The Good, the Bad and the Streaky: We Tried 12 Self-Tanners and Here’s What Happened

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Every summer, the same challenge pops up: Transforming our pasty legs into glowing stems without baking in the sun. The answer? Self-tanner, of course. But with endless options on the shelves, how does one even know where to start (namely, which formula will prevent the dreaded Oompa Loompa effect)? To put your confusion to rest, we polled PureWow staffers and tested 12 of the most popular self-tanning formulas. Our ladies slathered them on over a weekend—showering, swimming and traveling along the way—and reported back with the facts. While everyone’s skin tone and natural shade varied, here’s what they had to say.

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coola tan firming lotion

Coola ‘sunless Tan’ Firming Lotion (7/10)

“This definitely worked! It was an interesting application as it turned white and took a while to rub in. I was a little nervous at how splotchy it seemed as I applied, but it started to disappear after a bit. The smell was not the piña colada smell advertised on the bottle; it was actually pretty gross. But that faded quickly and the lotion then smelled like a usual spray tan smell, which honestly I don’t mind. I applied the lotion at night and waited about an hour and a half before going to bed, but it still turned my sheets orange (although it washed out). When I woke up my legs were glowing! I loved the effect and everyone commented on how great my legs looked. Not sure how much toning and firming occurred, but overall, I loved the product—smell withstanding—and would definitely use again!” — Margurite Karp, brand partnerships director

bondi sands self tanning foam updated

Bondi Sands Self-tanning Foam (9/10)

“This smells amazing. While applying it smells like coconuts, but once it dries it smells more like self-tanner. I really like how it looks. I used the light/medium and it worked well on my fair skin. People actually noticed and said I looked tan (always a plus). It isn’t streaky, went on easily and started to develop more color as the day went on. Would definitely recommend and will be using again.” — Emily Leahy, sales marketing manager

the organic pharmacy self tan

The Organic Pharmacy Self Tan (5/10)

“As far as self-tanners go, this is the most expensive option I’ve ever used (or even seen), so I had high expectations. Unfortunately, I was instantly disappointed when I smelled the product, which I can only liken to the Jergens formula I was overly obsessed with in high school (cue weird déjà vu). This product goes on white, but as a self-proclaimed self-tanning professional, I had no trouble avoiding streaks or splotches. The color developed into a fairly subtle and natural glow, but definitely not as bronzed as I usually like. I’ll give it bonus points for being completely all-natural and non-toxic, which gives me slight peace of mind. Although for the price I think I’ll stick to my tried-and-true favorite. (P.S. It's Vita Liberata).” — Katie Maguire, commerce editor

isle of paradise self tanning water

Isle Of Paradise Self-tanning Water (10/10)

“I should say upfront that I am not skilled at applying at-home self-tanners. I seem to wind up with streaks or blank spots or the devil knows what going on no matter how simple the application is billed as being. But it looks like I might have finally found a product even I can handle. Freshly exfoliated, moisturized and ready to glow, I applied the tanning water with a mitt in the evening and when I woke up it looked like I had just spent a quick weekend sunning in the Hamptons. No streaks, no gross leftover smell and, perhaps most importantly, no signs that I would soon turn orange. This is the first self-tanning line to incorporate color-correcting technology (in this case, using purple undertones to balance out the tanning-product’s orange components) and honestly I’m really surprised it took this long for it to happen. So props to the genius behind Isle of Paradise, Jules Von Hep, for creating a line that can give even a self-tanning nitwit like myself the confidence to get my glow on from home.” — Abby Hepworth, assistant editor

tan towels towelettes

Tantowel Self-tan Towelettes (6/10)

“Strange analogy for a skin-care product, but these are like easy-to-use Clorox wipes. They’re especially great if you’re traveling because they’re small and TSA-safe. I prefer buying the half-body size opposed to the full-body ones, which feel harder to use, but overall the result is comparable to a lotion or mousse. However, since they leave no color, it can turn out streaky and leave your palms super-orange if you’re not careful.” — Ali Brown, social media strategist

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st tropez self tan classic mousse

St. Tropez ‘classic’ Bronzing Mousse (10/10)

