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Photo: St. Tropez

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Are Gimmicky Self Tanners Worth It?

From gradual tanning moisturizers to instant bronzing foams, we review 10 of the buzziest products on the market

Self tanners have come a long way since their orange, foamy, streaky roots. Thanks in part to innovations coming out of the UK and a desire to look natural and not smell like a huge bowl of cookie dough after using the products, self tanner brands have had to up their games to stand out in an increasingly crowded marketplace.

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While traditional foams still exist, brands have expanded their coverage ranges, have offered more gradual tanning options, and have even introduced formulas that work in or immediately before a shower.

To cut through the hype and gimmicks, we tested ten formulas, both new and classic. Two pale people with varying levels of self tanner experience here at Racked – Cheryl, a beauty editor with a fair amount of experience using at-home tanners, and Rebecca, a self tanner newbie – spent the last few weeks slathering self tanner onto every available extremity.

For consistency, we scrubbed before self tanning (for gradual self tanners we just scrubbed the first day so that we didn’t ruin all the previous day’s work) and used a tanning mitt. (Our scrubs of choice were Rituals’ Ritual of Karma body scrub and Enlite’s Pumice Rock Body Scrub, both of which were great in case you’re in the market.)

Here’s how it went and which brands and formulas we thought were stand-outs:

Versa Spa Gradual Tanning Spa Butter

As the name suggests, this is a gradual tanner, meaning that it has a lower concentration of DHA and you have to use it several times in a row to start really seeing a result. If you’re a newbie, control freak, or just don’t want to turn golden overnight, these types of formulas are great options.

This one in particular was not at all scary. It comes out as a white lotion and becomes transparent when you rub it in. It had an inoffensive, mildly floral scent and that sickly sweet DHA (the substance that makes you tan and is in every single one of these formulas) smell wasn’t there either upon application or several hours later.

I used this only on my shoulders for six days in a row to try to even out a year round farmers tan I have, thanks to an affinity for only wearing short-sleeved shirts. After six days of use I got pretty good coverage, and it lasted about six days after I stopped using it before it began to fade. I’d say this is a great formula for a beginner, but if you are impatient at all, maybe go for something a bit less timid. –Cheryl

Versa Spa Gradual Tanning Spa Butter, $40

Jergens Natural Glow Firming Daily Moisturizer

This is a classic and beloved drugstore gradual self tanner formula, which comes in two formulas, fair to medium and medium to tan. It smells like a gourmand fragrance, kind of like Thierry Mugler’s Angel. I smelled a hint of DHA a few hours later, but my husband, sitting next to me on the couch, couldn’t smell it.

I just spread the lotion on with a mitt every evening after showering and thoroughly drying off. It took me four days of using it on my legs to notice a bit of color. After a week I had a decent amount of coverage, and it lasted for about a week after that when I stopped using it. My legs are dry and flaky even in the summer so I used a lot of oil (this Nuxe dry oil is the best) every morning; I'm not sure if that helped prolong the color or helped fade it, since oil is generally a no-no when you're applying tanner. I can’t really vouch for any sort of firming effect, but it seemed to moisturize nicely upon first applying it and didn’t feel dry like some self tanners do. As far as gradual self tanners go, you really can’t beat this one, especially at the price point. –Cheryl

Jergens Natural Glow Firming Daily Moisturizer, $7.99

St. Tropez Gradual Tan In Shower

Launched last year, this was a runaway best seller for St. Tropez, which is the biggest brand in the self tanner market. (Khloé Kardashian has publicly announced her affection for it, too, so that surely has helped sales.) As the name suggests, this is a gradual self tanner that you use in the shower, which pretty much goes against every single law of self tanning. With a traditional self tanner, you apply, go to bed, and the color develops over several hours. With this one, you take a shower, apply in the shower while still wet, wait three minutes, then rinse off and dry.

This product has a learning curve. The lotion has a weird yellow, almost slimy, texture, and it didn’t foam as advertised. The first time I tried it, I stepped out of the shower after I applied it to wait out the three minutes, sitting shivering on the edge of my tub, trying to use my phone without dripping on it. The next day I stayed in the shower, and with my skin wetter, the lotion foamed up better. This is definitely the best smelling of all of the formulas I tried – it’s fresh and bracing with just a hint of DHA undertone. It comes in two shades, light and medium.

