If you’re a fan of self-tanning, you’re pretty familiar with the pros and cons of this practice: you can have the tan of your dreams without sun damage, but you’ve got to put in serious effort to get it to look even and streak-free. You can stay tanned and sun-kissed year long, even in the winter, but your towels and sheets may get a little tanned too (although you might just call it “stained”). Tanning products have their eccentricities, sure, but there’s a new alternative on the market that might be just a little simpler to use: self-tanning gels.
Lightweight and easy to apply, tanning gels have a lot going for them. Today, we’re taking a look at this type of product to learn more: how do you use a tanning gel, how quickly does it develop, and can it go on your face too? If you’re ready to get answers to these and other questions, let’s get started!
Tanning gel: What you need to know
Before we start talking about the pros and cons of tanning gels, let’s start with some quick and easy definitions:
What is tanning gel for?
A tanning gel is a self-tanner in a gel formula. That’s it! Pretty simple, right? Like other self-tanning products, a tanning gel is meant to give you a glowing and sun-kissed look without sun exposure.
The more traditional self-tanners often come in cream or lotion textures, but tanning gels differ in this important feature: their texture. Lightweight and easy to apply, tanning gels tend to leave an almost imperceptible finish on the skin, which makes them feel less greasy and sticky.
Some tanning gels are also clear, which makes them less likely to stain everything around them; say bye bye to stained clothes, towels, and bed linens!
How does self-tanning gel work?
A self-tanning gel will give you a tan without you having to sunbathe, we’ve already established that. But how is this actually achieved? It’s all down to an ingredient called dihydroxyacetone, or DHA for short. According to dermatologist Zoe Draelos, “this chemical was originally discovered in the 1920s as a possible substitute for sweetener in diabetic diets by Procter & Gamble, Cincinnati, OH. When the DHA was chewed in concentrated form, as a candy, it was noted that the saliva turned the skin brown, without staining clothing or the mouth. This effect made the substance unsuitable as a glucose substitute, DHA was not marketed until the 1950s, when the first self-tanning cream was introduced into the marketplace.”
DHA works by reacting with the keratin on the surface of the skin and staining it darker. It doesn’t penetrate the skin, and so it doesn’t share any damaging effects with solar radiation: it can’t sunburn you, prematurely age your skin, or increase your risk of skin cancer.
Is it safe to use tanning gel?
Self-tanning gels are safe to use, but make sure to follow product instructions just in case! Regarding the safety of DHA, the main ingredient in self-tanning products, dermatologist Zoe Draelos had the following to say: “there are no known adverse effects, except for possible irritation, from frequent application. DHA has a distinctive odor that is difficult to mask with fragrances.”
How quickly does tanning gel work?
Most self-tanners will start working about an hour or two after application–because that’s how long DHA takes to develop–, and tanning gels are not very different. According to dermatologist Zoe Draelos, “the chemical reaction is usually visible within an hour after DHA application, but maximal darkening may take 8 to 24 hours.”
How long does tanning gel last?
Here’s the real catch of self-tanners: they don’t last very long. Because DHA only darkens the very top layer of your skin, the sun-kissed glow you develop with self-tanners is incredibly superficial. As soon as your skin starts to shed dead skin cells (which healthy skin does every day, little by little), you’ll start to lose your glow.
The good news is that your skin doesn’t flake off all at once, so your tan will still last you a few days. Depending on the product you choose and the work you put into applying and maintaining your self-tanner, your tan might last you anywhere from 3 to 10 days. You’ll never know for sure until you try it!
How do you apply self-tanning gel?
Self-tanning at home is a real skill–once you’ve perfected it, you’ll be able to apply tanning lotions, creams, and gels with similar ease.
The most important thing to ensure is that you apply your self-tanner evenly, whether you are using a tanning mitt or your hands. Starting from your ankles and moving up, apply the product in long sweeps (or circular motions, whatever you prefer), making sure to overlap the edges for a full, even coverage. Leave “problem areas” like the feet, knees, and elbows for last, as these areas tend to tan darker than the rest of the skin.
When you’re done, make sure to wash your hands!
Can you put tanning gel on your face?
As we’ve seen, self-tanners work by reacting with the topmost layer of your skin, so they’re a pretty safe way to achieve a smooth tan–even on your face!
To make sure you achieve the results you want, try to invest in a self-tanning gel that’s specifically designed for facial application. We’ve got a couple of options for you below!
The best self tanning gel for every occasion
Now that we’ve dealt with the essential information, we bring you six tanning gel options that respond to different needs. Which one is yours?
