How to apply self-tanner to avoid streaks, orange skin and weird tan lines

A sunless tanner vet's tried and true tips for getting a faux glow.

Mercey Livingston CNET Contributor
Mercey Livingston is a health and wellness writer and certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach. She's written about fitness and wellness for Well+Good, Women's Health, Business Insider, and Prevention.com among others. When not writing, she enjoys reading and trying out workout classes all over New York City.
Mercey Livingston
3 min read

It's possible to get a sunless tan that looks really good.

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Most of us have been cooped up indoors more than we'd like to admit thanks to the coronavirus pandemic and stay-at-home orders. And while summer is usually the season for pool parties, beach vacations and barbecues, this one is going to look a lot different than ever before. But just because you can't go to your favorite beach for a getaway just yet doesn't mean you have to look like you've never seen the sun before. Enter self-tanners to save the day.

I've never tanned well naturally thanks to my fair complexion, and prefer not to endure sunburn in the name of attempting to get a tan. So, as a veteran sunless tanner user, I've learned a few helpful tips and tricks along the way about how to get a realistic, natural looking tan without ever having to step in the sun. 

Read more: The best self-tanners and bronzers for 2020: St Tropez, Jergens, Supergoop and more

Spoiler alert: Applying sunless tanner is not foolproof. It takes some experimenting and trial and error. If you're new to sunless tanning, it's best not to apply your new tanner right before, say an important video call or other event. Below are the tried and true methods I've found that work and help give you a more natural looking tan. 

Note: Be sure to read the instructions on each product since things like drying time and how the color develops can vary. 


Exfoliating your skin before you apply self-tanner helps you avoid splotchy color.

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Exfoliate before using any self-tanner

It's best to exfoliate your skin before applying any self-tanner since doing so will help the tan last longer and it will look better. If you apply tanner over dry spots, they will likely look orange, patchy and weird the next day. 

Focus on areas like your knees, ankles, elbows and any other places you tend to be dry. Any exfoliating scrub, shower gel or loofah will do the trick. Also, be sure to shave before you apply, since that helps exfoliate the skin and make it feel smoother as well.

Moisturize dry areas after you apply self tanner

I almost always apply a little moisturizer to my hands, knees and elbows after I apply sunless tanner since I find that it helps everything blend nicely and prevents those dry spots from showing. I wait until the tanner is completely dry and use a light cream sparingly. The results for this may vary based on what type of product you use, so test a small spot with whatever moisturizer you're using to ensure it doesn't affect the final look.

Keep your skin moisturized for the days after you apply self-tanner too. Moisturized skin will retain the color for much longer.


Wash your hands after applying product to avoid orange palms.

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Use a mitt and always wash your hands after

Speaking from personal experience, you want to use a self-tanning mitt, especially for the fast-drying products. There's nothing worse than waking up to orange, streaky hands that give away your faux tan instantly. Even if you use a mitt, wash your hands immediately after applying your tanning product. 

Another tip: If you do find streaks, orange palms or unwanted dark spots, try removing the marks with a Magic Eraser -- this has helped save me many times when I had streaks or too-dark hands or feet.

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Apply self-tanner at night and wear loose clothes you don't mind getting stained

If you're applying self-tanner over a large area of your body, it's a good idea to apply it at night so you don't risk sweating or washing the product off accidentally during the day. Plus if the smell bothers you, you won't have as much time to deal with that while you're asleep. And you can shower the next day to really take care of it. 

Self-tanners can stain clothing, so be sure to wear loose-fitting clothes that you don't mind getting stained. The same goes for your sheets -- now is not the time to lay on your new, expensive white sheets while covered in tanner (even if there's no visible color yet -- trust me on this one). 

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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.