10 Best Sunless Self-Tanners for Summer 2020 on Amazon
Get your golden summer glow without the skin cancer risks with these budget-friendly self-tanners on Amazon.
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Self tans for bronzed, glowing skin
“As a teenager, I desperately wanted a golden tan but as a pale blond, that definitely wasn’t going to happen naturally. So I did what lots of girls my age did: I would lay out in the sun for hours and used indoor tanning beds regularly,” says Lacey Adams, wife of U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, MD, and advocate for skin cancer awareness. “I just wanted a ‘healthy glow,’ a phrase that makes me want to scream because now, as an adult, I’ve had melanoma, not once, but twice.” (This is just how bad tanning is.)
After receiving surgery and immunotherapy treatment, Adams is now cancer-free and she wants everyone to know that there are much safer options for getting that bronzed, glowy look. “I still love the sun-kissed look so self tans are my best friend now,” she says. (Try these amazing tricks to get naturally glowing skin.)
What are self-tanners?
Sunless self-tanning products are creams, lotions, or sprays that use chemicals and colorants to temporarily dye your skin to look tanned but without the UV damage and skin cancer risk of a real tan, says Todd Minars, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Miami School of Medicine. (Here are 50 skin cancer facts dermatologists want you to know.) You can get a professional spray tan or use one of the many over-the-counter options. Note: These do not include risky and unapproved pills or injections that claim to permanently change skin color.
DHA in self-tanning products
Dihydroxyacetone (DHA) is the main active ingredient in most self-tanning products, Dr. Minars says. It’s a sugar—either derived from sugar cane or sugar beets or synthetically made—that reacts with amino acids in the top layer of your skin. This reaction produces a brownish pigment (called melanoidins) that gives you that “tan” color. The effect typically lasts one to seven days, depending on the formulation and how much your skin is exposed to water, soap, and other elements.
You may see some products listed as “tinted” rather than tanners and be confused about which one you need. It depends on what kind of results you’re looking for—tints are subtle changes of just a shade or two, while tanning formulations can be quite dark, Dr. Minars says. The only difference is the amount of DHA—that’s what determines the time to show results and the intensity, which means tinting is more gradual, he explains.
Using self-tanning products to lower your risk of skin cancer
The main benefit of self-tanners is reducing your risk of getting skin cancer from the UV rays in conventional tanning or tanning beds. “Over-the-counter sunless tanning creams and lotions are a good option for those who want to have the look of tanned skin while avoiding the health risks of tanning,” the Surgeon General says.
Dr. Adams adds that you only get these safety benefits if you use them in place of getting a traditional tan. Unfortunately, several studies have found that many people use self-tanners while also continuing to tan outdoors or in tanning beds which defeats the purpose, he explains. (These are the 8 ways your body changes after one sunburn.)
Sunscreen is a must with self-tanners
This may be because people erroneously believe that the tanners themselves provide sun protection, Dr. Minars says. “It’s a common health myth that any type of tan (fake or real) will protect you from skin cancer. That’s not true and you should always be using sunscreen with your self-tanner,” he explains, adding that tanning solution will not interfere with or reduce the effectiveness of the sunscreen. (These are the skin cancer myths you need to stop believing.)
“There are combination products out there that have both self-tanners and topical SPF together, which can be nice for those who want only one product,” he says. “Personally, I would recommend two separate products because I advise people to reapply sunscreen every two hours and I don’t believe you’d also want that much self-tanner throughout the day.”
Are self-tanning products safe?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved DHA in 1977 for topical use and it is generally recognized as being safe when used on skin. “Over the course of my 20 years in practice, I have not seen a single bad reaction to these products,” Dr. Minars says. “That doesn’t mean it can’t happen, just that it isn’t that common. Any product, whether topical or otherwise, can cause an unpredictable allergic reaction or irritation which is why it’s wise to try a small patch test on your wrist before trying a new product.” If you have sensitive or reactive skin, pick a formula with a short ingredient list, avoiding added fragrances or colorants beyond the DHA, he says.
While the Surgeon General says creams and lotions are safe, his skin cancer report cautions against spray tans. DHA may cause problems when inhaled and, as he points out, “when you’re in a spray tanning booth, inhalation is usually unavoidable.”