Lancaster Sun 365 Instant Self Tanning Gel Cream
The tanning gel for your face
What it is: a tanning gel specially created for use on the face and neck. In addition to using DHA to create a tan in just a few hours, this tanning gel is also slightly tinted, for easy application and an immediate golden glow.
Why we like it: there are many people who want to apply self-tanning gel to their face, but are afraid that traditional formulas are not suitable for this purpose. This product is ideal for these situations, as it offers a gradual tan and, at the same time, offers immediate benefits, blurring imperfections and lending the skin a golden glow thanks to the built-in pigments. The perfect option for anyone who wants a sun-kissed complexion without the wait!
Clarins Self Tanning Instant Gel
The most refreshing formula
What it is: a self-tanning product with a gel texture, super lightweight and refreshing. The formula uses naturally-sourced DHA and erythulose to create a healthy and natural-looking tan in just a few hours. As for the immediate effect, the main selling point here is the dry and non-oily finish, which allows you to get dressed as soon as the product dries.
Why we like it: this product has everything we look for in a tanning gel. It’s light, it’s refreshing, it dries quickly, it allows you to get dressed as soon as you’re done applying it (within reason, obviously), and it creates a natural-looking tan in just a few hours. If your skin is on the drier side, or you prefer a richer texture, you can also opt for the tanning lotion from the same brand, which offers the same benefits with a more hydrating formula.
Esthederm Reflets De Soleil Hydra-Boost Self-Tanning Cream Gel
The hydrating gel-cream
What it is: a moisturizing self-tanner with a gel-cream formula. With its hybrid texture, this product offers a lightweight finish while hydrating the skin, almost like a body lotion. The DHA in the formula provides a smooth, even tan in just 24 hours, and can be used on the body and face.
Why we like it: self-tanning gels are convenient to use and virtually unnoticeable on the skin, but they aren’t always very hydrating. With this product, you can combine the effects of a self-tanning gel with the moisturizing benefits of a body lotion. You can use this product 1-3 times a week to maintain your sun-kissed tan and, at the same time, keep your skin hydrated during a beach or pool holiday. What’s not to love?
Australian Gold Dark Tanning Accelerator Spray Gel with Bronzers
The gel-spray that helps you tan
What it is: a “tan accelerator” that also includes self-tanning actives, such as our well-known DHA. Unlike other products on this list, this gel-spray is designed to be used during sun exposure to promote a deeper tan; however, since it contains tanning actives that work even without sun exposure, you can also just use it as a self-tanner.
Why we like it: imagine you’re going to the beach and you want a nice tan, but you’re not that keen on sunbathing for hours and hours (because you’re aware, of course, of the damaging potential of excessive sun exposure). A product like this can be a good option to give you a summer tan with minimal sun exposure. You can use it when you’re out in the sun to promote a more even tan, and then continue using it, even without sun exposure, to benefit from the self-tanning effects of DHA.
Just make sure to top it up with a body sunscreen when you’re in the sun, as this product does not contain SPF.
St. Tropez Self Tan Purity Bronzing Water Gel
The clear self-tanning gel that won’t stain your clothes
What it is: a self-tanning gel with a transparent formula, for a quick, easy, and mess-free application. With a fresh and fast-absorbing texture, this self-tanning gel uses DHA to create a natural, medium tan in just 3 hours.
Why we like it: if you are looking for a self-tanner that is absolutely mess-proof, this is it. With the light and colorless texture of this product, all you gotta do is massage it into the skin (using a tanning mitt or just your hands) and go about your business. Because the formula itself doesn’t have any of the pigments that some self-tanners use to lend your skin an immediate golden glow, you won’t find it staining your clothes.
Another pro of this product is that it develops a light and natural tan, which is why it is ideal for lighter skin tones.
Avène Moisturizing Self-Tanner Silky Gel
The self-tanning gel for sensitive skin
What it is: a self-tanning gel with a satin texture, suitable for application on both the body and face. Like other self-tanners, this one contains DHA to give the skin a golden, luminous, sun-kissed hue; however, unlike other self-tanners, this one features Avène‘s expertise in sensitive skin care. It even includes Avène Thermal Spring Water in the formula, to help keep the skin hydrated and calm.
Why we like it: if you have sensitive skin but don’t want to give up a sun-kissed tan, this product is ideal for you. Formulated by Avène, a French pharmacy brand with a flawless track record with sensitive skin, this self-tanning gel helps keep your skin healthy and hydrated while giving you that beloved summer glow.
Now that you know everything about self-tanning gels, you can decide how this type of product fits into your tanning journey. Explore all our self-tanning products in the shop, and go get that dreamy sunless tan!
Beauty Writer & Editor