Self-Tanning Tips for Beginners: How to Get a Flawless Fake Tan

Once you master all the tricks to get that perfect fake tan without any streaks and uneven patches, self-tanning will soon become your go-to beauty secret for a perfect complexion.

July 4, 2022 7 minutes read
Stunning tanned woman

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Come summer, we all strive for that sun-kissed, tanned complexion, giving the skin a natural glow and making the body look more toned. Surely, sunbathing is one way to achieve this, but exposure to sunlight also leads to premature skin aging and sometimes melanoma. Self-tanning creams and lotions are a great substitute for sunbathing or tanning beds because they can give you a perfect tan without risking your health – you just need to learn how to apply them properly.

Today, we'll explore how self-tanning products actually work and share a step-by-step guide to self-tanning for beginners to get a tan that looks more natural and lasts longer.

So, How Exactly Does Self-Tanning Lotion Work?

Self-tanning products, or self-tanners, are usually sold as lotions, mousses, serums, oils, and sprays for topical application. The active ingredient in most sunless tanning products is a simple sugar called dihydroxyacetone, or DHA for short. It's usually derived from sugar cane and sometimes from fermented glycerin.

When applied to the skin, DHA reacts with dead skin cells in the surface layer of the skin to temporarily darken the skin and mimic a tan just a few hours after application. Bear in mind that the key word here is temporary as your skin's top layer sheds every day. So, to keep your fake tan even, you'll have to reapply your self-tanner more frequently and before your tan starts fading, and maintain your moisturizing routine spot-on.

And most importantly – as most of you might be wondering – self-tanning lotions are safe to use and don't pose any health risks [source]. But, of course, it's crucial to follow the instructions on your product and avoid contact with your eyes, mouth, and nose as DHA can potentially irritate mucous membranes. For that reason, you should also avoid using a self-tanner when breastfeeding (or at least, avoid applying it to your breast and chest area).

Choosing the Right Type of Self-Tanner

spray and lotion self-tanning products

Before getting into the application method, it's vital to choose the right self-tanning product for your skin tone and type. First, you need to choose the right shade of your self-tanner and decide whether you want gradual or fast tanning.

For example, if you have very light skin, make sure you choose one shade darker tanner and build up your tan slowly and gradually. On the other hand, if you have an olive complexion, you can select creams up to two shades darker than your skin tone and darken more intensely and quickly.

Besides picking the right shade, there are also different types of self-tanners to choose from, such as sprays, mousses, oils, lotions, and serums:

Beginner's Self-Tanning Tips: Step-by-Step Guide

woman applying a spray self-tanner onto a tanning mitt

For a longer-lasting result, and above all, an even coverage, follow these self-tanning tips step by step:

Step #1: Shave or Wax

If you need a wax, it would be best to do it before applying a self-tanner, as hair removal, be it shaving or waxing, slightly exfoliates your skin as well, removing the dead skin cells from the top layer of your skin. As a result, waxing can also remove your fake tan and lead to an uneven complexion.

However, shave or wax at least 24 hours before applying a self-tanner. This is because you may accidentally cut or damage your skin, and self-tanning products shouldn't be applied to irritated skin and open wounds. So wax or shave, let your skin rest and heal for a day, and then use a self-tanner.

Step #2: Exfoliate

Exfoliating your face and body is a must-do part of the prep process for a better effect of your self-tanning product and even application. After peeling, the skin will be softer and absorb the tanning cream better. Plus, exfoliating will remove any excess dry, dead skin cells from your skin's top layer, allowing the self-tanner to absorb evenly without leaving any dark patches behind.

So, use a gentle exfoliator or scrub on your face and body, but choose lightweight, oil-free products. Oils act as a barrier, and if you leave any oil residue on your skin, self-tanner won't be able to penetrate those areas. So, exfoliate using AHAs or BHAs or oil-free scrubs and thoroughly rinse off the exfoliator. If you do end up using a product with oil in it, shower before self-tanning, using a gentle body wash and a face cleanser.

Step #3: Moisturize

After peeling and showering, and before applying the self-tanner, pat your skin dry and apply a lightweight moisturizer or body lotion. Pay special attention to the parts of the body where stains could form, like any lines or creases, joints, elbows, and heels. This way, you'll prevent the tan from getting into those creases and dry areas and ensure it turns out even and natural. And let it sit for at least 30 minutes until fully absorbed before you start applying the self-tanner.

Step #4: Self Tan

Finally, after you've finished prepping your skin, it's time to get into it. Start by sectioning, and apply the self-tanner to your face first, then move onto your legs, arms, and torso. Apply a small amount and rub the self-tanner into your skin using circular motions.

Face: When self-tanning your face, don't skip the under eyes, eyelids, hairline, and ears. You can always mix the self-tanner with your face moisturizer if you're afraid to go full-on. Drizzle excess tanner with cotton wool, and be careful not to stain your eyebrows.

Extra tip: After applying the self-tanner to your face, use a clean toothbrush or a wet wipe to clean your eyebrows and hairline to avoid staining them with the product.

