No-breakout makeup: sunless tanning

How to get a beachy glow — no UV damage necessary

Stephanie Papanikolas Avatar

Stephanie Papanikolas
Jul 22, 2019 · 7 min read

We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

When the season changes, so can our skincare routines. We know it’s a persistent trend, but when we say trying to get a “base tan” is one of the worst things you can do for your summer skin, we’re looking out for you. Even though your sunscreen application should be sure as the sun all year round, that doesn’t mean you have to miss out on that bronzy glow altogether!

At Curology, we’re big fans of sunless tanning. Sunless tanning lotion uses pigments — not UV exposure — in order to bronze the skin. Self-tanners and indoor tanning lotions are the best alternatives to laying out (whether that’s by the pool or — even worse — in a tanning booth) because they can even out your complexion without leading to signs of sun damage.

Although genetic and hormonal variables may influence how much melanin is produced by our skin, any “natural” tan is, unfortunately, a sign of sun damage. And with so many suntan lotions available — not all of them sunless — it can be confusing to decide what’s right for your skin. Even the best tanning oils, tanning lotions, and even some after-sun lotions depend on overexposure to UV rays in order to bring out your bronze. This is bad news for anyone with acne, because not only are a lot of these products pore-clogging, but sun damage may worsen acne signs such as hyper pigmentation. Chronic sun exposure over years may lead to large pores, and blackheads/whiteheads (called senile and — no joke — solar comedones). Long story short, the best tanning lotion is one that doesn’t depend on damaging your skin!

Why tanning beds are literally the worst

Tanning beds emit UVA ray doses that are even more intense than what you get from the sun, so before you fake bake yourself to oblivion, consider this: prolonged UVA exposure damages the collagen fibers in the dermis resulting in drooping, wrinkles, loss of skin elasticity, thinner and more translucent skin, broken capillaries, liver or age spots, dry, rough and leathery skin and (potentially) skin cancers.No amount of post-tan oiling or moisturizing will fix that!

At Curology, we believe skincare should not just be about health, but also about simplicity — whether that’s the number of steps in your routine or the number of ingredients in your product’s formula. So this summer, we researched the best sunless tanners and best self tanners — read on to hear about our picks!

How to check for pore-clogging ingredients

You can use CosDNA.com to look up the acne and irritation ratings of many cosmetic ingredients. There’s a tutorial on how to look up ingredients in our first No-Breakout Makeup post!

When it comes to tanning lotions, be on the lookout for the ingredients denatured alcohol and, our favorite frenemy, coconut oil. Many tanning lotions contain denatured alcohol, which tends to be overly drying. Additionally, many sunless tanners contain coconut oil, which might smell delicious, and might also clog your pores imperceptibly. While some people can use products with these ingredients without issues, if you’re concerned about skin irritation, I’d recommend avoiding them.

Another thing to consider is that alcohol- and fragrance-free tanning lotions are hard to come by. However, fatty alcohols like cetyl alcohol and its derivatives are unlikely to dry you out and in fact may be moisturizing. When it comes to fragrance, even pure essential oils have the potential to cause allergic reactions. Like most things in skincare, it’s all highly personal!

At Curology, we strive to help everyone’s unique skin, so here are our takeaways when it comes the best self tanners for the face and body: even though these are our recommendations, we still think you should patch-test these products before applying all over your body or face. Patch testing is also a good idea to see how the product interacts with your skintone, since some tanning lotions work almost instantly, while others gradually tint your skin with repeated use.

A custom superbottle for your skin.

How to prep your body for sunless tanner

For best results, you can prep your body for tanning products by doing the following:

  1. Exfoliate your elbows, around your cuticles, and around the ankles, where dead skin cells tend to build up before you apply self-tanner to ensure an even application. You might want a body scrub. As a typical South Florida gal, my personal absolute favorite is The Keys Salt Scrub, but if you’ve already got your own favorite, whatever exfoliation works best for you will give you a nice clean canvas for the self-tanner to work on. Shaving your legs right before using self-tanner can help, too.

  2. Use an applicator like the ULTA Sunless Mit. It makes it way easier to get an even, consistent result — and at $6, it’s a smart investment.

  3. Always do a small patch test to make sure you like the color pay-off and the formula doesn’t irritate your skin. Patch test on an area of your body that will be easy to cover in case you don’t like the results. Remember, even if a product is non-comedogenic, the rest of the ingredients might not mesh with your unique skin.

