The drug store is packed with all kinds of self-tanning products, including creams, sprays, foams, mousses, brushes, sponges and even disposable moist towelettes. It can all be a little overwhelming, so let's start with the basics.
The active ingredient in most self-tanning products is dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a plant-derived chemical that reacts with amino acids in the top layers of skin. The more DHA in a product, the darker it will make your skin. Likewise, the more product you apply to your skin, the darker your skin will get. Most self-tanners go on clear and reach their full color eight to 24 hours later [source: Mayo Clinic].
Your first decision is to choose a product that compliments your natural complexion. Many self-tanners indicate whether they produce a light or dark tan. If you have naturally pale skin, you don't want to make the leap to super dark right away. Likewise, if you have a darker complexion, a light self-tanner might not make a noticeable difference [source: Brody].
Recently, we've seen the arrival of a new style of self-tanning products called bronzers. These products typically contain less DHA than traditional self-tanners and are often marketed as moisturizers or skin care lotions with a hint of bronzing power. These products usually require repeated use -- sometimes daily -- to build up a noticeable, yet subtle tint. Bronzers are sometimes advertised on product labels as providing "glow," "tint" or "radiance," rather than a tan [source: Chalmers].
If you want to avoid DHA altogether, there are bronzers and self-tanners derived from natural ingredients like walnut shells, coffee bean extracts, cocoa and sugarcane.
It's important to remember that self-tanners aren't sunscreens. If you want UV protection, look for self-tanning products that contain a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15. You can also apply normal sunblock after the self-tanning product has had time to do its job.
Now that you've chosen a self-tanner, there are some important steps that you must take before you even open the bottle.