Which formula should I pick? They all have the same active ingredient, so just choose the type that you’re most comfortable applying. “Sprays, mousses, gels, and lotions all contain dihydroxyacetone [DHA], a simple sugar that reacts with the amino acids in the dead cells found in the uppermost layers of your skin, making their color deepen and stay tan for up to five days,” says Ricky Croft, the vice president of marketing for Sunless, a company that makes self-tanners. Some formulas (such as Clarins Self Tanning Instant Gel, $35, clarinsusa.com) contain a combination of DHA and erythrulose, another sugar, which causes a slower color change. The two ingredients are meant to work in tandem to give you a longer-lasting glow.
How do I avoid streaks? Exfoliate before you tan with a gentle granular scrub (such as Laura Mercier Almond Coconut Milk Scrub, $46, sephora.com). Use it “especially around elbows and knees, where there can be a buildup of dead skin cells for the tanner to cling to,” says Croft. To get an extra-thorough scrubbing in those tricky places, bend each arm or leg so your skin is taut before you slough, advises Renee Rouleau, a celebrity aesthetician in Dallas. Next, put petroleum jelly on your cuticles and nails so the tanner won’t tint them. Then apply the tanner strategically: Start at your feet and work upward, smoothing on a thin coat in long, even strokes. Try not to bend for too long in places where you’ve applied, since this can create creases. And resist the urge to moisturize right after tanning, even if your skin feels slightly tight. Heavy emollient lotions may inhibit DHA from being absorbed effectively.
How do I know if I’ve applied too much? The telltale sign: It takes forever to dry. Most of today’s tanners are absorbed by the skin in about five minutes. “If you’re waiting 15 minutes or more, you’ve overdone it,” says Croft. The result can be streakiness and that Oompa Loompa orange cast. As soon as you notice streaks developing, exert damage control by gently exfoliating or slathering on a self-tanner–removing product (such as St. Tropez Tan Remover, $18, sttropeztan.com). It helps take off tanner even after it’s fully developed.
What about those hard-to-reach places? Kevin Mendelson, a makeup artist and the global educator for Jane Iredale The Skin Care Makeup, has your back: Once you’ve bronzed the front of your body, but before doing your arms, he suggests, squeeze a dollop of tanner on the back of each hand and spread the formula from your lower back to your midback. For the upper back, use the same amount in your palms. Another option is a spray formula. Neutrogena Micro Mist Airbrush Sunless Tan ($11 at drugstores) allows you to coat skin at every angle, even if you hold the can upside down. To cover everything perfectly—say, for a special occasion—consider going to a salon for a professional application 24 to 48 hours before the big event. (Prices vary, but a session can cost up to $150 if a pre-tan exfoliation is included.) The intimacy factor is comparable to that of a bikini wax, and you’ll get paper underwear for a bit of privacy. More modest types can visit a spray booth (about $35 a session), in which a machine mists the formula evenly onto your body. You can go nude or sport paper underwear, and you’ll be issued protective goggles. A pro or booth application will last about as long as a DIY job.