That’s enough nerdery for one blog post — let’s get to the fun: our top picks for best indoor tanning lotions for 2019.

The best self-tanner for face

Worried about acne? Here’s the best sunless tanners for your face.

1. Tanceuticals CC Self Tanning Face Lotion

  • In Light or Dark

  • This is a non-comedogenic formula specifically formulated for the face, which is why it’s a persistent fave of us beauty geeks at Curology.

  • It contains aloe vera, which has some potential skin benefits!

  • If you have sensitive skin, this one has added fragrance that may be irritating.

2. Caribbean Solutions Beach Colours Self Tanner

  • In one shade

  • This is a non-comedogenic, alcohol-free formula with aloe as the main ingredient.

  • The formula of this product has few ingredients, making it simple in comparison to other self-tanners.

  • One thing to consider is that it contains “essential oils,” which are a known unknown when it comes to how it reacts with your skin. (I know I’m not your mom, but I’ll say it again: patch test!)

3. Tanologist Water Medium Sunless Tanning Treatments

  • In one shade

  • The non-comedogenic formula of this tanner is unlikely to clog pores.

  • It performs like a setting spray, so it’s easy to use.

  • It contains alcohol-based fragrances and essential oils, so this may not be the best product for super-dry or super-sensitive skin.

What’s with all the fuss over aloe? Read more about the benefits of aloe vera skincare.

The best self-tanner for body

Every body is a beach body: here are our picks for the best self-tanning lotions.

1. NKD SKN Gradual Glow Daily Tan Moisturizer

  • In one shade

  • Non-comedogenic formula, as per usual!

  • If you love the Vita Liberata Self-Tanning Lotion we mentioned in our first self-tanners post, this one is the drugstore dupe!

  • Aloe is the main ingredient. It also contains hyaluronic acid which helps with moisture retention.

  • Just a head’s up, this product contains salicylic acid. We actually don’t mind salicylic acid, which has shown to be effective in treating breakouts — we just recommend you avoid it (along with other Beta Hydroxy Acids) if you’re adjusting to your Curology custom cream.

2. Neutrogena Build-A-Tan Gradual Sunless Tanning

  • In one shade

  • This product has been consistently popular for years. It was even one of last year’s picks for best fake tanners. And — good news! — the formula is non-comedogenic

  • It’s not fragrance-free, so avoid this if you’re fragrance-wary!

3. Sally Hansen Airbrush Legs Lotion

  • In 5 shades — whoa!

  • We’re here for OG beauty guru Sally Hansen’s non-comedogenic tanning lotion. We might even stan.

  • The Airbrush Legs Lotion is intended to help even the appearance of your natural skin tone, and can cover freckles and veins.

  • This product is fragrance-free!

4. Vita Liberata Body Blur Sunless Glow Self Tanning Instant HD Skin Finish

  • In Latte and Latte Light

  • In addition to being non-comedogenic, it is also fragrance-free!

  • Contains aloe and hyaluronic acid, which, if you didn’t notice yet, we kind of love.

5. SUPERGOOP! Healthy Glow Sunless Tan Broad Spectrum Sunscreen SPF 40

  • In one shade

  • This one is a pick because it just might be the only non-comedogenic self-tanner with broad-spectrum protection.

  • It contains trace amounts of fragrance, so — again — patch test for an allergic reaction.

6. Fake Bake Flawless Self-Tanning Liquid

  • In one shade

  • Fake Bake is a trending brand when it comes to self-tanners, so if you’re a fan, this formula is as close as you can get to non-comedogenic.

  • That said, while none of the ingredients are known to be pore-clogging, it contains SD Alcohol 40B, which is a form of denatured alcohol — you may not want to use this product if you’re concerned about dry skin!

Sunshine on our minds

At Curology, we believe feeling comfortable in your skin shouldn’t have to come at the cost of skin health. If you share our passion for simple formulas and maximum skin benefits, you can start a free trial of Curology's custom, prescription skincare for free*—just pay $4.95 (plus tax) to cover shipping/handling. 

*Subject to consultation. Subscription required. 

We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.

Empowering you with knowledge is our top priority. Our reviews of other brands’ products in this post are not paid endorsements—but they do meet our medically fact-checked standards for ingredients (at the time of publication).

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Stephanie Papanikolas

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