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Best Self-Tanners: Our Editor Shares Her Go-To Favourites

Lotions, mousses, bronzing powders and more!

Confession: I'm a former tanorexic. Unlike many Chinese women (including my family members), I love being tan and crave that dark, bronzed look year-round (but particularly in the summer).

Since quitting tanning beds (and for good reason), I have resorted to self-tanning products to give my skin a bit of colour. And believe me when I say I've tried a lot of products and experienced my fair share of self-tanning horror stories:

Yes, that is the outline of my body after sleeping in shorts and a tank on a hot summer night after using self-tanner. Womp.

So to help you avoid my self-tanning disasters (one of which included my legs being significantly darker than the rest of my body), I've rounded up my product picks for all of your bronzing needs and concerns, including develop time, tanners with bronzers and "tan life" (in other words, how many days it will last).

You'll notice I've only included two brands, Vita Liberata and St. Tropez, as those are the most popular of the bunch and the only two I have tried that really worked for me. Both use the tanning agent dihydroxyacetone (DHA), which reacts chemically with the amino acids found in your top layer of skin, mimicking your skin's darker pigment. Each brand uses its own special blend of DHA to give you a natural-looking tan, rather than that dreaded orange hue.

Personally, I'm a big fan of Vita Liberata as it uses natural and certified organic extracts and is free from parabens, perfume and alcohol, however, St. Tropez's colour payoff is quite good.

Some general tips to keep in mind before self-tanning:

  • Always do a patch test 24 hours before using, in case you're allergic to the ingredients.
  • Exfoliate before application (that way you won't get any uneven streaks)
  • Avoid using a moisturizing shower gel or soap.
  • Apply using a mitt on clean, dry skin (again, no added moisturizers, other than a bit on your knuckles, knees, elbows, wrists, hands and feet — all areas that are prone to absorbing more product).

Develop time: Up to three hours

Tinted: Yes

Tan life: Four to seven days

Tanning skill level: Intermediate to advanced

This product is perfect if you're heading to a big event and need a last-minute tan. Simply apply with a mitt (as you do with all self-tanners) and let the colour develop. You have the option of choosing your shade depending on how long you leave it on — one hour for a subtle glow and three hours for a deeper colour. Then, rinse off in the shower and go on with your normal routine. If you want an extra bronzed look, you can add on a day-of bronzer, which I will get into below.

The best part about this product is that you don't run the risk of staining your bedsheets, as you would with an overnight tanner. Just be weary of sitting on anything light-coloured (i.e. white couches) and dress yourself in dark, loose clothing after applying.

$52. Available at Sephora.

Develop time: Four to eight hours

Tinted: No

Tan life: Use daily for continuous glow

Tanning skill level: Beginner

Three reasons I love this product:

1. It's ultra-moisturizing and feels like a regular hydrating lotion.

2. It doesn't have much scent to it.

3. It's white, meaning it doesn't have bronzers that will stain your clothes.

Use this every day for a subtle glow. It's also great for using after a spray tan to maintain your colour.

$38. Available at Sephora.

Develop time: Four to eight hours

Tinted: No

Tan life: Use daily for continuous glow

Tanning skill level: Beginner

Similar to most gradual formulas, this one will develop in about four to eight hours into a subtle glow. The only difference is the texture.

$38. Available at Shoppers Drug Mart and sttropeztan.com.

Develop time: Three-minute activation time, four to eight hour development for colour

Tinted: No

Tan life: Use daily for continuous glow

Tanning skill level: Beginner

This product is perfect for those of us who can't be bothered waiting for tinted self-tanners to develop throughout the day or night. Simply hop in the shower, wet your skin, and turn off the water to apply the lotion. Once it touches wet skin, it will develop into a luxurious lather. Then, wait three minutes (I usually brush my teeth or do some squats) to let the product activate, before washing off again. Use every day to keep your glow going strong.

The best part is, you don't have to sacrifice your usual moisturizing regime when using this, as you can pretty much use whatever lotion you normally use afterwards. And bonus: It won't stain your clothes! Only downside is it can get pretty cold waiting for the three minutes to pass while you're still wet.

$35. Available at Shoppers Drug Mart and beautyboutique.cabeautyboutique.ca.

Develop time: Four to eight hours

Tinted: Yes

Tan life: Up to 10 days

Tanning skill level: Intermediate to Advanced

OK, disclaimer: This was the self-tanner I used that stained by bed sheets pretty badly. I've learned since then to sleep with the A/C on high and to wear dark, long pyjamas, though sometimes I still sweat and stain my sheets. So be weary of that.