Bottom line: Self-tanning products can be a safe alternative to tanning if you apply them properly, stay away from sprays (especially in enclosed areas), wear them with sunscreen, and avoid sun tanning. To help you, we’ve rounded up the best sunless self-tanners to try.
The price, buildable color, and streak-free results have earned this easy-to-use tanner a permanent place in many people’s bathroom cabinets, regardless of the season. The mousse is tinted so you can see exactly where you’ve applied it, reducing your chances of embarrassing streaks or, say, missing the entire back of your thigh. And it’s fast, drying in just 60 seconds. (Got sun damage? These are the 6 foods that will repair and protect your skin.)
There’s a reason that St. Tropez has been the standard in self-tanning for years. Devotees swear it’s worth every cent for its realistic-looking color (no orange Oompa Loompa shade) and durability, saying it doesn’t rub off on white t-shirts or sheets. It isn’t the quickest or the easiest to apply but the results are worth the extra time it takes. (Try these 15 summer foods for gorgeous, glowing skin.)
When all you need is a simple, no-frills self-tanner, you can’t beat Banana Boat. It gives a natural-looking color and is as easy to apply as smoothing on lotion. Bonus: It’s safe for reefs so you can wear it in the ocean without worrying about damaging the ecosystem. (On that note, here are some reef-safe sunscreens you can also try.)
Best natural-ingredients option
No one wants to trade in one health risk (skin cancer) for another by slathering on harsh chemicals. This tanner promises no parabens or phthalates and includes organic shea butter, organic coconut oil, and green tea. While it still uses DHA as the active ingredient, it says its DHA is sourced from sugar cane rather than manufactured synthetically.
Best for sensitive skin
Tired of orange palms? Plus, no more bacne in your bikini! This mist formulation gives you an even tan without ever having to touch the product with your hands. It’s specifically designed for people with sensitive, dry, or acne-prone skin to prevent rashes, stinging, and breakouts.
One of the biggest cons of using a self-tanner is the pungent chemical smell many formulations have. It can be eye-watering when you put it on and can linger on skin even after showering. This self-tanner, however, gets rave reviews for its light, pleasant scent that disappears after the first wash. It also provides a dark, even color with just one coat. Note: You will definitely want to take your time and wear a mitt as this one has the potential to really stain clothing and hands. (Add these steps to your morning skin-care routine for glowing skin.)
Best drugstore option
Need a quick, affordable option that you can pick up almost anywhere? This tanner is easy-to-use, provides consistent results, and is stocked everywhere from Wal-Mart to Walgreens. The “water” formula comes out clear and thin, unlike other goopy self-tanners, making it easier to smooth on. People rave about the beachy coconut scent. (Here’s how you can make your skin naturally glow.)
For people in a hurry
Self-tanning can be quite messy, especially if you’re new to the process. Keep things quick and simple with these towelettes that come with the tanner pre-applied. All you need to do is rub them on your skin and throw them away when you’re finished. They’re also great for people who have a base self-tan and just need a quick touch up before hitting the beach. (Beware of the scary diseases you could catch at the beach.)
For people who want just a little color
This multitasking cream not only provides a natural-looking tan but it also comes infused with collagen and elastin to help skin look more firm and supple. The color isn’t as dark as many self-tanners, allowing for more shade control, a benefit for people who are new to self-tanning or are worried about looking “fake.” One coat gives you a subtle warm glow; two to three coats will give you a light tan. (Also, check out these 10 face sunscreens you wouldn’t mind wearing every day.)
For people who want an ultra-dark tan
Whether you have naturally darker skin that you’d like to enhance, going for a bold look, or you’re prepping for a bodybuilding show, this tanning mousse promises one of the darkest tans available in a bottle. Users rave that unlike other popular “dark” tanners, it doesn’t have orange undertones, isn’t sticky, and won’t ruin clothing. (Here are 17 skin-care tips dermatologists follow themselves.)
- Jerome Adams, MD, US Surgeon General and advocate for skin cancer awareness
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: "Sunless Tanners & Bronzers"
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: "The Surgeon General's Call to Action to Prevent Skin Cancer"
- Todd Minars, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Miami School of Medicine