3 Self-Tanners Even Fake-Tan Virgins (Like Me) Can Apply With Confidence

I’ve been reevaluating my “No self-tanners EVER” rule, and these formulas are helping to ease my deep-seated anxiety.

I pride myself on taking a lot of beauty risks. Neon-red hair bleached from black? Why not! Green and black lips? Absolutely! No eyebrows and a face full of glitter? Spectacular! Bleach? Dye? DIY waxing? Bring it on.

Using beauty products to change how I look, and therefore how I see myself, is always fun and nothing to shy away from.

But there is one product I’ve never been able to bring myself to use, ever. And that is self-tanner.

This refusal stems from a traumatic childhood experience. I vividly remember a girl in my grade coming to class, stained with fluorescent orange blotches from forehead to feet. “Fake tan gone wrong,” everyone whispered. And something deep in my heart went, NOPE, NEVER, NOT FOR ME.

I might have not loved being pale as a teenager in a part of the world that worshipped sun-kissed skin, but I was scared of becoming a terracotta Dalmatian just a little bit more.

Lately, though, I’ve been reevaluating my “No self-tanners EVER” rule. Maybe I've been letting a previous bad experience cut me off from something I’d really love! Plus, I am an editor now. If I don’t take these beauty risks, who will?

So I, a self-tanner virgin, tested out three self-tanning products to see which of them gave me the best golden glow.

Jergens Natural Glow Three Days to Glow Moisturizer (Fair to Medium)

This stuff had really good reviews from people around the internet, who praised its subtle and gradual colour buildup. For about $10, the price was right, and it promised results in three days, so I went with it.

Even though I’ve never used a product like this, I know from reading ladymags that you are supposed to EXFOLIATE FIRST, OR ELSE. So I began by cleaning and exfoliating my legs in the shower.

Afterwards, according to the tube (and the website), I was to “smooth the product on, like you would any other moisturiser,” while also “applying in a circular motion to avoid streaks” and “using sparingly on knuckles, elbows, knees, ankles and in between fingers and toes.” This involved a lot of complex calculations, and a fair few panicked moments where visions of nightmare orange joints danced in my head, and more than once I wondered why this was sooooo haaaard.

For all my fellow smell-sensitive people out there: this product has a strong scent. Apparently this is the DHA (the stuff that produces colour) interacting with the skin, and the odor varies considerably from person to person. I have been told that it’s nowhere near as bad as other fake tanners, but for my nose it was still very powerful. If you are bothered by scents, you may prefer the Jergens Odor-Blocking line. They don’t have the quick-developing formula, but apparently the smell is a lot less.

While applying, I had the brainwave to only put it on ONE leg so that I could monitor the colour progression. My other, non-tanned leg would be my control group. This had everything to do with the scientific method, and nothing at all to do with me being too lazy to mess around with both my knees. I, uh, promise.

After one application, my legs looked like this.

You are correct in noticing ZERO difference. I followed all the instructions to the letter: I didn’t get my legs wet for three hours afterwards, didn’t exfoliate afterwards like I normally do, etc. But I was not dissuaded by these non-results, and I continued using it.

After three days of daily use, I only saw a very minor increase in colour. I know that I did everything right, and I am pale enough that I’d definitely see the difference. Maybe I should have used the medium-dark formula, but I was way too scared to do that on my first try.

Jergens says that it gives you natural colour, and I can't fault it for giving me VERY natural colour. It also didn’t rub off on anything (including my white bedsheets) and came off easily when I decided that I wanted it off--which was awesome. The first time that I exfoliated with a firm loofah, the colour came away really nicely and evenly. I didn’t notice any strange residual patches of tan, not even on my feet, which I appreciated.

THE VERDICT: Most of my application problems came from my anxiety rather than from the product itself, so if you’re used to self-tanner, I certainly rate this as easy to apply. The colour was subtle to the point of being indiscernible, and while I’m all about a natural look, I’d have preferred a more significant payoff after all that work. It lasted fine, and removal was a dream.

All over, my experience with this was OK. It seems like my non-result was a bit of an anomaly, so maybe this is a case of individual skin chemistry and a product not working well together. Regardless, I rate this product 2 out of 5 summertime sunglasses.

St. Tropez Self Tan Bronzing Mousse

At the other end of the price spectrum is this self-tanning mousse from St. Tropez. It’s really well-reviewed and it comes with an application mitt, which is the kind of attention to detail that I like. It’s supposed to not have “that tell-tale self tanner smell,” which was primarily the reason I decided to try it out.

