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If you’re trying to get a bronzed glow at home, the last thing you want is to wind up looking like a Cheeto.

But, more importantly, you probably want to avoid tanners that are loaded with unsafe chemicals. Luckily, some self-tanners use more natural ingredients to produce a natural-looking tan.

I braved the market and tested out a slew of tanners that prioritize natural, organic ingredients, including those with and without dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a color additive that temporarily darkens the skin.

I also chatted with Raechele Cochran Gathers, MD, a Michigan-based dermatologist, to discuss DHA and tanning safety.

“Sunless tanners typically contain DHA and moisturizers,” Gathers says. She explains that DHA is a sugar that interacts with proteins in the skin to form brown pigments called melanoidins. This is how skin darkens after applying a sunless tanner.

DHA is allowed by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) as a color additive in sunless tanning products when applied externally. This doesn’t include the lips or any mucous membranes (moist membranes that line body cavities, like the mouth and nose).

“Marketed sunless tanners typically contain 3 to 5 percent DHA,” Gathers says. She explains that the depth of the tan usually corresponds to the concentration of DHA used and the number of applications.

Gathers points to 2008 research that the Maillard reaction — the reaction that happens between DHA and amino acids in the skin — generates free radicals, which may attack the cell structure, degrade collagen, and promote premature skin aging and wrinkle formation.

A 2018 study suggested that using an antioxidant with a DHA product could help lessen free radical damage.

“Consequently,” Gathers says, “some self-tanners also include antioxidants.”

While there’s some concern over the effects of DHA, Gathers notes that sunless tanning with DHA is generally considered a safer alternative to outdoor or indoor tanning.

If you’re opting for a sunless tan, odds are, you’re already aware of the risks associated with indoor and outdoor tanning.

To name a few:

Plus, there’s the risk for premature skin aging.

In fact, photoaging — which is skin damage due to sunlight exposure and ultraviolet (UV) light — is to blame for a fairly large percentage of visible changes to the skin over your lifetime. The Skin Cancer Foundation suggests it’s about 90 percent, while a 2013 study of white women estimated it to be 80 percent.

“Tanning in the sun or using a tanning bed are discouraged due to the well documented increased risks of skin cancer and premature aging that they present,” Gathers says.

Although the use of DHA in self-tanning products is considered a safer alternative and is FDA approved, Gathers still points out that the FDA also says that DHA shouldn’t be inhaled or applied to areas covered by mucous membranes, including the lips, nose, or around the eyes. This is because the risks of doing so are unknown.

Gathers also addresses another area of concern around the use of DHA. “A study using a 9 percent DHA concentration suggested that DHA may attenuate sunlight-induced vitamin D formation, but this was a small pilot study,” Gathers says. This means that DHA could prevent you from getting as much vitamin D as you’d usually get from the sun.

Still, with the widespread use of DHA in self-tanning products, Gathers says more studies would be helpful to learn more about its safety.

If you want to try a self-tanner, here are some options that contain more natural ingredients.

Some contain DHA, but there are a few options that don’t. Keep in mind that the ones that are DHA-free are wash-off, meaning they’ll only last until your next shower.

Pricing guide

  • $ = under $30
  • $$ = over $30

Best overall natural self-tanner

Skinerals Onyx Self Tanner

  • Price: $
  • Type: DHA tanner

Let’s start with my favorite. This whipped mousse self-tanner contains DHA, but it’s also loaded with antioxidants (Indian gooseberry, acai berry, fig extract, goji berry, green and white tea). As noted earlier, this could help lessen free radical damage.

It also contains vitamins A, C, and E to help rebuild the skin’s barrier and soothe it. It uses plant-derived glycerin to moisturize as well.

I love this self-tanner for its natural ingredients, but it’s my favorite for its color, pleasant scent, fast-drying formula, and even wear. This is the first tanner I tried that didn’t leave me feeling sticky and actually gave a cooling effect after each time I swiped it over me.

Speaking of swiping it on, I also use the Skinerals Padded Microfiber Applicator Mitt, and it’s a game-changer. Usually, self-tan mitts slip and slide around as you use them and can easily stretch out after a couple of uses. Thanks to the band around the wrist, this mitt stays on perfectly. It also feels soft, and it washes nicely after use.

The formula comes in both dark and light shades. I find it to be natural looking and high quality at a reasonable price point.