The major problem with this formula is the three minute wait time, during which you obviously have to turn off the shower. I stood there damp and cold while trying to count to 180 very slowly and imagining Khloé Kardashian in the same predicament, which made me feel slightly better about myself. After three days of this, I achieved a nice glow on my arms and torso, with no obvious DHA smell. It lasted about five days before I had to re-apply. I really don’t know why this product is more desirable than a regular gradual self tanner that you apply when you’re dry and comfortable, but the result was good. –Cheryl

St. Tropez Gradual Tan In Shower, $25

NKD SKN Pre-Shower Gradual Tan Lotion

I was pretty skeptical about the concept of a "pre-shower tan," which means that you apply the tanner and then shower. First impressions: it smells weird. The scent isn't like other self-tanners, and instead more like expired sunscreen. It is, however, easy to apply, because it's essentially lotion. Plus, I wasn't super worried about everything being perfect because I was going to jump in the shower anyway.

Though the instructions only say to wait 10 minutes, the first time I tried it, I accidentally ended up leaving it on for 20, due to the fact that I was watching a very important re-run of a TV show I don't even remember. Even then, however, the color hardly showed up, even after waiting the four-to-eight hours post-shower on the instructions.

And because I don't shower every day (sorry world, but being a woman with long hair makes showering every day a huge time waster!), I never ended up seeing any real results from this. Maybe if you're a dude who showers every five minutes, something will happen, but it never did for me! –Rebecca

Unfortunately, I had the same experience, and I shower twice a day sometimes. I tried it for a good five days in a row with very little result. –Cheryl

NKD SKN Pre Shower Gradual Tan Lotion, $19.99

James Read H20 Tan Mist

James Read, a UK-based spray tan specialist, is known for offering really interesting formulas, like Tantour, a self tanner in contour powder form and an overnight facial serum. This rosewater mist is his newest launch.

I have a love-hate relationship with this spray. It only takes a second to apply, and feels absolutely lovely, like spritzing rosewater all over your face. According to the directions, you simply spray directly on your face and neck, wait for it to dry, then apply makeup as normal.

The first time I tried it, I put on way too much, and it ended up causing weird drip lines on my neck. After I got a sense of what it would look like, I felt more comfortable spraying once or twice and then leaving for the day. Rubbing it in evenly over your face and neck with your finger tips while it’s still drying is the best way to go. It does feel slightly sticky, however, especially on the eyelids.

Although you won’t notice a difference for a few hours, once it does show up, it shows up dark. It also definitely has that self-tanner cookie dough scent. So it’s really fun and easy, but there’s no way to know if you’ve put on too much until it’s already too late.

My eyebrows are light, and there were a few times where I’d look at photos of myself taken with the face spray on and think, "Wait, when did my eyebrows turn orange?" Blondes, be careful.

The worst of these mishaps, however, was actually during my birthday party. I applied it in a super hurry, thinking, "Hey, maybe I’ll try having a tan face today!" but after hours sitting outside in 90-degree heat (and, um, drinking heavily) the tanner had somehow collected into a blotch of orange located entirely on the bridge of my nose and one half of my forehead. I had to go into the bathroom of the bar and attempt to non-soberly scrub it off; probably the last thing you want to be doing at your birthday party.

On the days when I'm feeling particularly brave (or particularly pale), I'll still use it though. I found that three sprays generally does the trick. Just beware of over-applying, because it really is not particularly easy to scrub off. –Rebecca

James Read Gradual Tan H2O Tan Mist, $31

Bondi Sands Self Tanning Mist

The first thing to know about this spray, which comes in light/medium and dark and is not a gradual formula, is to be prepared for a slight shock – this stuff is cold! When you apply, it’s darkish brown. When you rub it in, however, that color will fade. It also smells. My boyfriend, who is British, exclaimed, "Why does that smell like biscuits?" (British people call cookies "biscuits.") The cookie-dough smell is far more overpowering than any of the other self tanners I tried.

After one relatively light application on my stomach and sleeping on it overnight, I didn’t notice any difference in my skin color, which is saying a lot, considering I’m extremely pale. The good news, however, is that I wore a white tank top to bed, and it didn’t stain my shirt at all. Once I applied a second application on my stomach, I noticed small, unnatural-looking light brown circles, likely an effect of the spray, or from not rubbing it in enough.

All in all, this was my least favorite self-tanner I tried, namely because it's difficult to apply because of the imprecise mist, it smells weird, and the color looked unnatural. After a few applications, I gave up. –Rebecca

Bondi Sands Self Tanning Mist, $24

Vita Liberata Luxury Self Tan Dry Oil

This oil formula from luxe UK brand Vita Liberata is tinted for immediate coverage, contains moderate amounts of DHA for gradual tanning, and also contains SPF 50.