I exfoliated well before applying to my left leg only. The instructions told me to moisturise before applying, which I also did. The tanning mousse was really light and incredibly easy to apply with the mitt--I felt really confident right from the start that I wasn’t going to have any patches or streaks, not even on my knee, which cut way down on my anxiety.

The fragrance is slightly floral, but not overpoweringly so, and even as the colour is developing, it didn’t get stinky. I am delighted. This is a major point in this product’s favour.

It says that you can get dressed after 60 seconds, but you have to wait four hours before getting wet or perspiring. I’m unsure how well not sweating for four hours would work in summer, but it really was completely dry to the touch after one minute.

After waiting the required four hours, I showered per the instructions, and dried off to reveal a subtle colour change.

A few reviews said that very fair skin sometimes requires a few layers of this product to get full results, which I did. This is after three applications.

PERFECT.

This is exactly what I wanted: subtle but visible, and not orange. I look like I’ve just spent ten days sunning my buns on a glorious beach... which, in fact, I have. It also lasted really nicely, including through a leg-shave, which, according to what I’ve read, is always the test of a quality fake tan.

THE VERDICT: Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Easy to apply, excellent buildable colour payoff, perfect natural shade and tone. I would definitely use this all over my body. It is a little pricey, but I feel like spending a little more on a product that will temporaily alter your skin colour is probably a good idea. A+, will purchase again. I give this product 5 out of 5 summertime sunglasses.

Josie Maran Bronzing Argan Moisturizer

I’ve had a sample of this sitting on my vanity for some time now, but I was always too scared (and, let’s face it, bundled up under multiple layers of clothing) to try it out. No more! I was testing it out!

Unlike the two other products I tried, this only gives temporary colour--perfect for days when you feel like maybe your skin could use a shimmery boost for a few hours. Plus, I am all about argan oil, and I love Josie Maran’s formulation because it has zero smell. I had high hopes for this product.

The consistency of this product will be familiar to anyone who has tried the Argan Oil from the line--it’s moisturising-feeling, yet strangely dry. I applied it to my left leg after exfoliating (which you don’t have to do for this temporary bronzer, but I wanted to keep all my test conditions the same to ensure consistent results), and right away I saw the shimmery brown colour appear on my skin.

You can see that this gives a slightly more orange-toned tan than the others have, which is fine because it isn’t too much. In the sunlight--and I would also assume under artificial lighting--this is VERY SPARKLY. It’s like wearing wonderful spangly tights! I really like this, but I know not everyone wants to glitter wherever they go.

Unlike the classic Argan Oil, this product has a smell. It isn’t unpleasant; I’d describe it as heavy but luxurious. I grew to like it, but if you have odor sensitivities, definitely test it out first.

For a deeper glow, the bottle says to reapply after five minutes. Even though I liked the subtle colour, I wanted to see how far down this tanning rabbit hole I could go. So I applied again, and this was my result.

This was A LOT of colour, and it sent me into a panic before I remembered that it washes off. So I just rinsed my leg and applied another single coat, which looked way more normal. Let that be a lesson to me in overdoing it!

It worried me that this rinsed off so easily. What would happen, I wondered, if I wore this out at night and someone spilled a drink on me? I tested it by spraying some water onto my leg (rather than splashing water everywhere, which is a nightmare) and seeing what happened.

OK, so it runs a little. Noted. Don’t wear this if you’re going out in a rainstorm, or you’re having drinks with the cast of Dynasty.

A fun side-effect: because this is first and foremost a moisturiser, even after you wash it off, your skin feels amazing. Totally buttery-soft and beautiful. You might even have a hint of shimmer left behind, depending on how thoroughly you scrub.

THE VERDICT: If you want a boost of colour and shimmer for one night only, this is a solid product. It doesn’t take much to give great results, smells nice and leaves your leg in better shape than you found them. On the con side, it’s not water-resistant and it transferred a little onto my clothing (luckily it washed out). Overall, I give this product 3 out of 5 summertime sunglasses.

Self-tanners have really changed since I was in high school, and although I can’t say that I’ll be using these products all the time--I like my natural pallor--it’s nice to know that I could if I wanted to.

What are your favourite self-tanning products? Do you have any hilarious bronzer or fake tan stories to share? Tell me everything!