Top Tips for Faking a Tan Without Frying Your Wallet

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You can darken your skin with a bronzer or self-tanner on the cheap if you know which products to buy. Here are some tips.

Rates of melanoma — the deadliest type of skin cancer — have doubled over the past few decades, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That’s bad news for anyone hoping to suntan away their pasty skin color this summer.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration scientist Sharon Miller, an expert on ultraviolet radiation and tanning, warns:

“Although some people think that a tan gives them a ‘healthy’ glow, any tan is a sign of skin damage.”

Both sunshine and tanning beds expose us to UVA and UVB radiation, increasing the risk of skin cancer and premature wrinkles, according to the FDA.

Those hoping to darken their skin while avoiding ultraviolet radiation generally have two main options: bronzers and self-tanners.

The following tips will help you buy such products for as little as possible, while also making your faux glow last for as long as possible.


Bronzer is generally considered to be a type of makeup and primarily used on the face. The product’s name explains its function.

While it’s easy to sink dozens of dollars into high-end options, it’s also not difficult to find choices at drugstores or big-box stores that work well, but cost just a few dollars.

Like other types of makeup, bronzer comes in various forms (like powders and sticks) and with various sheens (like shimmer or matte). The best combination depends on skin type and personal preference.

There are various opinions about the best way to apply bronzer. You will find countless tutorials online. So if you’re new to bronzer, check out several techniques and experiment at home.


For the rest of the body, there are self-tanners, also known as sunless tanners. These also come in various forms, like lotion and sprays.

Two years ago, Consumer Reports named L’Oréal Paris Sublime Bronze ProPerfect Salon Airbrush Self-Tanning Mist in Medium Natural Tan as the “best sunless tanner.” The runners-up included Walmart’s Equate Beauty Self Tan Bronzing Spray.

On the other hand, Consumer Reports declared Banana Boat’s Summer Color Self-Tanning Lotion and Neutrogena’s MicroMist Airbrush Sunless Tan “not so hot” because they “gave a slightly lighter tan.” The Banana Boat option also gave some of the magazine’s testers “an orange color that was sometimes streaky or blotchy.”

Self-tanners can be tricky to apply. And because they’re designed to last for days, self-tanner application errors usually can’t be washed off like poorly applied bronzer.

To get the best bottled tan:

  1. Read any special directions. Check these out on any self-tanner you purchase.
  2. Exfoliate first. This is especially important for areas of thicker skin. New York-based dermatologist Dr. Amy Newburger tells Consumer Reports that self-tanners appear darker on areas of the body with more dead skin cells, such as knees and elbows. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) says to exfoliate first with a washcloth, and Newburger recommends a body cleanser containing salicylic acid, alpha hydroxy acid or urea.
  3. Apply body lotion. This helps prevent an uneven sunless tan that’s darker on areas of rougher skin. Alternatively, you can moisturize any rough patches after applying tanner to dilute the color in those spots.
  4. Apply tanner in sections. The AAD recommends applying the product in sections like the arms, legs and torso. Massage it into the skin in circular motions and wash your hands after each section to avoid orange-tinted palms. For a natural look, lightly extend the tanner from your wrists to your hands, and from your ankles to your feet. Blend well at your joints.
  5. Allow the product to dry. Wait for thorough drying before putting on clothes. This helps you avoid ruining your tan or your clothes.
  6. Avoid water for several hours. This includes showering and swimming. New York-based stylist LeAura Luciano tells Consumer Reports that chlorine might bleach the skin and therefore lighten the tan.
  7. Reapply the next day. This will give you more intense results.
  8. Don’t forget the sunscreen. A faux tan does not provide sun protection. For help finding the best sunscreen, check out “The ABCs of Sun Protection.”

What’s your favorite way to get a “tan” without the risk of extra sun exposure? Share your thoughts in the “Comments & discussion” section below or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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