Avoid a streaky mini-emergency with these pro tips for applying self-tanner.

By Wendy Rose Gould
Updated July 03, 2019
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7 Self-Tanner Mistakes Everyone Makes - Plus, How to Fix Them (illustration of self-tanner and sunshine)
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By now, we’re well aware of how important it is to wear sunscreen and minimize exposure to UV rays, but that doesn’t stop us from wanting the glow that comes from a weekend frolicking in crystal blue waters. To the joy of dermatologists everywhere, faux tans have replaced real tans over the years—but sunless tans can be a little tricky to perfect. Follow these pro tips to help ensure your next self-tanner experience goes off without a hitch.

Not Exfoliating First

The number one step before any faux tanning session, whether at home or at the salon, is to exfoliate. The best approach is to gently scrub your body with a salt or sugar scrub, such as Herbivore Coco Rose Coconut Oil Body Polish ($36; sephora.com), while paying extra attention to areas that tend to be dry, including your elbows, knees, and feet.

Exfoliating your skin buffs away lingering dead skin cells, which accomplishes three things. First, it makes for softer and more vibrant skin. Second, it provides an even, clean surface for the self-tanner product to adhere to, which leads to fewer streaks and splotches. Third, it ensures your faux tan lasts longer.

Applying Faux Tanner to Unbalanced Skin

If your skin’s pH is not optimally balanced before applying your self-tanner, it can lead to an orangey hue, says Kirstie Kirkham, a sunless tanning expert and the founder of Minetan.

“Your skin’s natural pH levels should be around 5.5, which is slightly acidic and perfect for self-tan development. Balanced pH levels will not only make your tan look more natural, it will also help it last longer and fade more evenly,” she says. “Use a pH-balancing body wash or primer and stay completely away from bar soaps prior to self-tanning.” Glossier’s Body Hero Daily Oil Wash ($18, glossier.com) is a great option.

Forgetting to Wash Off Your Deodorant First

Wearing deodorant when applying a sunless tanner is a potential recipe for green skin. Yes, green! “The aluminum found in most anti-perspirants reacts with the tanning actives in your self-tanner and turns the skin green,” Kirkham says. “Make sure you are not wearing deodorant when applying your self-tan, and don’t wipe it off with makeup or baby wipes, as these can also react with your self-tanner.” If you do get a case of the green pits, Kirkham says it should wash off in your first shower.

Not Bending Your Knuckles, Elbows, and Knees

You don’t realize just how many creases your body has until you’ve applied a sunless tanner and then woken up to white lines galore. “When your self-tanning product can’t get into the grooves around your knuckles (and other creases), you’re left with fine white lines where the tan missed the skin,” Kirkham says.

When applying self-tanner, flex and bend all crease-prone areas to ensure the product hits every bit of skin. Kirkham also recommends using an applicator mitt, like this one from Minetan ($8, minetanbodyskin.com), which is designed to help you apply product evenly and ensures you don’t get too much buildup on your hands.

Forgetting to Wipe Excess From Dry Spots

In additional to your hands, product has a tendency to accumulate on dry parts of your body, including your knees, ankles, feet, and elbows. Gently wipe away excess product on these areas to prevent the tell-tale self-tanner dark spots. Even if it doesn’t look like there’s excess, wiping these areas away with a clean mitt is recommended.

Not Washing Properly After Application

“Some people will complain of streaking, usually on their legs, following their first shower after applying their self-tanner,” Kirkham says. “The streaking is often simply due to the bronzers, which are commonly found in self-tanners, not being washed off properly. If you notice streaks like this, just hop back into the shower and gently buff away at the area with your hands.”

The first time you do shower after applying a self-tanner, Kirkham recommends using lukewarm water and avoiding soaps, shower gels, or scrubs. The bronzers should just rinse off with water.

Panicking About Stubborn Streaks

In a world of sunless tanners, you can rest assured that there are products out there that help nix unwanted streaks and dark spots. Your first step is to use a self-tanner removal product, such as St. Tropez Build Up Remover Mitt ($6.50, sephora.com), which is designed to physically exfoliate away streaks. You can also use a body scrub and oil-heavy products (even something as simple as coconut oil works) to help break down the streaks.

Related: How to Remove Self-Tanner