Best subtle natural self-tanner

The Organic Pharmacy Self Tan

  • Price: $$
  • Type: DHA tanner

This self-tanning lotion is made with shea butter, jojoba oil, and DHA from sugar beet — which, in my opinion, helps minimize the self-tan stink many products are known for.

This product can be used on both the face and body, and the company says it’s a good choice for those with sensitive skin.

I think this product is also a good choice for those with fair skin who are looking to hydrate while getting a subtle glow. Plus it has a light, enjoyable scent.

The product is tinted straight out of the bottle, which may help you see where you’re applying it. However, it’s light enough that it shouldn’t stain clothes.

Happy reviewers note that they love not having to scrub their palms after using it (another fun self-tanning task).

Best smelling natural self-tanner

Suntegrity Natural Self Tanner

  • Price: $$
  • Type: DHA tanner

This self-tanning product has a creamy consistency that matches its frosting-like scent. Despite the DHA, it’s the best-smelling lotion I’ve ever taken a whiff of.

It’s formulated with botanical extracts (goji, acai, mangosteen, and noni), vitamin E, and antioxidants. The formula’s use of organic sweet almond oil, shea butter, and coconut oil with mango seed butter helps make it moisturizing and softening.

It also contains organic rosehip oil, which the company says helps to brighten and regenerate the skin.

Although the formula is creamy and non-greasy, it really goes to town moisturizing. This is a good choice for those who want to hydrate, smell incredible, and get a decent glow going.

It comes in just one buildable shade, which means it may take a couple of applications if you’re looking for a deep tan. However, even with a single application, it’s definitely not the most subtle formula I’ve tested.

This product comes in a bioplastic tube, and it’s free of parabens, phthalates, silicones, sulfates, synthetic fragrances, and dyes.

Best firming natural self-tanner

Whish Coconut Milk + Verbena Self Tanner

  • Price: $
  • Type: DHA tanner

This self-tanning lotion is formulated with goji berry, soap bark extract, and organic pomegranate extract. It works nicely as a daily, tropical scented moisturizer, using organic shea butter, mango butter, and organic aloe to hydrate.

Whish also says this self-tanner firms skin, thanks to kigelia African fruit, seaweed extract, and coffee arabica extract — but I haven’t tested it long enough to report firming results.

The self-tanner comes out white, which may make it tough to see exactly where it’s applied, so be careful not to get too heavy-handed or miss any spots.

Reviewers love the color it produces, saying they see no sign of orange anywhere. I have to agree with those who also love the coconut scent.

I also tried the Whish Coconut Milk + Verbena Exfoliating Body Wash to remove my tan and was impressed. It uses sugar cane, lemon, and a green tea alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) complex to slough off dead skin.

Many exfoliants can be a bit aggressive and leave irritation behind, but this one gently scrubbed my tan away without signs of redness, and it left my skin feeling soft.

Best splurge wash-off self-tanner

Vita Liberata Body Blur Instant HD Skin Finish

  • Price: $$
  • Type: wash-off (DHA-free)

This product is an instant tanner that not only gives deep color quickly, but also helps conceal blemishes. Since it’s a wash-off tanner, it’s DHA-free.

I’ve used this product in the past and was impressed with the results. It hydrates with shea butter and glycerin, and it also has vitamin E.

This is a good choice for those looking to splurge on a luxury wash-off tanning formula, maybe before an event or photoshoot, since it covers imperfections and reflects light.

This pick comes in five shades and is free from perfumes, allergens, alcohols, parabens, and sulfates.

Best budget wash-off self-tanner

Isle of Paradise Disco Tan Instant Wash-Off Body Bronzer

  • Price: $
  • Type: wash-off (DHA-free)

This instant wash-off body bronzer is made with avocado oil, which is high in vitamins A and C. It also has chia seed oil and coconut oil to hydrate and smooth the skin.

The wash-off tanner gives you an instant glow. The company says the formula helps with dryness, dullness, and uneven skin tone and texture. It’s said to provide sheer coverage, a light tint, and a subtle shimmer.

This pick is cruelty-free, vegan, organic, and made without mineral oils.

Best hypoallergenic wash-off self-tanner

Tarte Cosmetics Better Bod Bronze & Contour

  • Price: $$
  • Type: wash-off (DHA-free)

This body bronzer is vegan, waterproof, and hypoallergenic. It’s a full-coverage product designed to blur and mask the appearance of cellulite and varicose veins. The creamy whipped formula is said to smooth and contour the body as well as bronze it.

