The Best Self Tanners for Fair Skin + My Current Routine
I'm the girl who's mostly Greek & Italian, and somehow ended up with fair skin and freckles from the little bit of Irish in me. Self tanner has been a staple in my routine for 15+ years; I've tried so many products, including just about every cult favorite, and have finally landed on the best self tanners for fair skin.
Over the years, I've found a routine that works for me and allows me to keep an even, lasting tan from week to week. Sharing how my self tanning routine breaks down, my current favorite tanners and a few self tanning hacks for the perfect tan!
My Self Tanning Routine
I typically tan my body 1-2x per week, depending on time of year, if I have an event, etc. I usually like to start my routine mid-week (Wednesday or Thursday) so I have a nice tan for the weekend that will slowly fade by the middle of the following week. I follow this very loosely of course, depending on my schedule, but I've found that days 1-3 of a fresh tan are always when I feel best!
To start my routine, I shower, exfoliate and shave a few hours prior to tanning. Waiting a few hours is key so the pores on my legs have a chance to fully close up. If you self-tan immediately after shaving, your skin can react to the ingredients in your self tanner, creating a similar rash to razor burn. Additionally, your self tanner can "cling" to your open pores, causing that strawberry legs-look.
PS - If you suffer from razor burn or strawberry legs, try this shave cream.
I love Mario Badescu's Coconut Exfoliating Scrub (smells amazing) and especially when I'm exfoliating to remove self tanner from the week prior, I'll use an exfoliating mitt which helps to remove any dead skin + leftover tanner. As for shaving, I've tried a handful of razor subscriptions over the past few years, and Athena Club has been gentlest on my sensitive skin.
Right before you tan, you'll need a hydrating lotion to prep areas prone to dryness like knees, elbows and ankles. My top choice is Nécessaire's Fragrance Free Body Lotion. Will share more details about this step below!
In the past, I would tan my face with my leftover self-tanner after tanning my body. While this worked for me, I recommend using a self-tanner specifically formulated for my face which I've actually come to prefer since many also contain skincare ingredients.
The more product you use, the darker your tan will develop. I usually mix about 5 drops of product in with a light moisturizer or serum and rub it in, making sure to cover all areas of my face down to my neck. There are a lot of products out there that either feel like you have nothing on your face, or feel like you have way too much.+Lux Unfiltered's N°12 Bronzing Face Drops is my favorite product out there for the most natural, sunkissed glow.
I usually apply 1-2x a week on my face. My favorite product to supplement your glow in-between tanning is Drunk Elephant's Sunshine Drops. I mix 1-2 drops in with my primer; it gives the most beautiful glow while also delivering skincare ingredients that defend against pollution and environmental stressors.
When it comes to the best self tanners for fair skin, I have a few favorites in my rotation. These self tanners have all of the qualities you look for: natural ingredients, natural color, mild or pleasant smell, smooth application, lasting color and an even fade. The best self tanners for fair skin also tend to contain either brown or green undertones, so always be on the lookout for those!
See a tutorial of how I apply here!
Dolce Glow by Isabel Alysa is brand new to my routine and when I first tried it, it immediately moved to the top of my list. It was founded by one of the most in-demand tanning artists for celebs, and with Miley Cyrus as one of the brand's investors, it quickly became popular.
So far, this self tanner ranks the highest of my favorites. It applies buttery smooth and very even and dries incredibly quick...but not too quick that you have to work at light speed. Given some of my other favorites I'll share below, I'm a little spoiled in the smell category which is why I ranked that a 4/5. It's a smidge more potent than the other formulas, but still...a near-perfect score.
The formula is nice and dark after one application and I love how smooth the appearance of my skin is. Self tanner can sometimes cling to dry spots, freckles, pores and this has one of the smoothest appearances. It's also vegan & cruelty free.
+Lux Unfiltered N°36 is newer to my routine, having just been released in Spring 2023. I use a few other favorites from this brand, so I was excited to try the tanning mousse and it does not dissapoint.