“I’ve always loved trying out different tanners (hence why I reviewed two products) and this one definitely tops the list. The mitt made it easy to apply and I had no issues with streaks or a bad fake tan smell (although, full disclosure, the smell never really bothers me). I had been hesitant to try this one as it’s pricier than most, but I think I’m now a full convert.” — Ali Brown, social media strategist

loving tan deluxe bronzing mousse

Loving Tan ‘deluxe’ Bronzing Mousse (4/10)

“I was a little hesitant because my bottle said ‘medium to dark’ and I haven’t been to the beach this year, so I’m pretty pale. So, I decided to test it on my legs first to see how easily it went on, how long I needed to wait to shower (recommended is six hours) and how dark my skin would actually get. It went on really smoothly! I used a mitt, which I think helped me from streaking. I ended up leaving it on for four hours before showering, because I got nervous it was getting too dark, but it looked so good after I showered. I think I could have gone six hours. My only gripe is that it only lasted for a little over a day after I showered again. This would be good for a one day event like a wedding, party or just to have a little color on the weekend, but maybe not a full vacation.” — Emily Matson, ad ops account coordinator

st tropez in shower gradual tanner

St. Tropez ‘in-shower’ Gradual Tan (2/10)

“For context, I have dark brown hair and very fair skin, so when it comes to self-tanner I’ve always erred on the side of opting-out vs. potentially turning orange. However, when I heard about the St. Tropez in-shower gradual formula I thought this might finally be my unicorn product—easy to apply, no mess, and faint enough that it just might look believable. Well, faint is quite the understatement. Even after five uses, I could barely notice a difference on my legs (and guys, did I mention that I am fair?). Granted, I purchased the light to medium shade and the formula does say it’s ‘gradual,’ but still—it shouldn’t take more than five tries to even see a change, amiright? I have considered upgrading to the medium to dark hue, and will report back. But in the meantime, I’m sorry to say that I’d give this guy a hard pass." — Angela Pares, lifestyle director

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clarins liquid bronze self tanning

Clarins ‘liquid Bronze’ Self-tanner (8/10)

“I was happy to try a self-tanner specifically for my face since I have pretty sensitive skin and didn’t want to use any products that may make my face break out. I washed my face, made sure it was dry, rubbed in my normal moisturizer and then applied the tanner using a cotton pad on my face and neck. The product comes out white and dries immediately after applying—you don’t have to worry about it rubbing off on anything. It was very gentle on my skin and didn’t cause any breakouts. Definitely would recommend.” — Frances Sisson, ad ops manager

clarins golden glow booster

Clarins ‘radiance-plus Golden Glow Booster’ (10/10)

“These literally rule. Because they are just drops that you add into your moisturizer, you have full control to customize and make it completely orange-proof. I tried just a few drops the first day and then added in more as I went on, especially on my legs and arms. I kept it subtle for my face and it looked so natural and glowing. Also, it doesn’t smell—hallelujah. And, rebel alert: I also put it on one night right before bed, which I know people advise against, and it didn’t make my sheets orange at all. Honestly, an all-star product.” — Helen Sidebotham, account manager

vita liberata self tanning gradual lotion

Vita Liberata ‘fabulous’ Self-tanning Gradual Lotion (9/10)

“Thanks to my very pale, only-burns-in-the-sun skin, I’ve become somewhat of a self-tanning connoisseur. Out of all the products I've tried over the years, this one definitely makes it up on my list of favorites. The color was very natural-looking and even. However, what made it stand out was how quickly it dried with absolutely zero stickiness or color transfer on my white sheets (that was a first!). Not to mention, the formula is organic, free of parabens and sulfates and is ultra-hydrating with marula oil and aloe vera. The price point is slightly higher than I like to spend on self-tanner, but this may just be worth it.” — Pam Masin, audience development strategist 

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mystic tan gradual tan

Mystic Tan Gradual Tan After-shower Moisturizer (7/10)

“This was super easy to use and dried very quickly. I applied this like a regular moisturizer (although with a mitt) right after I got out of the shower. It surprisingly had no smell and was clear in color, so a tad hard to know where you were putting it, although the results are gradual. I didn’t see instant color after the first use, but after two or three tries I started to see a nice golden hue. I’ll definitely keep using this during summer, but might graduate to something stronger for an event or vacation.” — Genny Salvatore, associate art director

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Blue jean baby, LA lady (NYC transplant)

An avid bargain hunter, SoulCycle-goer, and vacation-planner, Katie has somehow turned her online shopping addiction into a full-time job for PureWow.