How to Apply Self-Tanner at Home, According to St. Tropez Skin-Finishing Expert Sophie Evans

Woman with tan arm

In high school, I loved going to my hometown’s local spa for a session in one of their tanning beds. The soft scent of coconut gave the place a tropical feel, and laying under the warm, UV rays during the cold winter months was comforting and relaxing. Now, there’s absolutely no way I’d ever step foot in a tanning salon again. Not only does the ultraviolet radiation from tanning beds lead to premature skin aging, it’s also a known carcinogen. 

Since tanning beds — and sun exposure in general — are so damaging to your skin’s health (just one indoor tanning session can increase your chances of developing melanoma by 20 percent!), I’ve completely given them up. But, that doesn’t mean my love for a sunkissed glow has gone away, too. Instead, I’ve replaced tanning beds with a hefty array of at-home tanning products. While I’ve generally nailed down a good application technique, the overall self-tanning process certainly took some getting used to. Personal experience has taught me that a poor application can mean the difference between looking like an orange cheesy puff or looking like a sun-kissed influencer jet-setting around Bora Bora. 

If your skills are more towards the former, keep reading: I tapped St. Tropez skin-finishing expert, Sophie Evans, for her most vital self-tanner tips. As a celebrity tanning artist (she has spray tanned the likes of both Elle MacPherson and Hugh Jackman during her career!), Evans knows a thing or two about getting a streak-free faux glow — regardless of the formula you use.

Self-tanner tip #1: Prepare your skin correctly. 

As with anything, preparation is absolutely vital for ensuring a favorable outcome for your tan. “Get your skin in the best possible condition before applying your self-tanner,” explains Evans. “Exfoliate [with a scrub] the day before, remove all traces of old self tanner, and make sure your skin is product-free before application.” If you’re looking for a good pre-tan exfoliator, try Fresh® Brown Sugar Body Polish ($51). The fan-favorite uses brown sugar crystals to buff away dead skin cells while jojoba hydrates the skin.

Also, plan any waxing or shaving about 24 hours prior to tanning. Technically, these two methods of hair removal can exfoliate your skin, and thus remove your bronze if done post-tan.

Self-tanner tip #2: Use the right application tools. 

Full disclosure: I’m guilty of applying self-tanner with my bare hands, and I’ve ultimately regretted it — having the right accessories to go with your self tanner of choice makes a major difference. “Use a tan applicator mitt or disposable, tight-fitting gloves to prevent unwanted staining of the palms,” explains Evans. We like the Vita Liberata® Tanning Mitt ($7). It’s extra soft, so it feels smooth against the skin; and it can be reused multiple times, so there’s no need to buy a new one after every use. To use, simply pump the formula onto the mitt and rub directly onto the skin in circular motions so the skin is covered evenly. If you do happen to get self-tanner on your palms (even with the mitt, it’s possible!), immediately rinse your hands with soapy water so that the color doesn’t adhere.

Self-tanner tip #3: Moisturize dry areas of the body before applying self-tanner. 

Dry areas of the body tend to soak up self-tanner pigment more than other areas, which can result in an uneven finish. To avoid this, apply a non-oil-based moisturizer like CeraVe® Daily Moisturizing Lotion ($11) to areas like the knees, elbows, hands, and feet before applying self tanner. (Oil-based formulas will eat away at the self-tanner and create patchiness, so select your moisturizer with caution.) 

For easy-to-stain areas — particularly your fingernails, toenails, and cuticles — Evans recommends having a pack of cleansing wipes handy to remove any excess pigment. Simply wipe down your nails, palms, and toes with the wipes post-tan to ensure a more even outcome. Try Cetaphil® Gentle Skin Cleansing Cloths ($17): they’re fragrance-free, non-comedogenic, and hypoallergenic, so even sensitive skin can use them without fear of irritation.

Self-tanner tip #4: Make sure to apply enough product with light, even strokes.

According to Evans, using too little self-tanner will result in the coating looking streaky. “Always use enough product — I cannot stress this enough!” says Evans. If using a foam, start with a golf ball-sized amount of product for each limb, using light, sweeping strokes so that it glides effortlessly over the skin and saturates the area.

While applying the self-tanner onto your skin, it’s important to remember to be gentle with your application. “Never over-rub any self-tanner. The product just needs to settle on the top layer of the skin so that the tanning agent can absorb into the skin and develop properly.” Over-rubbing, lack of product, and pulling at the skin can stop the pigment from developing evenly. Once the formula has been applied, wait until your skin feels completely dry (this should only take a minute or two!) before touching it or putting on clothing. 

Self-tanner tip #5: Never apply new layers of self-tanner on top of old layers.

While it’s tempting to simply apply self-tanner on top of last week’s payoff, don’t do it. “Don’t keep putting multiple layers of a self-tan over old layers,” warns Evans. “No matter how good the self-tan is, the skin will eventually look fake and could even result in a patchy tan that won’t fade evenly.” 

To avoid this, lightly exfoliate in between self-tan applications so the pigment fades evenly. This will ensure your skin remains even, not patchy, at all times. An exfoliator like the Tree Hut® Shea Sugar Scrub ($7) will evenly buff away an old tan, thanks to fine sugar grains, while keeping the skin hydrated with ingredients like shea nut oil. 

Self-tanner tip #6: Once the product is on, follow the instructions on the packaging. 

This may seem like common sense, but Evans says that many of us are guilty of disregarding the manufacturer’s guidelines. “If [the instructions] say not to wash for six hours, don’t!” she says. “All self-tanners are slightly different, so always read the label first.” Also, for some self-tanners, the opposite is true. You may need to wash the formula off after an hour or so, otherwise it’ll overdevelop. Look closely at the back of the bottle and be sure to follow the brand’s directions every time.


Self-tanner tip #7: Finally, lock down your glow with moisturizer and lukewarm showers. 

Once your tan has been successfully applied, strategize on how to make it last. Evans’ says to make sure your first shower after self-tanning is lukewarm and not hot. Too-hot showers can dehydrate the skin and cause skin cells to flake away faster, therefore causing your tan to fade. After showering, always be gentle with your skin — so pat (don’t rub!) your body with a towel — and hydrate the skin daily with your non-oil based moisturizer. 

If you exercise and/or swim regularly, invest in a gradual self-tanner, like the St. Tropez® Gradual Tan Classic Body Lotion ($25), which you can use after you workout or swim to boost your bronze, as sweating or chlorine can remove it. And lastly, continue to lightly exfoliate every few days with a gentle body polisher. This will ensure your tan is always fading evenly for the most convincing faux glow.

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