It’s formulated with maracuja, which is rich in essential fatty acids and vitamin C. It also has vitamin E, glycerin, and black walnut shell extract (which is loaded with antioxidants).

This one is a big hit with reviewers who love that it’s waterproof, easy to blend, and buildable. It’s made without parabens, mineral oil, phthalates, sulfates, or gluten.

When shopping for a self-tanner, you’ll want to consider the ingredients, available shade(s), and price. Here’s what else to take a look at.

Type

Self-tanners come in many forms. While the products in this roundup are either lotions or mousses, there are lots of other types, like wipes, drops, and sticks. There are pros and cons to each.

In general, lotions tend to take more time to soak in, and you can’t always see exactly where the product is being applied. However, they’re usually moisturizing, so they may be a good choice if you have dry skin.

Mousses generally come out of the bottle with a noticeable color, so you can see where you’re applying them. Plus, they’re usually more lightweight and tend to dry faster. However, they might not be as moisturizing as lotions.

DHA content

If you don’t mind using a product with DHA, there are lots of options out there. You may want to choose a product that contains added antioxidants.

Also, know that DHA has a particular odor. Some products mask the smell with added fragrance, while others leave a tell-tale smell behind.

If you’d rather avoid DHA altogether, your only option is a wash-off product.

DHA is famous for its not-so-great smell. Some products manage to reduce the strength of the odor or cleverly disguise it. It may take some product testing for you to find a scent you can live with.

Applying wash-off self-tanner is usually a breeze — just apply it as you would lotion, being careful to not stain clothing or bedding.

Applying DHA-containing self-tanners, on the other hand, can be a bit intimidating at first. Here’s how to do it:

  • Shower and exfoliate. Using your favorite loofa or washcloth, gently exfoliate in the shower before using your self-tanner. This helps get rid of dead skin cells to give you a more even application.
  • Dry off thoroughly. You don’t want any wet or damp skin before applying the product.
  • Moisturize. Apply regular body lotion to areas that tend to be the driest or quickly absorb the product: elbows, inner elbows (where they bend), underarms, knees, and ankles. Let it absorb for a few minutes.
  • Apply self-tanner in portions. Start with one part of your body at a time. Your product may dry quickly, so you’ll want to focus on just one area at a time before applying it to others. It’s generally best to apply it to your skin using circular massaging motions.
  • Wash your hands after each application. Your palms can collect color quickly. Using a matt or glove can help avoid this, but if you’re applying with your bare hands, you’ll need to wash them carefully before you move on to tanning other sections.
  • Be careful around hands, wrists, knees, feet, and ankles. These areas gobble up the product quickly, so don’t over-apply. Try to blend the product as well as you can. It helps to bend your knees and elbows when applying to those areas.
  • Spot treat. If you notice any areas that have too much product on them, softly pat them with a dry cloth. Also, check to see if all areas have been thoroughly rubbed in.
  • Wait to dry. It’s always a good idea to wait 10 minutes before getting dressed.
  • Use sunscreen every day. Your self-tanner generally won’t have SPF, so remember to apply some before leaving the house.
  • Leave on for several hours. Each formula recommends different timeframes before rinsing off in the shower, but it’s usually a good idea to avoid showering, sweating, or any moisture at all for 6 to 8 hours. You may want to try applying it before bed and rinsing it off in the shower when you wake up. If you use cleansers in the shower, you will see your tan lessen compared with just rinsing it off with water.
  • Moisturize. To lock in your tan and to make it last longer, apply moisturizer after you’ve rinsed and throughout the duration of your tan.

To remove self-tanner, be prepared to roll up your sleeves a bit — literally.

Some formulas are relatively easy to remove with gentle exfoliation, but others may take a bit more elbow grease.

In addition to exfoliating with a sponge, loofa, or towel, consider exfoliating creams that contain AHAs, as these can help slough off the tan.

It’s also worth soaking in warm water, taking a hot shower, or going for a swim in a chlorinated pool to help remove the tan.

Self-tanners are a popular alternative to tanning outdoors. However, many contain questionable chemicals. There are also some concerns about DHA.

While more studies are needed to understand the long-term effects of using products with DHA, using self-tanning products is generally considered safer than getting a tan in the sun or from a tanning bed.

If you want to avoid DHA altogether, you can also try a wash-off tanner.


Breanna Mona is a writer based in Cleveland, OH. She holds a master’s degree in media and journalism and writes about health, lifestyle, and entertainment.