacay color without the damage. (Not to mention, they are ~a lot~ more affordable than a plane ride.)

However, not all sunless tanners are created equal. If you've had the misfortune of experiencing a bad self-tanner firsthand, you might have been the victim of dryness, breakouts, embarrassing patches, and—worst-case scenario—an orange, Oompa Loompa-like complexion. Yikes. Believe me, as a freckled redhead, finding the perfect sun-in-a-bottle formula and applying it correctly can definitely involve some nerve-wrecking trial and error.

Ahead, experts explain what to look for when choosing a self-tanner for your face and how to apply facial tanners to get a natural, sun-kissed glow. And to make shopping for a self-tanner for your face even easier, follow the guide below for the best picks, according to reviews. (If you're looking for the best self-tanner for your body, head here instead.)

How to Pick the Right Self-Tanner for Your Face

If you want to avoid turning into an orange version of yourself, it's best to opt for a buildable self-tanner. "Tanners for the face are best in a gradual build formula—this way you can apply once or on consecutive days to build to your desired shade,” explains Jill McLean, a brand educator for Vita Liberata and owner of Glow Bar tanning salon in Northern Ireland. This way, instead of going overboard with tanner (and looking like a Cheeto), you can easily layer it to achieve your desired level of bronze.

On top of finding a buildable formula, you'll also want to consider shade—which can be intimidating if you have no prior experience with tanner. ICYDK, the active ingredient in most sunless tanners is the color additive dihydroxyacetone (DHA), which reacts with cells on the surface of skin to temporarily darken the skin to simulate a tan, according to Mayo Clinic. Self-tanners are typically broken down into light, medium, and dark colors. While it seems straightforward enough, Bridget Bergin of the Brazil Bronze tanning salon in Bethel, New York, suggests starting with a lighter shade, especially if you're a self-tanner newb. “With face tanners it’s always best to go with a more natural color because it is easier to reapply in a day or two to make the color darker," adds Bergin.

As for which application method is best, it’s really a matter of preference, says McLean. However, you should take your skin type into consideration.“If you have oily or spot-prone skin, a towelette or mist may be better for you; and dryer skin types may want to opt for even more hydration with a lotion,” notes McLean. That being said, if you have sensitive skin and are thinking self -tanner might not be in the cards for you, there are formulas that have been developed to cater towards those with sensitivities. Vita Liberata, in particular, uses 100 percent natural DHA to create a golden glow, and many brands prioritize “clean” and “natural” products, as well. (FYI: Here's The Difference Between Clean and Natural Beauty Products)

Finally, self-tanner might seem like a superficial treatment, but some formulas are actually packed with good-for-your-skin ingredients. McLean recommends going with face self-tanner products that contain aloe vera, glycerin, and botanicals to nourish and moisturize the skin. On that note, she also warns that you should avoid using chemical exfoliants and acids while wearing tanner, since they can strip away the color. 

Tips for Applying Facial Self-Tanner

First things first, you'll want to prep the skin before applying self-tanner. If you usually wax your lip or brows, dermaplane the peach fuzz from your face, or are due for a hair color touch up, take care of these things before you get started, as they can remove tanner. You'll also want to exfoliate your face, sloughing away any flakes or dry spots with a scrub or chemical exfoliant, since self-tanner can sink into dry skin and leave unnatural looking patches, explains Silver Goodwin, a brand educator for Vita Liberata, a brand known for its tanning products.

While you don't need any fancy brushes or sponges to apply self-tanner, you may want to invest in an applicator mitt (Buy It, $7, amazon.com) to avoid staining your hands. “Using your hands is most convenient to apply a facial tanner—as a rule, with anything untinted, you can use your hands, and for tinted products use a mitt or brush to avoid staining your hands," says McLean. (Here are more tips for getting a tan glow on your face without sitting in the sun.)

When you're ready to get down to business, pay attention to the amount of product you're using. McLean notes that you should use just “enough to spread the product all over your face evenly so it absorbs and doesn’t sit on the surface.” Don't forget to cover commonly missed spots, such as under the eyes, eyelids, the ears, and the backs of ears—which can be seen if you have short hair or when your hair is pulled back. McLean also specifies that you should make sure you’re blending it into your hairline and down your neck, as well. To do this, she likes to use a kabuki makeup brush (Buy It, $10, amazon.com), so that it looks seamless, even, and natural.

Once you've finished, allow six to eight hours for the product to develop on your skin before washing your face, says Goodwin. The bad news is that tanners do wear off pretty quickly (especially face self-tanners), thanks to face washes and exfoliants. To ensure that your bronze lasts—especially if you aren't applying another coat a day or two after your first application—the good news is that a facial moisturizer can extend the life of your tan. On the other hand, if you decide you don't like the look, just give your face a few extra washes and the tanner should come right off. (While most good self-tanners for face or body shouldn't come off all over your linens—especially if they're gradual—you might want to stick to old or dark-colored sheets and towels when you first try a new product, just in case.)

The Best Self-Tanners for Your Face

Best Amazon Reviews: Golden Star Beauty Self Tan Serum

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Credit: AMAZON

With over 1,000 glowing reviews, this is Amazon's best-selling facial self-tanner, and leaves you with a streak-free glow. It gets its DHA naturally from sugar cane, and contains hyaluronic acid and a powerful combination of natural oils—derived from rosehip, evening primrose, and macadamia—to hydrate, moisturize, repair damage, soften skin, and improve pigmentation and wrinkles. Customers love that it's easy to apply, incredibly moisturizing (even for those with dry skin and eczema), can be used in place of foundation, and doesn't have an orange, Oompa Loompa effect.

