Saturday, August 13, 2022 Aug 13, 2022
84° F Dallas, TX

Self-Tanning Showdown

Which system is the best in our fake bake-off?
By D Magazine |


First Impressions: The thin, white potion has a vague medicinal smell that turned sweeter on the skin. The consistency is more watery than a lotion, and therefore it doesn’t moisturize. 

Ease of application: Pretty easy. A little went a long way; three or four quarter-sized dollops were enough to cover our tester’s entire body. But a less-than-careful application can result in streaks.

Results: Nearly a week after use, our tester’s tan (and streaks) were still evident, even surviving a pedicure and regular exfoliation. The effect was natural and never orange.

Score: 2.5 stars

Price: $23/Kiehl’s

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First Impressions: Out of the tube, the cloudy-white gel has a pleasant, perfumy fragrance. Once applied, it developed a distinct self-tanner smell that, thankfully, subsided after showering. 

Ease of application: Very easy. Our tester rubbed the product onto her skin thoroughly but not especially carefully, yet no streaks developed. It dried quickly without feeling sticky or staining, but the color faded considerably after showering.

Results: Extremely subtle but natural. You’re not going to look like you just got back from the tropics, but at least you won’t look like you’ve been living in a cave all winter. You’ll need to reapply every few days to maintain any color.

Score: 3 stars

Price: $36/Nordstrom

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First Impressions: This two-tone lotion is customizable based on how dark of a tan you’re after—simply twist the top from 1 to 10 to choose your intensity. With more color came more of a noticeable smell.

Ease of application: Pretty easy. The lotions combine and go on like moisturizer. But despite rubbing it in thoroughly, our tester noticed some splotchiness. A good bit of color ended up going down the drain or onto her towel the first time she bathed.

Results: After a conservative first try with a 3-level tan, which yielded little color, our tester upped the ante to an 8 the following night. The resulting tone was very natural, despite a bit of unevenness. A slight smell persisted after bathing. Color lasted for several days.

Score: 3.5 stars

Price: $45/Neiman Marcus

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First Impressions: Available in two shades (we went with the Medium to Tan option), the product has a subtle coconut scent that wasn’t noticeable after application. It looks and feels just like lotion—and moisturizes like one, too.

Ease of application: Pretty easy. Apply like lotion up to three consecutive days to gradually build color. Our tester had some streaks and missed spots on the first try but was able to fix and fill in on subsequent treatments. Did not stain sheets or clothing.

Results: Our tester was impressed with the tone and strength of the product. She even stopped after two applications because she worried a third would result in her looking too dark. The color lasted nearly a week after each application.

Score: 4 stars

Price: $11/CVS

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First Impressions: The starter kit contains a spray gun, applicators, and a color cartridge, which emits a slight odor (perhaps that’s the chemical “known to the State of California to cause cancer” the fine print warns of). But hey, it didn’t smell once applied!

Ease of application: Difficult. Though loading the gun and spraying was easy—and the hands-free application a bonus—the product quickly began to run once sprayed on skin. The included sponge applicators did little to help. 

Results: After back-to-back coats (as instructed), our tester was very brown—and so was her bathroom. The product cleaned up easily from the shower and sink, but the same wasn’t true for her skin. The dark color—and vein-like drip marks—persisted two weeks after application.

Score: 1 star

Price: $13/Sally Beauty Supply