Product Smackdown: War Of The Self-Tanners

It’s the season for sunshine, margaritas under the stars, and — oh yeah — exposed skin. A lot of it. Here to help us make the dreaded transition from winter layers to summer minis? Self-tanner, which can be a total godsend — that is, if you find the right formula for you. While there are a few fail-safe gems out there, many self-tanning products sadly leave us streaky and stinky enough that we would simply rather stay pale, thankyouverymuch

Predictably, warmer months mean that a slew of brand-new self-tanners flood the market, each promising to give you richer, more even, and longer-lasting tans than the last. To help you sort through the masses, three of our fairer-skinned staffers put three new formulas to the test, so you don’t have to. Yes, we love you that much. 

Which ones left us glowing, and which ones made us consider working from home for the day (or the week)? Read on the find out!


Who: Gabrielle Korn, beauty production assistant 
The Contender: Tarte Brazilliance Skin Rejuvenating Maracuja Face and Body Self-Tanner 

“This was my first-ever experience with self-tanner. I’m about as pale as pale can be, and I mostly just go with it. But, I’ve been considering taking the plunge into the world of tan enhancement ever since a makeup artist at Sephora told me I looked like Edward Cullen (yep), so I was pretty excited to test this product out. I expected this product to be subtle, simple to use, and high quality, since, you know, it’s Tarte, after all. I expect great things from them. Plus, the packaging was pretty, and that means something is going to work well, right? That’s how that works? 

“So, as per the instructions, I very diligently and thoroughly exfoliated my body. I patted dry, and then using the mitten applicator thing that came in the box, began applying it in long, even strokes. It smelled amazing, like bubble gum and something fresh that I can’t place. I was a little bit anxious, because coming out of the tube it looked very dark brown. However, as soon as I spread it out, it became translucent — which actually meant I couldn’t tell how much I was using or if it was being evenly applied. I did my arms, shoulders, and chest, and then went back in and tried to fill in places I might have missed, but honestly it was so hard to tell because it absorbed so quickly. After about 10 minutes, my skin had developed a gorgeous, glowing tan, and felt so hydrated and soft. I was so excited to show it off at work the next day. 

“In the morning, I inspected the damage — somehow, my tan had transformed overnight into a streaky fake-tan catastrophe. I cried a single tear and went to work, where everyone tried to tell me it wasn’t as bad as I thought, until I pointed out the lines and the weird patches of different color, and then they just took pity on me. I kept my jean jacket on all day. 

“When I showered the next morning, I exfoliated pretty seriously. When I got out of the shower, all of the streaks were gone, and my tan was pretty much perfect. So, in conclusion, this product was surprisingly easy to readjust after a rocky start. I think the color looks pretty much like what my skin would look like tan (I think? I have no proof of this, actually) and it was definitely super-moisturizing. I think I’m going to try again, but use my hands instead of the mitten thing, and do it during daylight so I can see what I’m doing.” 

Tarte Brazilliance Skin Rejuvenating Maracuja Face and Body Self-Tanner, $37, available at Tarte.


Who: Shawna Foulkes, brand integration casting & program manager 
The Contender: Vita Liberata pHenomenal 2-3 Week Tan Mousse 

“Attending college in New Hampshire, I used sunless tanner products frequently to offset winter pastiness. I tried several different brands, and it was always very hit-and-miss in terms of streakiness and color. In retrospect, I have a slight suspect orange tint in many photos from that time period. After college, I went from blonde to brunette, and felt like I could better pull off the fair look, so I embraced my natural skin tone and stopped using sunless tan products. 

“Vita Liberata Tanning Mousse claims to last two to three weeks, or four times longer than regular sunless tanners. Pre-use, this is a bit worrisome, because if the result is less than desirable, then I may have to live with it for much longer than is typical. However, I wear SPF daily, and hadn’t been on vacation recently, so I was excited to take a hiatus from channeling Wednesday Addams and have a bit of a glow. 

“I exfoliated in the shower and skipped my typical moisturizer before applying. I also heeded the brand’s advice to use sparingly on hands, feet, knees, elbows and other dry spots. The tinted mousse makes it easier to see where you have missed a spot, but application was a bit tricky. The mousse dries on contact, which makes it difficult to blend evenly using the directed circular movements. I had to re-apply to several areas I felt unsure I had thoroughly covered, and the tinted film began to pill if I rubbed it in too thoroughly. 

“The product smell wasn’t bothersome, and it faded significantly as the product dried. The color was a pretty bronze shade, not too dark or too orange. I did experience streaks, particularly on my arms and legs, but this decreased after I took a shower the next day and washed off the tinted residue. The color lasted about four days, not the two-to-three-week range as promised. The instructions suggest to apply two more times in 24-hour intervals for the longest-lasting tan, but any darker and the color would look unnatural on me, so I opted out. 

“The bottom line? While I did like the product, I probably wouldn’t use it myself — I’ve used sunless tanners for a fraction of the price that worked just as well.” 

Vita Liberata pHenomenal 2-3 Week Tan Mousse, $54, available at Sephora.


Who: Tara Rasmus, assistant beauty editor 
The Contender: Kardashian Instant Sunless Spray 

“Growing up, my mom instilled a healthy fear of the sun into me — but assured me that if I wanted ‘a little color,’ I could always use a little self-tanner. I became a fan of Neutrogena’s MicroMist spray, since it’s designed to dry almost instantly, and with creams or lotions, I’m always paranoid that the product is rubbing off onto everything I contact. Despite my relative comfort with self-tanners, I usually don’t bother with them, due to the fact that I’m convinced that they make me smell like I’ve been hanging out in a fried chicken joint, and — duh — I think that healthy, pale skin can be beautiful, if that’s what you were born with. 

“Since I’ve used aerosol self-tanners before, I decided to take one for the team and test out the spray tanner from the Kardashians’ new (paraben-free!) line. I was afraid that the formula would be way too dark for me since obviously I do not have the coloring of a Kardasha-sister, but hey, I’m always willing to try something once! That’s the fun of beauty, no? 

“The directions were simple (‘Hold spray 10 inches away from skin and spray over entire body in a continuous motion’). Sounds easy, right? Well, not exactly. The formula is tinted, and it does not come out in an even, superfine mist like I expected — more like a spritz you would get from a pump bottle, rather than an aerosol can. So, you have to blend, blend, blend, like your job depends on it. The formula is designed to dry fast, so it’s very thin, and therefore very difficult to spread out before it’s set. Otherwise known as the makings of a self-tanner disaster. 

“The good news: I succeeded in getting it evenly over my whole body. I was annoyed that I had to scrub the heck out of my hands to get the tanner off, when I wasn’t planning on having to rub the formula in at all. I went to bed smelling of fruity cocktail death (as I described it to a friend at the time), but dreaming of waking up glowing and bronzed like I had taken Miami with Kim and Kourtney. 

“Happily, I woke up the next day looking…not terrible! The shade was a little darker and more orange that I would have liked (in their defense, the color might look great on someone with a darker or warmer skin tone), but it looked pretty even, except for at my wrists, which looked streaky and tie-dyed. The formula wore well over the course of the week — but sadly, so did that self-tanner-stink, which stubbornly stuck around for days. 

“All in all, I was much less appalled with the finished result of this tanner than I expected, but I probably wouldn’t use it again, due to how complicated it was to apply and blend. However, if you have an event coming up and don’t mind a little bit of work, I’d say give it a try — just make sure to wear gloves while blending!” 

$19.99, available at Ulta.

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