Legs: Once you're done with your face, go onto your legs, then arms, and so on. Apply a small amount on a tanning glove (we recommend using gloves to avoid staining your palms and in-between your fingers) and rub it into the skin. For example, if you're starting with your legs, apply the self-tanner to your shins and calves first. Then, use whatever is left on the glove to go over your knees, ankles, and feet, avoiding the bottom of your feet.

Arms: The same applies when self-tanning your arms. For a natural-looking tan, you should lightly extend the product from your forearms to your wrists and hands as well as elbows. Once you're done, dilute the tanner on the elbows and knees by gently rubbing the area with a damp cloth or applying some more body lotion on top of the tanner.

Torso and back: Finally, go onto your torso and back. Apply the self-tanner onto your belly, then the chest area, and blend onto your neck with the product left on your mitt. The back is a bit trickier, but it can be done; you can either use a spray tanner or simply flip the tanning mitt over your shoulders and rub the back by pulling the mitt from one side to the other.

Step #5: Correct the Mistakes

Haven't mastered your self-tanning skills just yet? No problem, there's a way to clean up your mistakes – and mistakes are bound to happen if this is your first time applying a self-tanner.

Simply keep baby wipes, cleansing wipes, or a damp towel or a washcloth close by to wipe off the self-tanner from all the places it doesn't belong. If you still see dark patches and streaks after your first shower, use an exfoliating mitt and gently exfoliate the area to even out the color.

Step #6: Let It Dry

After the self-tanning part is over, give it some time to develop and fully dry before putting on your clothes. Also, to avoid patchiness, you should skip exercising and showering for the next eight hours or so, as sweat and water can dilute the tanner and make it streaky and patchy. For this reason, it's best to self-tan in the evening before going to bed and let it do its magic overnight undisturbed.

Step #7: Wear Black

No matter how long you let it dry, the tan will always transfer onto your clothes and sheets to some extent. Therefore, get yourself tanning-dedicated black pajamas and black, or dark brown, bed sheets.

Will Self-Tanning Lotion Protect Me From Sunburn?

woman at a beach holding sunscreen

DHA or dihydroxyacetone in self-tanners doesn't influence the melanin production in your skin. Melanin is a dark brown pigment in the skin produced by the skin cells called melanocytes. When exposed to sunlight, the melanocytes in the deeper layers of the epidermis produce melanin to protect the skin from further sun damage. In addition, self-tanning products don't contain any UV filters, and they can't protect you from the harmful effects of the sun.

Therefore, always wear sunscreen, no matter if you're tanned or not, and make sure to use those with an SPF of at least 30. Also, choose broad-spectrum sunscreens, covering both UVB and UVA rays, that are water-resistant in addition.

How Often Should You Self-Tan

So how long can you rely on your fake tan? Well, it all depends on the type of product you used, your skin type, and how meticulous you were with prepping your skin before the application. If your skin is naturally darker and you used a more concentrated self-tanner, it should last a bit longer. On the other hand, if your skin is dry, it will shed more quickly; therefore, your fake tan will not last as long.

However, you can apply it daily, and it's even recommended in the beginning until you reach the desired shade of your tan. Once you get where you want to be, applying it once or twice a week would be enough to maintain the color.


If you want a tan without exposing yourself to harmful UV rays, opt for self-tanning products and give your skin that natural, sun-kissed glow without risking your health. If you've never self-tanned before, follow our self-tanning tips for beginners, and your fake tan will turn out smooth and even, without any orange spots, dark stains, or streaks.

If you still somehow end up with dark and uneven patches on your skin – wipe, exfoliate, and spot-moisturize – a trio that always works. However, try not to rub or scrub too harshly, as aggressive rubbing can cause irritation and inflammation. If you mess up pretty badly, just let your skin do its thing – it will shed and gradually get rid of the tan by itself.


Should you moisturize before fake tanning?

Yes, you should apply a lightweight but nourishing moisturizer before fake tanning. However, give your skin time to absorb the moisturizer fully before using the tanning product. This is because the moisturizer acts as a barrier, preventing the self-tanner from getting to your skin.

How many days in advance should you fake tan?

If your skin tone is fair, you might need several tanning sessions until you reach the desired tan intensity. Plus, if you're fake tanning for your wedding, you'll need to give it some time to settle to avoid dark stains on your dress. So, to ensure everything goes fine, fake tan ten to seven days before your big day.

How do you prep for a fake tan?

The two essential prep steps are shaving (or waxing) and exfoliating. Hair removal also removes the dead skin cells from your skin. Therefore, it would be best to do it a day before fake tanning. Also, exfoliating your skin right before will create an even base and allow the formula to adhere uniformly.

How long should I wait to put clothes on after self-tanning?

Before putting your clothes on, wait 15 minutes to allow the self-tan to dry entirely and settle. Still, there's no guarantee there won't be any color transfer - so it would be best to do it before going to bed and wear black pajamas.

Should you fake tan your face?

You shouldn't skip tanning your face if you want a natural tanned look. However, to make it easier for you, mix the tanning product with your face moisturizer or use lightweight formulas, such as tanning serums.

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