This was also the self-tanner that made my legs super, super dark, in comparison to the rest of my body, mainly because I didn't realize how powerful it was and applied it only on my legs. But once I learned that it needed to be applied everywhere, the result was pretty great, and I had many people asking me if I just came back from vacation.

Another thing: Both Vita Liberata and St. Tropez pride themselves on smelling better than other self-tanning products, which, for the most part, is true. However, I've found the smell is masked on application, but is definitely prominent as the day goes on.

$54. Available at Shoppers Drug Mart and beautyboutique.ca.

Develop time: Four to eight hours

Tinted: Yes

Tan life: Up to seven days

Tanning skill level: Beginner

If you're new to self-tanners, it's best to start off with a formula that's tinted, isn't too dark and that's a mousse. Mousses are easiest to apply (especially with the mitt) and the tint will help you see exactly where you have applied the product.

$50. Available at Sephora.

Develop time: Four to eight hours

Tinted: Yes

Tan life: Two to three weeks

Tanning skill level: Advanced

Once you've mastered the mousse, it's time to graduate to the dark lotion. It's more difficult to apply, but the colour payoff is incomparable. I'm particularly a fan of this product as it provides a really long-lasting tan, so long as you apply three days in a row. Lotions are also best for those with dry skin. If you're still hesitant on trying one out, I'd start off with the Vita Liberata Fabulous Self-Tanning Tinted Lotion in Medium, as it doesn't last as long and isn't as dark ($38 at Sephora).

$65. Available at Sephora.

Develop time: Four to eight hours

Tinted: Yes

Tan life: Up to 10 hours

Tanning skill level: Intermediate

This is great for people with very dry skin who want an extra bit of instant glow. Since it's a dry oil, it's not greasy like a regular oil, making it easier to wear. However, it is quite difficult to apply, even with a mitt and can get messy.

$60. Available at Shoppers Drug Mart and beautyboutique.ca.

Develop time: Four to eight hours

Tinted: No

Tan life: Use daily for continuous glow

Tanning skill level: Beginner

Wanna wake up with a subtle glow and supple, hydrated skin? Try this night mask from Vita Liberata. Though the end result is very subtle, it does make a really great moisturizing, anti-aging mask and actually smells quite good. It also won't stain your pillowcase (woo!). Use regularly to maintain a natural-looking glow.

$56. Available at Sephora.

Develop time: Four to eight hours

Tinted: No

Tan life: Use daily for continuous glow

Tanning skill level: Beginner

Rather than replace your regular moisturizer with a self-tanning version, try incorporating this anti-aging serum into your daily regime. If you want a subtle glow, add one to three drops of serum to your existing skincare and apply to your face. If you want a stronger result, apply directly to skin. Just be sure to wash your hands after application.

$63. Available at Sephora.

Develop time: Four to eight hours

Tinted: Yes

Tan life: Up to three to seven days

Tanning skill level: Beginner

Real talk: This stuff can get really messy, but believe me when I say it's one of the best bronzers out there. It also adds one less step to my regular makeup routine, which makes it that much better. The only thing I could do without is the smell (it's quite strong), but you do get used to it after a while. Also, I'm a bit obsessed with the Kabuki brush and use it with my other bronzers, too!

Develop time: N/A.

Tinted: Yes

Tan life: 24 hours, or until you wash off.

Tanning skill level: Beginner to immediate

For those evenings when you want to look ultra dark and glam, try St. Tropez One Night Only in Medium/Dark (it also comes in a Light/Medium version, if you don't want to look too intense). The colour is definitely great, and it goes on pretty easily, however, wait for it to fully dry before getting dressed. Though it doesn't streak or run (I survived a sweaty night of dancing wearing this), it does rub off easily, so be mindful of that.

Other than that, it washes off easily once the night is over!

$20. Available at Shoppers Drug Mart and beautyboutique.ca.

Develop time: N/A

Tinted: Yes

Tan life: 24 hours, or until you wash off.

Tanning skill level: Beginner to immediate

This is hands-down my favourite "skin finishing" product. Though the colour is not quite as intense as St. Tropez's One Night Only, it seriously makes my skin look flawless and bronzed. It's also what the stars use for red carpet appearances, so you know it's good.

Again, wait for it to dry before putting clothes on. I find this formula really is long-lasting, and even though one night I forgot to wash it off before bed, I woke up with stain-free sheets.

$50. Available at Sephora.

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