Ask Jean: 7 Steps for the Perfect Natural-Looking Self-Tan

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Ask Jean: 7 Steps for the Perfect Natural-Looking Self-Tan

Photo courtesy of Valentina Munton

Dear Cate, I’ll start with your second question: Because my self-tanner obsession has to be one of the most intense of all time, I have tried them all–and I love very few. What I want in a self-tanner is almost impossible: imperceptible beyond “Did you go on vacation?” and “You look so well rested!” I don’t want it to smell, streak, or be too dark or too light, and I want it to last as long as possible. You’d think that because the active ingredient in self-tanner is always the same (DHA, a natural sugar derivative that stains the top, dead cells of your skin–I know, so appealing-sounding), most tanners would give similar results, but this is not the case.

This clean self-tanner from Vita Liberata is a clear tanning “water” that whips into a light, fluffy foam as it’s dispensed. It is a full-on miracle in terms of how easy it is to blend, and the subtle, ultranatural color it leaves behind is something you have to see to believe. Somehow, the foam is light and moisturizing enough that it melts into your skin, rather than seizing on it, as many fast-dry, no-transfer tanners do. I have always been skeptical of fast-drying tanners, particularly those that aren’t tinted: Ill-placed, unblended tanner invariably develops into unnatural streaks and blotches. But this one, as I said, is a miracle.

It takes only seconds to apply because of its lightness. I highly recommend using the company’s mitt so your hands never absorb the tanner–the “water” fluffs pleasantly as you smooth it on, and it sinks right in. It feels like nothing on your skin: not sticky, not tight, nothing. And when you wake up (I like to put it on at night, but because of its no-transfer qualities, you can apply it, put on your clothes, and go about your day if you like), the tan is smooth, totally natural, splotchless, and perfectly glowy. The color is neither an aggressive tan nor a pale nothing, but truly the ideal healthy glow.

The company makes tanning wipes, if you prefer them; I use them for travel, and they produce the same natural, long-lasting, streakless glow. Either iteration is as brilliant for a quick leg-reawakening as it is for a bit of glowy life in your face or a full-on beach-day-tomorrow tan. (Having a tan before stepping into the sun not only makes you look better; it also means you won’t hesitate to slather on SPF 30 or higher, which could not be more important.)

7 Steps for the Perfect Natural-Looking Self-Tan

A natural, even, super flattering glow is much easier than you think–and much easier than the backs of many tanner boxes, along with countless articles on the subject, make it sound. The prevailing wisdom involves assiduous exfoliation, along with some super awks time in the bathroom waiting for the tanner to dry. In truth, neither is that necessary.


The secret is that body cream–or lotion, or lip balm–makes everything a thousand times easier and better blended. I alternate between the ultranourishing, melts-right-in GOOPGENES body butter and the gorgeously scented Garden of Earthly Delights hand and body lotion from Sangre de Fruta. Smooth a good dollop between your palms and between your fingers (this also helps prevent tanned palms), then dab the excess anywhere you have thicker or drier skin–your elbows, ankles, tops of toes, knees. Thicker, drier skin pulls in more tanner, creating uneven dark spots and splotches that look decidedly unnatural. By smoothing cream over those areas, you make them a little more resistant to the tanner, and the result is an even glow instead of splotchiness.

The nice thing is, the cream or lotion principle works either way: If you forget about it and apply tanner without it, you can just go over the drier areas directly after you do the tanner–results are the same.


Once you’ve protected the drier spots from overtanning, apply your self-tanner. Start at the feet: They’re the hardest to get right, so focus your most intense blending attention on them. The feet have a jillion different odd angles, so make sure to get the tanner in there so you don’t end up with glaring pale spots.


Move up your legs and blend. There’s no such thing as overblending. It’s also hard to overdo the amount of tanner on your legs–adding more tanner in a single application won’t make you more tan, counterintuitively. It will simply ensure no streaks and no missed spots. So be generous.


Tan only where you want–no need to do your whole body unless you’d like to.
(Though if you’re going for the partial, consider who might be seeing you naked.)


When you’re done, wash your hands with beyond-thorough enthusiasm; “tanned” palms look ridiculous. Do it even if you used a mitt. When your hands are completely dry, put a bit of tanner on the back of one hand and rub the backs of your hands together to blend the tanner. (A tan body with pale hands is an alarming look.)


If you forgot or didn’t want to do the body-cream trick at the beginning, do it now (it works just as well before or after). Or tear open a face wipe and dab lightly at the thicker, drier spots. When you’re through, use the face wipe to give your palms and between your fingers a final swipe.


Instead of shivering naked in the bathroom, throw on a loose, dark-colored sundress, shorts and a T-shirt, or some such, and go about your business. You shouldn’t shower for at least eight hours, but there’s no reason not to get on with your life! Note: If you use a no-transfer formula like the Vita Liberata tanning water, you can put on paler clothes right away without worry.

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