I don’t remember my first experience with self-tanner, but I do know I’ve been using it long enough to consider myself a faux glow pro. For fake tanner to look believable, two conditions must be met: a formula that imparts natural-looking color, and a smooth base on which to create your masterpiece (base = your skin, masterpiece = your tan). The best way to ensure your skin is perfectly primed for self-tanning? Exfoliation.
In case you’re unfamiliar, exfoliation is the act of removing dead skin cells either through a physical scrub or a chemical peel. And it’s a crucial step: Skipping exfoliation sets you up for a patchy tan job. According to New York City-based dermatologist Dennis Gross, MD, “Dead [unexfoliated] skin absorbs tanning ingredients inconsistently.” That’s because dead skin cells — which shed unevenly — are naturally drier than “fresh” skin, so they absorb more tanner. Ultimately, this results in uneven patches of color.
For this very reason, skincare brands — including Dr. Gross’s own — have created exfoliating self-tanner wipes. The anatomy of an exfoliating self-tanning wipe can vary slightly by brand, but the key components are essentially the same: a single-use, gauze-y cloth saturated in self tanner, exfoliating acids, and a host of face-friendly ingredients you’d likely find in your actual skincare.
If you’re well-versed in self-tanning products, a “tanning exfoliator” might initially seem somewhat of an oxymoron. After all, scrubs and peels are also the best way to slough an old faux tan away, lest we forget. However, in this special product category, the ingredient technology has been formulated so the tanner and exfoliator act together, not against each other, allowing for a streak-free glow. “The exfoliation removes the top layer of dead, dull skin so the tanning ingredients penetrate better — but also penetrate evenly,” Dr. Gross explains.
It’s important to remember that removing the outermost layer also increases your skin’s sensitivity to the sun, thus putting you at a higher risk for sun damage. (Another fact that bears repeating: A tan — regardless of whether it’s DHA or UVA-derived — does not give you a free pass to skip sunscreen!)
There are a scant few tanning peel pads on the market so far, but I wouldn't be surprised to see this category swell. After all, who doesn’t love a twofer product? Below, three notable trailblazers worth trying for yourself.
Dr. Dennis Gros®Alpha Beta® Glow Pad® Gradual Glow
Exfoliation type: chemical; lactic acid
“The Alpha Beta Glow Pads contain lactic acid, a naturally-occurring alpha hydroxy acid that helps speed up cell renewal, willow bark extract to clear pores and exfoliate the skin, and vitamin B to help reduce pore size,” Dr. Gross says. Sodium hyaluronate, a derivative of hyaluronic acid, quenches skin and ensures it doesn’t wither. (As someone who has dry skin, I can attest to this.)
The deepness of your tan is also customizable, depending on the number of sweeps. “For a light-looking tan, apply two swipes to your face,” suggests Dr. Gross. “Do as much as use the whole pad and you will look like you’ve been in the Caribbean for a week.” The brand also offers a choice of two shade options, including one for deeper skin tones.
M-61® PowerGlow® Peel Gradual Tan
Exfoliation type: chemical; glycolic acid (5%) and salicylic acid
A riff on the brand’s popular peel pad, this product also resurfaces skin in a flash. Our senior social media editor and fellow self-tan aficionado, Madisen, is a huge fan of these glow pads, and I wasn’t disappointed when I tried out her recommendation. I could feel the glycolic acid getting to work (tingles!) and, amazingly, I did feel like the salicylic acid may have helped purge the oily pores on my nose. There are also chamomile and lavender in the formula to help soothe skin and prevent redness and/or overdrying.
Although salicylic acid is considered safe to use while nursing, be sure to avoid applying it to areas on your body that baby may come into direct contact with or inadvertently ingest it
Tournesol® Face Soleil Self-Tanning Pads
Exfoliation type: Physical
If you’re wary of exfoliating acids over-sensitizing your skin, consider this pad. Its exfoliating power comes from the fabric’s coarsely rippled texture, which gently sweeps dead skin away. It’s also infused with a cocktail of all-star ingredients, including aloe, glycerin, green tea, magnesium, and watermelon extract. The color develops within an hour post-use — which, in my experience, is one of the speediest formulas I’ve ever tried.
Read more about self tanning:
- 8 Incredible Self-Tanners You’ll Be Slathering On All Summer
- How to Apply Self-Tanner at Home, According to St. Tropez Skin-Finishing Expert, Sophie Evans
- I’m a Makeup Artist — Here Are My Favorite Self-Tanning Techniques For Winter
Some complimentary products were provided to the author for the purpose of writing this article.
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