Tanning Your Hide

Walnut stain, shimmery bronze, or hepatitis? Testing self-tanners from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

Is it my Kabuki-like pallor that made my editor think of me when looking for someone to test self-tanning products? I am one of those people who as a kid never tanned but seasonally got the kind of scalding sunburns that parents can now get arrested for. My current relationship with the sun is that of a fugitive, hiding out when possible, but when forced to confront it, going out disguised in ridiculous hat and sunglasses. But here was a chance to see if I could get honey-colored, sun-kissed skin without increasing my risk of melanoma.

I swept the drug store and department store of self-tanning products (I even found one at my organic market) and brought home 14 items ranging from a low of $5.99 for 4 ounces of CVS’s own Sunless Tanning Lotion to a high of $28.50 for 3.5 ounces of Chanel’s Bronzage Automatique Soleil. Maybe the premium on the Chanel product is because designer Coco Chanel is credited with making the modern tan signify wealth and leisure and not outdoor manual labor. My purchases also revealed that “French” and “tan” are linked as closely as “German” and “sauerkraut.” How else to account for the Gelée Auto-Bronzante Express and Radiance Eternelle knocking around in my shopping bag?

A close reading of the labels of these self-tanners (or, more pretentiously, “bronzers”) reveals that whatever their price there is one universal ingredient that darkens your skin. Every product contains dihydroxyacetone (or DHA), the Food and Drug Administration approved additive. According to the Skin Care and Cosmetic Ingredients Dictionary, DHA, which is produced through “the action of certain bacteria on glycerol,” when applied to the skin “reacts with amino acids” to give you a fake tan. It sounds ominous but the FDA has found DHA to be harmless—unless injected in large doses. Of course sauerkraut is probably deadly when injected in large doses.

Since the companies all rely on DHA to give you that just-returned-from-the-Riviera or just-got-diagnosed-with-hepatitis look, isn’t everything else just packaging and marketing? No, it turns out. While all 14 products did darken my skin, there was a significant variation in result. My method was to apply all products at the same sitting to 14 sections of my legs and abdomen. Because it takes several hours for the products to reach their apex of colorization, I rated each on quality of application and smell and on what I looked like after 24 hours, three days, and a week.

The Products (in order of cost per ounce)

NameSizePricePurchase PlacePrice per oz.
CVS Sunless Tanning Lotion 4 oz. $5.99 Drugstore$1.50
Alba Botanica Advanced Sunless Tanning Lotion 4 oz. $8.99 Organic grocery store$2.25
Neutrogena Instant Bronze 4 oz. $9.99 Drugstore$2.50
Clinique Self-Sun4.2 oz.$15.50 Department store $3.69
Coppertone Endless Summer3.7 oz. $13.99 Drugstore$3.78
Shiseido Self-Tanning Moisturizing Gel 5 oz. $20.00Department store $4.00
Elizabeth Arden Oil-Free Self-Tanning Lotion 4.2 oz. $21.00Department store$5.00
Borghese Spa Solare 5 oz.$25.00 Department store $5.00
Lancôme Soleil Flash Bronzer 5 oz.$25.00 Department store $5.00
Bain de Soleil Radiance Eternelle 3.2 oz. $16.49 Drugstore $5.15
Prescriptives Anywear 4.2 oz. $22.00 Department store $5.23
Clarins Gelée Auto-Bronzante Express 4.4 oz $25.00Department store$5.60
Dior Auto-Bronzant Doré 4.2 oz. $26.00 Department store $6.20
Chanel Bronzage Automatique Soleil 3.5 oz. $28.50 Department store $8.10

Because many cosmetic lines offer multiple self-tanning products, I decided to stick to the gel/lotion/foam category and not test the sprays. (All products came in lotion form, but not all came in spray form, and I wanted to include as many brands as possible.) When there were color choices, I went for medium, although only dark was available where I bought Bain de Soleil. The directions generally consisted of “apply evenly to dry skin” and then advised immediate and thorough washing of the hands. This warning is so you can avoid the “My legs may look like I’ve been hanging at the beach with Jean-Claude, but my palms tell you I’ve been dipping into a vat of self-tanner” syndrome.