The only reason I may not recommend this self tanner to a true beginner is because of how quickly it dries. You definitely need to work fast when applying, and make sure to buff out the formula before it sets. Totally doable, especially for someone who is used to self tanning, but worth noting.
Getting really picky here, this one rates 4/5 on duration and fade for me, personally. I find that I have to exfoliate a day or two before with this one, compared to some of the other self tanners I use. The blood orange smell is really pleasant and barely there, and the color is nice & dark! It's also non-toxic, vegan & cruelty free.
From the smell (fresh - but not overwhelming - coconut) to the even fade (I don't even have to exfoliate with this), it's an incredible product all-around. The only category I knocked half a point from was the color - and by color here, I'm talking about darkness. The color itself is a gorgeous bronze, but I do wish the ultra dark was a tad darker. Sometimes, I'll apply a back-to-back coat with this one to deepen the shade.
Tan Again is made with natural ingredients and Eco-Ceritfied DHA, and is also cruelty free.
Last but certainly not least is Austrialian-made Elle Effect tanning mousse by @elle_ferguson. She was one of the first people I followed on Instagram waaay back in the day, and the one thing that always stood out to me was her flawless tan. When she launched her self tanning line, I couldn't' get my hands on it fast enough.
Similar to the +Lux Unfiltered, I would recommend this to someone who has a little self tanning experience under their belt. It's another quick drying formula that you have to work quickly with. It comes in one universal shade which may not be suitable for everyone given that it's a darker formula, however, it works for my fair skin and gives me a toasted bronzy look.
It has a mild rose scent, which doesn't bother me at all. Also similar to the Lux, the fade is near-pefect...but not perfect. It's also vegan, cruelty-free and scented with real rose oil.
What happened to St. Tropez?
If you've been around for a minute, you know that St. Tropez was my ride or die self tanning brand for many, many years. Their limited edition St. Tropez x Ashley Graham was a favorite but unfortunately, as a limited release, all good things must come to an end.
St. Tropez reformulated a sister product, the Luxe Whipped Creme Bronzing Mousse, and while it was nearly identical to the other version, they also reformulated the smell. So sad to say that the fragrance was so potent on this, that I immediately had to leave it behind. Some people don't mind the smell, but I'm a smell minimalist over here and it was just way too much for me. I hope one day they'll rework the product, because it's been so sad to let this brand go!
I like to call these my self tan "supplements"; products that enhance and/or help prolong your tan as it wears throughout the week. The best part? You can totally use these without self tanner, too!
If you're looking for an extra bronzy-glow or a little bit of a blurring skin filter, try Lux Unfiltered's N°10 Blurring Body Glow. This is an instant color that washes off and won't transfer. Perfect compliment to any skin tone, too. Runners up are The Tint by The Elle Effect (darker than the N°10 but not as glowy) and Vita Liberata's Body Blur (I was one of the first to test the new & improved formula and it it's amazing).
Glow oils are also a great option and my favorite especially for areas like shoulders and chest. Summer Friday's has a great one and Kopari just released a new version of their Coconut Body Glow (another long-time favorite), now with SPF 50.
Also see: Quick Tips for Self Tanning
Foolproof tips for a flawless, even tan
+ Moisturizer acts as a barrier between your skin and your self tanner, and will dilute the color of your tan. In order to prevent your self tanner from soaking in too much on the drier areas of your body, make sure to moisturize the following areas: hands with a focus on knuckles, inner wrists, elbows, knees and feet with a focus on heels. Don't moisturize all at once! Most moisturizers dry fairly quickly, and if you apply your moisturizer to your entire body, by the time you've worked your way up to your top half, it will be too dry (read more application tips here).
+ Dampen your tanning mitt prior to applying your self tanner. Think of it similar to using a wet versus a dry beauty blender to put on your makeup. The dampened mitt is going a) prevent your self tanner from soaking right up into the mitt, and b) help your self tanner to glide on more easily, without settling into dry spots.