Best Value: Beauty by Earth Self-Tanner for Face

face tanner beauty by earth

Great for everyday wear, weddings, and events, this subtle facial self-tanner won't make it look like you fake baked. It also boasts natural ingredients, including organic shea butter, organic coconut oil, aloe vera, and antioxidant-rich Japanese green tea to nourish and support your skin health. Many shoppers commented that it's super moisturizing and one, in particular, says she applies it at night and wakes up with the most gorgeous, natural-looking tan.

Best Drops: Tan-Luxe The Face Illuminating Self Tan Drops

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Credit: AMAZON

On top of an impressive 4.4 rating on Amazon, the best part about these drops is that you can add them to your favorite moisturizer, serum, or oil so that you don't have to rethink or interrupt your normal routine. Not to mention, they provide buildable color, so you can start with just one or two drops, and add more to deepen your bronze. One reviewer summed it up perfectly: "Use a couple drops with your moisturizer, and wake up with a nice glow! I have acne-prone skin, this did NOT make me break out. I am also fair skinned and every tanner looks orange but this one."

Best Serum: Coola Organic Sunless Tan Anti-Aging Face Serum

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Credit: AMAZON

This serum from sunscreen brand Coola builds a gradual tan over several days—thanks to the tan-inducing powers of sugar beets—and also offers streak-free, transfer-resistant color (read: it won't come off on your clothes or pillow). The lightweight formula contains argan oil, hyaluronic acid, and plant cell cultures to nourish and hydrate your skin, and consists of over 99 percent natural ingredients, so it shouldn't irritate sensitive skin types. Customers love that it doesn't cause breakouts, creates a gradual, subtle tan, and doesn't have that typical gross sunless tanner smell—but instead leaves you smelling like a delicious piña colada.

Best Mist: St. Tropez Self Tan Purity Bronzing Water Face Mist

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Credit: AMAZON

St. Tropez has a cult following in the tanning world for a reason—its products are by far some of the best, and this mist might win for the easiest application. Simply mist it over your face (like you would with any face mist), and voilà—you've got a golden glow. The weightless formula is packed with hibiscus extract (known for its antioxidant properties), hydrating hyaluronic acid, and green mandarin water for a fresh, intoxicating scent. Shoppers note that it doesn't cause breakouts for those with sensitive skin, and it doesn't have an orange undertone, so gives you a more natural tan.

Best Multitasker: Vita Liberata Beauty Blur Sunless Glow

face tanner vita liberata

A sunless tanner, CC cream, and primer wrapped up in one product, this daytime tanner color corrects, blurs imperfections, and adds a natural tint to your skin. It enhances your bronze, and will also gradually deepen your skin tone even after you've washed it off for a natural-looking tan, says Goodwin. She likes to pair it with the Vita Liberata Self Tanning Anti-Age Serum (Buy It, $45, dermstore.com) for the ultimate glow. Also nice: Vita Liberata products are vegan and cruelty-free, so you can feel good about what you're putting on your body.

Best Lotion: Clarins Liquid Bronze Self Tanning

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Credit: AMAZON

With over 5,000 loves on Sephora, this lightweight milky self-tanning lotion provides a quick and easy way to get a natural-looking, bronzed effect for your face and décolleté. Plus, the formula is noncomedogenic, so it won't clog your pores or cause breakouts. One reviewer said: "I have tried a lot of self-tanners and this is by far the best self-tanner ever created. I never get any streaks or dark spots and I use it on my face, neck, and body. The tan starts off subtle, but you can get it as deep as you want by applying several days in a row. My color lasts for 5-6 days without having to touch up, but it doesn't wear off leaving splotches like some self-tanners do."

Best Gel: Sephora Collection Gradual Self-Tanning Face Gel

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Credit: SEPHORA

Lightweight and easy to apply, this gel leaves your face with a sun-kissed tan. It has natural DHA, which is what gives the tan its color, as well as natural rose floral water to moisturize and soothe skin. As an added bonus, an impressive 95 percent of the ingredients in the formula are natural. One happy customer shared that it not only gave her a subtle, natural-looking glow after 3-4 days of use, but the color also didn't annoyingly gather in the lines and wrinkles of her face.

Best Wipes: Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Glow Pad

Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta Gradual Glow Pad Self-Tanner for Face
Credit: Dermstore

These wipes improve the appearance and texture of your skin—all while providing a just-back-from-the-beach glow. They contain vitamin D, DHA, and soy proteins to deliver color, and alpha and beta hydroxy acids to clear skin, minimize blackheads, and reduce scars. Reviewers swear by the wipes for a natural, non-orange tan and advise following the instructions and using them in circular motions.

Best Option with SPF: SuperGoop! Healthy Glow Sunless Tan

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Credit: SEPHORA

A hybrid sunless tanner and sunscreen in one, this should be your go-to if you're looking to nail a glow and prevent damage from UV rays. Made with moisturizing vitamins E and B5, the buildable formula also contains SPF 40 to protect you from the sun. Multiple shoppers praise it for being a miracle for sensitive skin (it won't break you out!) and that it moisturizes while providing color that doesn't look fake at all.