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The Definitive Guide To Getting (And Keeping) A Good Self-Tan


I'm not sure what you've been told about self-tanning. Maybe that it's super casual, as easy as moisturizing your body, with no consequences or responsibilities, and that it always looks good and smells normal. For the love of St. Tropez, I have no idea who told you this because as a lifelong self-tanner, this has never been my experience. Self-tanning is a lifestyle, a commitment, like jumping headlong into a relationship after the first date—and the first date wasn't even dinner, it was just drinks around the corner from your office so there was no real reason to expect it to turn into anything. DHA, the chemical that gives you the color, likes to stick around and is notoriously hard to coax into looking normal. But hey, you get a tan without going all the way to the beach. Compromises must be made.

I don't mean to dissuade you. Quite the opposite. Today I'm here to arm you with the routine you need to fake tan your way to believably bronze. It's extensive; it takes several days; you're going to need tools and you're going to need time. But do you want to be tan or not? The answer to that is totally up to you. If it's a yes, start here.

Day 0: Exfoliation

A proper self-tanning routine does not start with the tan. No, not even close. If you're looking for a "tan" and not "patchy tint that looks fine in low light and absolutely batshit in full sun" you're going to need to carve out time the day before tanning starts to fully remove all of your dead skin. You have a lot of it! Don't believe me? Try this:

First take off all of your clothes—anywhere works, but I'd suggest your bedroom. Turn on some entertainment because you're not about to hop in the shower. Before you do anything, you're going to smother you body in the True Botanicals Resurfacing Body Mask. The serum-y chemical exfoliant is life-changing if you've got KP (those little red bumpy things that aren't pimples but don't just go away when you moisturize) literally anywhere. Once you're covered, hang tight. Enjoy that entertainment you turned on (a podcast perhaps? Am fully addicted to Armchair Expert at the moment). Give it a good 10 minutes—maybe more—to soak in. When it's ready, it'll feel a little sticky to the touch, but mostly like you covered your body in hyaluronic acid.

Shower it off, maybe shave (another perfectly acceptable exfoliation step), and turn off the water. Now stop. Do not pass go; do not collect $200. The hard work is about to begin. When your body is at that crucial point between sopping wet and dry—when you've dripped most of the excess water off but you haven't gotten to the towel phase—is when the magic happens. Grab a towel, hold it tautly at both ends, and start dragging it over your limbs. Cross my heart, you will see what I mean by "You had no idea how much dead skin you really have." It'll start to pill off. Sorry but it's true!!! Gross and gratifying.

Day 1: The build-up begins

There are so many self-tan formulas on the market that I won't even try and suggest which one is right for you. I've had good luck with St. Tropez Gradual Tan Everyday Mousse and Josie Maran Liquid Gold Self-Tan Oil. My absolute favorite is the Bioderma Phytoderm Continuous Mist. Pick your poison and tint level—but whatever you do, pick a gradual formula. Jumping headlong into Finished Tan Product is the stuff of professionals. If that's what you're after get a spray tan and call it a day. You'll be happier, I promise.

Day 1 should start at least 12 hours after Day 0. Forgo the shower (if you must, make sure it's several hours earlier in the day and try your best not to moisturize) and get straight to the tan. Prime your weirdo dinosaur bits (knees, ankles, elbows) with a little bit of light moisturizer so the DHC doesn't get stuck in there and mess up the illusion. Don't over think it—this is much easier (and much more crucial) than it sounds. Then...go for it! Use whatever method your chosen formula dictates. Some sort of mitt is non-negotiable; it's the only way you won't end up with color globs and Cheeto palms. When you're done, stand naked for longer than you think is necessary. The dry-down is the easiest to screw up so don't. Touch. Anything.

This might seem like overkill, but I like to sleep on towels after I tan. Keeps the scent and any excess tint contained. For what it's worth, I don't know anyone else who does this.

Day 2-4: The build-up continues

Rinse and repeat! Rinse in the morning and repeat in the evening. Optimal color should take around three days. You'll be able to customize where you need more tan and hopefully be able to buff away any mistakes.

Day 5 and on: How long can you go without showering?

That will dictate how long the tan lasts. During my first professional spray tan, I was advised to wash the holy trinity (pits and you can imagine) and leave everything else untouched for as long as possible. A few other things I avoid: wearing jeans (specifically white ones), sweating a lot in restrictive clothing, test driving new light-colored linens. Again, I've never ruined anything, but I'm also very, very careful.

The come down

You end right where you began: with an excessive amount of exfoliation. A few self-tan erasers have popped up on the market recently, but I'd just as soon go back to that magic True Botanicals mask. Nothing has made my skin smoother. Then loofah like your life depends on it. The towel method works too. Watch all your hard work pill off onto the shower floor. Don't cry because it's over; smile because you're going to have to do it all over again tomorrow.

—Emily Ferber

Photo via ITG.

What does Glossier HQ think of self-tanning? Well, let them tell you over here.