CVS Sunless Tanning Lotion White moisturizer-like cream, easy to spread, goes on clear; almost undetectable odor
Alba Botanica Advanced Sunless Tanning Lotion White lotion, easy to spread, goes on clear; lightly spicy aroma
Neutrogena Instant BronzeFoamy, loose liquid, a little messy, goes on color of café au lait; inoffensive perfume scent
Clinique Self-SunLooks like pearly chocolate sauce, easy to spread, goes on bronze; almost undetectable odor
Coppertone Endless SummerA double tube with a single pump head that releases a pink and white cream like a twist of frozen yogurt, requires mixing the colors in the hand; whiff of chemical plant; leaves hands coated with water-impervious oil
Shiseido Self-Tanning Moisturizing Gel Clear liquidy gel or gel-like liquid, easy to spread, goes on clear; room freshener scent
Elizabeth Arden Oil-Free Self-Tanning Lotion White lotion goes on clear, easy to spread; medicinal odor
Borghese Spa Solare White lotion, easy to spread, goes on clear; unpleasant medicinal smell
Lancôme Soleil Flash Bronzer Peachy lotion, easy to spread, goes on clear; lightly medicinal smell
Bain de Soleil Radiance Eternelle Exact same frozen yogurt double pump as Coppertone, only this is a twist of caramel and coffee, within minutes dark color starts developing; same chemical smell as Coppertone, same hand-coating (Do we detect a parent company? Yes, Schering-Plough, makers of Coppertone, bought Bain de Soleil a few years ago.)
Prescriptives Anywear White gel, easy to spread, goes on clear; essentially unscented
Clarins Gelée Auto-Bronzante Express Opaque gel, easy to spread, goes on clear; chemical factory smell—by far the worst; hard to remove from hands
Dior Auto-Bronzant Doré Light bronze pearly lotion, easy to spread, quickly give skin a pearly sheen; pleasantly grassy smell
Chanel Bronzage Automatique Soleil Pump bottle produces peach colored string of gel, spreads very smoothly, goes on clear; slightly spicy smell

An hour later I went to bed looking for the most part as pallid as I usually do. I awoke the next morning to find I had a corpus of many colors. My husband, forgetting the experiment of the night before, looked at my legs as I stood up and said, “What happened?” I didn’t look like a hopeful in a George Hamilton tanning contest, I looked like a dining room table after the owners got very drunk then decided to embark on a do-it-yourself staining project. It’s probably not a successful cosmetic enhancement that leaves you feeling, “I can’t go out in public looking like this.” Some of the colors did look like skin, but overall I was afraid if I wore a skirt I would attract woodpeckers. At least none of the tanners left me looking like I’d eaten a bad oyster and gotten jaundice.

Twenty-Four Hours Later

CVS Sunless Tanning Lotion Dark cherry wood, very uneven
Alba Botanica Advanced Sunless Tanning Lotion Realistic light golden tan
Neutrogena Instant BronzeWalnut stain
Clinique Self-SunMaple stain with a pearly finish, somewhat streaky
Coppertone Endless SummerIs it the power of suggestion? It actually looks copper, although with a matte finish
Shiseido Self-Tanning Moisturizing Gel Translucent light bronze
Elizabeth Arden Oil-Free Self-Tanning Lotion Sheer reddish brown, I look as if I’m a few hours away from a sunburn
Borghese Spa Solare Reddish brown, definitely skin-colored not wood-colored, just not a color my skin would ever turn
Lancôme Soleil Flash Bronzer Medium brown but sheer, reddish undertone
Bain de Soleil Radiance Eternelle Teak, very shiny, with an even finish
Prescriptives Anywear Golden brown; more than I would ever get, but a realistic skin color
Clarins Gelée Auto-Bronzante Express A light, basic, natural-looking tan
Dior Auto-Bronzant Doré Shimmery bronze; unnatural but interesting
Chanel Bronzage Automatique Soleil Light, even bronze

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

Winners and Losers Of the under-$20 products, Alba Botanica was definitely the winner. Of the more expensive products, Clarins—despite its stinky application—looked most natural on me. Maintaining your “tan” or deepening it enough to bring back visions of yachting with Jackie and Ari requires frequent slathering. Without such upkeep, normal skin shedding will eventually rid you of your phony tan in several days.

Nevertheless, at Day 3 I was still quite colorful. By now the inexact nature of applying these products was revealed. CVS’s made me look as if I’d poured an espresso down my leg. Overall, Neutrogena had lightened up considerably, but there was a remaining dark spot at mid-calf. Shiseido was also lighter but left me with what looked like a dark birthmark. The packages warn you to apply the product lightly to knee and ankle because differences in skin thickness mean different color results. This is true. Bain de Soleil left dark spots on knee and ankle, as did Lancôme and Borghese. Coppertone was uneven and coppery. Dior, while even, was too dark, as was Clinique. Prescriptives, Elizabeth Arden, Chanel, Alba Botanica, and Clarins all looked pretty natural. But, in fairness, not all of them got on my knee or ankle, so their even tone may just be a result of not being applied to skin of elephant thickness.

By the end of the week, I was mostly back to normal. I’ll give credit to CVS—its product may be cheap and lousy looking, but it has real staying power. Neutrogena’s color had faded and evened out to a light tan. Dior lost some of its bronzy luster, but some color still remained. Clinique, Elizabeth Arden, and Alba Bontanica also had a little sun-power left. The rest had faded to virtually nothing.

For me, given price and quality of color, the winner was Alba Botanica. But the whole experiment convinced me that there is no way to get a real tan without sun damage and no way to get a fake tan without spending too much time spreading goop on your body and hoping you’ve applied it with impossible precision. No matter what color I make my legs, I’m not going to convince myself or anyone else that I just got back from my pied-à-terre in St. Tropez.