Self Tanning for Absolute Beginners

Summer is here! And if you’re like me, you’re a little less excited about putting your pale limbs on display to the world. Shorts, sleeveless tops and , swimsuits are all necessities to meeting the hot, steamy days of summer. Well, allow me to help you put those fears to rest. I’m going to share with you some very basic, no nonsense tips and product recommendations to help with self tanning for absolute beginners.

Yes, summertime IS awesome. And what’s not to love really? The trees have all leafed out. The bees are buzzing. The delicious aroma of a nearby cookout wafting through the air. Yep, all good stuff. But after having spent the last 7 months mostly indoors and in layers of sweaters, the thought of exposing my paleness to the world makes me want to run back inside. Fellow upper Midwesterners, you know what I’m talking about! For the others, here’s a cute article on Buzzfeed that illustrates my point perfectly.

But here’s the thing, we don’t have to hide. So assuming you haven’t been living under a rock and know that sunbeds or sitting in the sun shouldn’t be even a remote option, you really need to get on board with self tanners.

I admit I’m not the first resource on how to work a self tanner. Advice on this topic are everywhere, but what I’d like to do is break it down to the absolute basics. Specifically, what’s been working for me.




Step one in this process is something you may have read a million times and I’m going to say it here again. You MUST exfoliate. Get all that dead skin off first before doing anything. Why? Because self tanner adheres to old, dead skin a LOT. And you will end up with very patchy results. Worse yet, when the tan wears off, it’ll wear off unevenly too. It’ll be a mess. Trust me.

So here is what I keep in my shower at all times. You don’t have to go out and spend a crazy amount of money on fancy sugar/salt scrubs or expensive loofahs. I’ve had very good results with this little beauty. It’s the Buf-puf Body Sponge . It’s my favorite. I have a hard time finding this in the stores so online seems to be the way to find it. Walgreens has them too.  It has two sides for gentle or extra, depending on what you need.

Another money saving recommendation are the super effective In Shower Exfoliating Gloves. They work really well, are super flexible and easy to use. They also last a very long time. Using these methods you’d be on your 6th jar of sugar scrub before having to replace just one these sponges or gloves.


Some say moisturize before applying the tanner. I disagree. If you do the exfoliation before hand, your skin should be smooth enough for the tanner to go on evenly.  Unless of course you have crazy dry skin all over. Then by all means, you do you. Just keep it light. You don’t want to create a film barrier that would keep the tanner from getting in there.

Another exception to the moisturizing recommendation is that you might want to apply some lightly to areas such as elbow heals and knees. Those areas tend to be naturally dry and tend to collect the most tanner.


For years I had been applying tanner with my hands, being careful to wash really well afterwards. Despite that and after getting tired of brown fingernails, I started to use plastic gloves. Those worked well but could get a little clumsy and more prone to streaking. Until I discovered the hand mitt, and I’ve never looked back.

A Self Tanner Applicator Mitt has been a game changer in terms of both speed and accuracy when applying tanner. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Seriously. Whether you use foam, gel or lotion, this little baby will get you covered just fine. You will want to replace it every few months. I guess that depends on how often you use it. But seriously. Get this. Get it now.


Lastly, as important the other steps are when getting a perfect self tan, you definitely need to find the right formula for you.

As I’m sure you know, there are absolutely loads of self tanner options out there. However, your skin tone matters quite a lot. Ghost like complexions such as mine need to stay away from words like “dark” or “deep”, as it can be too much too soon. When you’re pale, you’re better off darkening your tan with repeated applications. The results will be more natural.  Darker skin tones may sometimes have the problem of the tanner not showing up enough. I can’t speak much for that problem, but again, layering is the way to go.

Now, for me, I’m all about it being a quick application, a natural looking color and paraben free. And with so many options out there, you’d think this would be an easy to hit list. But let me tell you. It’s not.

I have many years of trying a ton of different tanners, and here is my list of the favorites at 3 price points.


My current favorite in the drugstore category is L’Oreal Sublime Bronze Tinted Lotion in Medium. It has a slight tint that helps you see where you’re putting it, dries super fast without a strong odor, and if you use your glove, the application will turn out even and beautiful. Grab this one for it’s availability and affordability.


For a few bucks more, you can get this one from Paula’s Choice. It’s the SUN 365 Self-Tanning Foam  and I love it a bit more than the L’Oréal. This dries even faster, has very little scent to it and you get a lot of color payoff with the first application. But not so much that it looks unnatural. For speedy convenience without the need for repeated applications, this one is a true winner. Grab this one if you need to get the job done fast.


Okay, so perhaps I’ve lost my mind for paying this much for a self tanner, but I can honestly say this is by far THE best self tanner out there. Hands down. In my humble opinion. It is the St. Tropez Self Tan Express Bronzing Mousse  My daughter started to self tan last year with somewhat unfortunate results. This product is fool proof. Absolutely mistake free. If you’ve been a bit clumsy with tanners in the past, you cannot go wrong with this. It has a distinct color guide, low odor and dries fast. But what sets this apart from all the others is that you rinse it off after 1-3 hours. You control how deep you want your tan. For me, I put it on after dinner and rinse it off before bed. The big love happens in the morning when I have a great tan with one application, and not a trace of color on my white bed sheets!  How cool is that?!


Self tanning is a tricky undertaking indeed. But by now I don’t have to tell you why it’s so much preferable to the direct sun alternative. With so many options out there, I hope my long road of hits and misses will save you some time narrowing down what might work for you. We pale skinned folks need to stick together!



Photo by Ethan Robertson on Unsplash
Ethan Robertson


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