I shook the bottle vigorously before applying, per the instructions, then emptied about three drops onto the tanning mitt. The color of it is a pretty, almost metallic-y brown and smells like coconut cookies, but shows up on the skin in a much darker — and thankfully less metallic-y — color. Warning, however: there is definitely glitter in the formula, and it’s not not noticeable. It took a lot of rubbing with the mitt for the color to finally blend in, but after sleeping on it, I barely noticed a difference in skin tone.

I put on another layer on my arms and legs in the morning. After a few hours, the tan was definitely more noticeable, ever-so-slightly streaky (but not so much that others besides me would notice), but still — progress! Once it truly showed up hours later, I was hooked.

About a week later, I told a friend I was testing some self-tanner for work, and she replied, "I was going to say you look slightly tanner, but I assumed it was from your trip to Miami!" Which, really, should be the goal of any self tanner.

Out of all the tanners I tried, Vita Liberata is definitely the best, least smelly, and most natural-looking of the bunch. The only problems I ran into were on the crooks of my arm — the area where my forearm folds into my bicep was still completely white due to the natural crease. Pro tip: always cover that specific area in baby powder after the liquid dries. –Rebecca

Vita Liberata Luxury Self Tan Dry Oil, $54

Sally Hansen Airbrush Sun Instant Tanning Mousse

This full-on, fast-acting (Sally Hansen claims the tan develops within an hour) self tanning mousse is a new launch. As per the instructions, I exfoliated super heavily before applying, especially since it was my first time ever using a non-gradual self tanner. The product came out brown and foamy, and was easy to apply using my tanning mitt — easier than any of the others, I'd argue, since one simple pump was a good amount to spread over the bottom half of my leg. The smell was about the same level of cookie dough as the Vita Liberata.

One day after applying it on my arms and legs, I sat in a Facebook Live video for Racked in which I look like a white monster. This was also one day after my boyfriend told me my arms looked streaky. Lose-lose!

The best things I can say about this one is that its crazy easy to apply and feels nice. It also magically didn't get all over my clothes or sheets. Also, it was a lot more subtle and less orange than I would have guessed, and it comes off really easily in the shower, even without soap.

The worst thing I can say about it is that if you get one drop of water on it, even hours after it's dried, you will get weird splotchy white marks. Ditto with crossing your legs, or pretty much any contact whatsoever. The streaks are also a lot more noticeable than with any of the other self-tanners (although this could be user error), and there's definitely a minor itch factor.

I'll keep using it for certain occasions, however, because it literally only takes a second, is easy to correct, and what you see is what you get — just as long as you stand like a starfish for a few minutes after applying. –Rebecca

Sally Hansen Airbrush Sun Instant Tanning Mousse, $10.49

Madame LaLa Self Tan Mousse

This traditional self tanner foam from newish brand Madame LaLa smells like a delicious, expensive coconut macaron. It is also very powerful, so if you haven’t used a foam before, maybe don’t start with this one. I used the light shade and the next day my legs were so dark that I wore jeans on a hot day because I was embarrassed by the arm/leg mismatch.

Due to user error and lazy exfoliation, I had some dark dry patches around my knees and ankles. It took three days of a DIY baking soda, oil, and lemon juice concoction to buff it out, but I loved the look of it by day four. Also the DHA smell wasn’t overpowering, and the coconut scent lingered a bit, which is good or bad, depending on your feelings about coconut. All of this being said, the formula is straightforward to use. Definitely apply it with a mitt or your palms are going to be stained, and use a very light touch – one coat is definitely enough. –Cheryl

Madame LaLa Self Tan Mousse, $41

Bondi Sands Self Tanning Foam

While Rebecca didn’t have a great experience with Bondi Sands’ spray mist, the brand has been getting some general buzz about how good it is (including a recommendation from an English beauty editor), so I wanted to try out a more traditional formula.

It smells like pina colada, but faker and not as nice as Madame LaLa’s. The mousse spread easily and the color really was what I had hoped a light/medium self tanner would look like. I considered actually applying a second coat the following day, but opted not to. The DHA smell the next day was strong, but the color lasted a solid week. This one will make it into my quick tan rotation. –Cheryl

Bondi Sands Self Tanning Foam, $19.20

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