+ Be generous with your product and work in quick, circular motions. To see a tutorial of how I apply my self tanner, visit my self tanning story highlight!
+ Use a dense brush (code DANIELLE) to blend self tanner seamlessly on tricker spots like feet or hands (also works great for face!).
+ Once you've finished tanning, clean up any excess tanner or tricky spots by applying moisturizer to a towel and gently "buffing out" the area. I like to do this especially on my inner wrists, heels, and elbows. This is a great trick to dilute the self tanner enough that it won't streak, without completely removing it. You can also leave out the towel and just re-apply a thin coat of moisturizer to those areas! Read more about the key to tanning feet/ankles in our FAQ below!
How do you clean your tanning mitt?
Warm water is key! I just use a little bit of soap and warm water (I'll sometimes bring into the shower for easy cleaning), and do my best to rinse my mitt after each application. Every month or so, I'll give it a really good clean and throw it in the wash with my towels! You can hang to dry right over your faucet handle overnight.
How do I tan my back?
Honestly, the easiest way is to have your significant other do it for you if you can! If you're on your own, you can use a back applicator (I personally find these a little difficult). My best tip though is to purchase a mister spray bottle and fill it with any liquid self tanner (Isle of Paradise is a popular brand) for those hard-to-reach spots!
My leg hair grows so fast. How do you maintain tan legs while shaving?
Oh, girl. My leg hair literally grows back every 6 hours. When I have self tanner on my legs, I'm just a little more careful about the pressure that I'm using with my razor. If you find that your self tanner fades quickly from frequent shaving, supplement by using a body glow on your legs or simply add in one extra leg application to your weekly schedule.
What's the secret to an even tan on feet and ankles?
I start my legs by tanning from my ankles up. Once I've finished my entire leg, without adding any new tanner to my mitt I then apply to my feet and ankles, making sure to cover every area (yes, even in between toes). Here's the key: go back in with your moisturizer after this step and apply it all over your entire foot. Moisturizer dilutes self tanner, so this will help to give you a natural, even tan that's not splotchy while still leaving some color behind. I swear by this method! You don't need a lot, just a thin coat.
How do you avoid a self tanner drying out your skin?
Most self tanners these days contain some type of moisturizing ingredient. That said, with quick-drying formulas, you can sometimes feel like your skin is extra dry from a self-tanner. It's so important to moisturize with a really hydrating moisturizer after you rinse your self tanner off! Mario Badescu's Coconut Body Butter is my absolute favorite (while I love the Nécessaire for everyday, this one definitely locks in more moisture for tanning days).
How can I avoid getting self tanner on my white sheets if I'm tanning at night?
I almost always tan at night and of course, my entire bed is white. Getting a little tanner on your sheets is inevitable, so I will either a) sleep in a loose long-sleeve and pants or b) use a spare black sheet set and sleep with the topsheet and the pillow case if it's warmer and I want to sleep in shorts and a tee. This is a great hack to avoid having to replace your sheets entirely and you can simply throw the black sheets in the wash the next day!
Are there any absolute no-no's when it comes to self tanning?
+ Don't ever skip applying lotion on feet/ankles, knees, elbows and wrists
+ When washing off your tan the next day, avoid any exfoliating scrubs or loofahs to keep your color intact
+ Always remember to give your tan a quick look in the mirror after you're done (you'd be surprised at how easy it is to miss spots even when you think you've been thorough!)
+ Don't wear white or light colors if you're tanning during the day and have any chance of sweating (it will always wash out, but it's just more of a pain than anything else)
+ Don't forget to wash your mitt to avoid a splotchy tan
+ Don't sweat it if you don't have a perfect tan or need to fix an area with too much tanner! The best time to remove self tanner is at the end of a shower when your skin has had some time to soak with an exfoliating mitt and soap. You can also use a specially-formulated tan remover.