After testing dozens of sunless tanning formulas, these are the ones we've been using all summer long

By Kaitlyn Frey
July 29, 2020 02:50 PM
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We're in the midst of swimsuit season, but with a lot of public beaches, pools and parks closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, you may not be able to soak up the sun at your favorite spots this year. And that's a good thing, says N.Y.C. dermatologist Dr. Robyn Gmyrek of Park View Laser Dermatology.

"No tan occurs without altering your DNA and damaging your skin, so no tan is a safe tan!" Dr. Gmyrek tells PEOPLE. "A self-tanner induced tan, on the other hand, is not really a tan but it looks like one. So if you want the look of a tan, this is your best option."

Now more than ever before, the beauty aisle is filled with an array of sunless tanner products offered in different formulations, from mousses and wipes to lotions and masks. We decided to put dozens of self-tanners to the test to see which ones would give us the most believable bronze. Read on for our editors' thoughts.

Courtesy of SOL by Jergens

The Tester: Kaitlyn Frey, Assistant Style & Beauty Editor

The Review: I have an honorary PhD in three subjects: the KarJenners, Sauvignon Blanc and sunless tanners. With summer approaching, I can't wait to sharpen my expertise in the latter by testing the latest formulas, and these wipes were first on my must-try list.

The first thing I noticed was how large the towelettes are (about the size of an 81/2 x 11 sheet of paper), which I appreciated since each one is supposed to cover your entire body. And while they're not technically for your face, I went ahead and rubbed it all over mine because I like a head-to-toe bronze.

In the seven hours between using the wipe and showering, I never experienced any color transfer on my clothing or my couch — a big win for me! Another win: there was no obvious self-tanner scent until it was dry, but even then, the smell wasn't bad at all.

The results were subtle, which is a plus for most people, but I tend to like a deeper tan. The upside of my low-key glow was that it didn't look patchy as it faded. Overall, I'd recommend these wipes for self-tanning newbies or anyone who wants just a hint of color.

Ulta

The Tester: Hanna Flanagan, Style & Beauty Assistant

The Review: As much as I love to try new beauty products, I don't mess around when it comes to self-tanner. I know what I like (looking like I just got back from a day at the beach, 365 days a year) and I stick to a few holy grail formulas because I know they won’t turn me orange.

As the name suggests, this gradual lotion is meant to be used in place of your daily body moisturizer. After exfoliating in the shower (the key to a believable fake tan), I applied the product all over, including a thin layer to my face — risky, I know — but like Kaitlyn, I like my face to look as sun-kissed as my body. It was hydrating and fast-absorbing but, because I have very dry skin, I had to apply another layer of regular body lotion the next morning.

For a gradual formula, I was surprised how quickly this developed — I noticed results after one day. I was also impressed with the color. I find that most lotion-like tanners turn orange but this one has an olive undertone that looks completely natural. However, I did see get some streaks even though I exfoliated and followed the directions. I re-applied a few more times, being extra careful to really massage the lotion in, and the streaks went away. I can't say Tanologist Gradual Tan Lotion will replace my go-to self-tanners, but I will definitely add it to the rotation.

The Tester: Lauren Lieberman, Senior Photo Editor

The Review: I have been quarantining at my uncle’s house in Florida for the last three months, so I'm starting with quite a base tan. And yes, I know any kind of tan is bad, but I wasn't prepared for how strong the sun is down here. That said, I have been protecting my face from the sun, so I wanted to try a product that would help match it to my bronzed body. I chose this lightweight gel mask that you apply at night. It smells just like a day at the beach —coconut-y and amazing — and glides on smooth and absorbs immediately into the skin.

It took a few nights to make my naturally olive skin look like I just got back from vacay, but my believable glow was worth the wait. The only thing I didn't love was the obvious gold sparkles, which luckily did not transfer to my pillow.

Courtesy of Australian Glow

The Tester: Andrea Lavinthal, Style & Beauty Director

The Review:  I've been living at the Jersey Shore for a few months now, and unlike the tanning booth bronze aesthetic  you may have seen on TV (hi, Snooki and JWoww!), I practice safe sun and have the pasty legs and arms to prove it. But just because I sit under an umbrella at the beach, doesn't mean I want to look the part. So I volunteered to try Australian Glow self-tanning mousse in medium, which contains organic Kakadu plum for hydration (fancy!) and promises a "beautiful natural looking tan."

The first time I applied the chocolate-colored, coconut-scented formula, I didn't use the brand's tanning mitt out of sheer laziness. It didn't seem to affect the results, which were quite impressive, but I had to scrub my hands a few times until the color faded. A few days later I used the mousse again, only this time I applied it while wearing the mitt. What a game-changer! It was such a breeze to blend into my legs, especially tricky spots like my ankles, knees and elbows. And I didn't have to lose a layer of skin on my palms afterwards. Overall, I loved everything about this stuff and will be using it all summer to maintain my Jersey girl glow.

James Read

The Tester: Kaitlyn Frey, Assistant Style & Beauty Editor

The Review: One of the challenges of self-tanning is that after applying it, you often need to skip a night of your normal skincare routine which can leave your skin feeling dry and dull. I couldn't wait to test these transportable drops which you easily add to your favorite moisturizer, serum or body lotion so you don't need to sacrifice hydration for a tan.

I alternated between mixing four to five drops of the formula into my moisturizer in the morning and night. Once it was in the palm of my hand, I mixed both products together and massaged it into my face, neck and décolletage. Within 12 hours, when I looked in the mirror my skin was bronzed and glowy without looking too "in-your-face" tan. I did this a few days in a row to build up the color, and once I noticed the shade begin to fade, I started to add some more back into my routine.

I loved the tan that this imparted onto my complexion. It was so easy to incorporate the product into my day-to-day regimen and was totally mess-free. I also found the packaging of these drops to be genius as well. It's something I could easily toss in a bag and take on a trip without worrying about any spillage.

Sephora

The Tester: Sarah Ball, Market Editor

The Review: I have always been a huge fan of St. Tropez's self-tanner, so when I was offered the opportunity to test their new formula, I jumped. I honestly didn't think there would be any way that the new product could be better than my favorite go-to, but I was wrong.

I loved that the gel was so lightweight, doesn't have a strong scent and went on smoothly thanks to its dark color and mitt which helped me make sure I didn't miss any spots and got a streak-free finish. The biggest difference between this formula and the original is that you're able to decide what kind of tan you want. There are three degrees, light (which requires you to leave it on for one hour), medium (which requires you leave it on for two hours) and dark (which requires you to leave it on for three hours). After you choose how long you want the gel to absorb into the skin, simply hop in the shower and wash it off. Simple as that.

I opted for the darkest tan and the results were like magic. Unlike other self tanners where you have to apply it routinely night after night, this gel works so well and so quickly, that I only have to use it every once in a while to keep that glow going. In conclusion; I'm obsessed!