Written by Grove Collaborative

Natural self-tanners: Grove's guide to a nontoxic, skin-friendly sunless tan.

Last Updated: October 1, 2020

Get a sun-kissed glow without skin damage or questionable ingredients with our guide to natural self tanners and sunless tanning.

Here at Grove Collaborative, we’re big believers in the power of natural products — both for ourselves and for the planet. But we know making the switch can be daunting, especially if you’re accustomed to conventional products and are new to the world of natural, eco-friendly alternatives. That’s why we’ve created Beginner’s Guides to Natural. Each week, we’ll give you a primer on the ins and outs of transitioning to a natural version of a common household item, plus a few of our favorite brands for making the switch. Let’s get to swapping!

Natural self-tanners can give you a worry-free bronzed hue, and they’re much better for your skin than laying out in the sun. Rather than being a sign of good health, a tan from sunbathing or using a tanning bed actually means your skin cells have been damaged and puts you at greater risk of developing skin cancer, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. When UV rays penetrate the skin, melanin is released to try to protect it from further harm. Much like a sunburn, tanning speeds aging and can lead to age spots, leathery skin, loss of firmness, and wrinkles.

But you don’t have to put your skin and health at risk for a golden glow. Natural self-tanners are a safe, effective way of keeping your skin bronzed year round. Here’s how to use them to get an even, streak-free tan that doesn't leave you looking like a walking cheese puff.

Natural self-tanner basics

How do natural self-tanners work?

Most self-tanners, including natural options, use dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a colorless chemical that is made by fermenting plant sugars, to simulate a tan. DHA binds to the proteins in the dead skin cells that make up the outer layer of your skin and causes them to gently darken.

Are self-tanners harmful?

Generally, self-tanners are a safer alternative to sun exposure, since they result in a tan without exposing your skin to UV rays. And natural sunless tanners are made without dyes, artificial fragrances, parabens, or other questionable ingredients, making them a healthier alternative to conventional self-tanners — especially if you’re used to airbrush or other sprayed options. Those self-tanning methods have the potential for inhalation of DHA, which you should avoid breathing in fumes or droplets.

Like many products applied directly to the skin, like lotion, you’ll likely want to spot test a small area to check for any adverse reactions, including contact dermatitis, before covering your body in self-tanner. And avoid placing self-tanner near your eyes and lips.

Will natural self-tanner protect me from the sun?

Most natural self-tanners (and conventional sunless tanners, for that matter) do not contain sunscreen, so you’ll need to put on SPF if you’ll be exposing your skin to the sun. Wear sun protective clothing and apply natural sunscreen before you go outside or sit near a window. Prudence Millsap, managing partner at Beauty by Earth, recommends waiting 30 minutes to an hour after applying a self-tanner to slather on SPF.

Top tips for applying (and mistakes to avoid)

1. Exfoliate in advance

Give your skin a good scrub and shave, if you’d like. Dry patches can give you an uneven, splotchy tan.

2. Don’t apply right after shaving

Wait at least five to six hours after shaving before applying to prevent your pores from darkening more than the surrounding skin.

3. Protect your hands

Use gloves or a self-tanning mitt to avoid orange palms. If you want to use your bare hands, put lotion on them before you start and wash them with soap immediately after rubbing in each section to avoid staining.

4. Apply in sections

Start with your legs and work your way up so you don’t crease or accidentally wipe off the product while you apply elsewhere.

5. Use a thin, even layer

Massage the product into your skin with circular motions to help prevent streaking and missed spots.

6. Go light on rougher areas

Heels, knees, and elbows are all susceptible to picking up extra tint, so consider going lighter here or rubbing in a little lotion first to hydrate and reduce absorption.

8. Build color gradually

Reapply daily until you like the color. Once you have a base color you like, reapply every 4-5 days to maintain it.

Tips for extending your self-tan

Apply at night

You’ll need to keep your skin dry for at least five hours after applying, and that includes sweat! If you can, apply on cool evenings and wear loose clothing to prevent sweating or rubbing the product off.

Be gentle on your skin

Shower less frequently and use cool or warm water when you do. Moisturize daily, but especially after you bathe or swim. Only exfoliate when you’re getting ready to reapply, or you run the risk of stripping your tan.

Looking for more sustainable swaps and other eco-friendly switches you can make at home? Grove has you covered. From timely topics such as our handwashing and hand sanitizer breakdown to evergreen primers like our rundown on how to go plastic free, our handy guides are here to answer your most pressing questions. And let us know if you have any natural self-tanner questions (or share your own tips for making the switch using #grovehome) by following Grove Collaborative on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

If you're ready to make the switch to natural self-tanner and sunscreen or other eco- and body-friendly products, explore Grove Collaborative's bath and body selection.

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