The 9 commandments of self-tanning

The healthiest tan comes from a cream. Or a spray bottle. Or, basically, anything that isn’t the sun itself, since ultraviolet rays cause premature skin aging and (much more concerningly) cancer. So if you’re going for bronze this summer, self-tanner is the way to go. RHW is a fan of self-tan, too; she frequently relies on professional spray tan artist James Read for her red carpet glow. And while nabbing a session with him is next to impossible, we’ve got the next best thing for you: self-tan secrets straight from the man himself. —Annie Tomlin

self-tanner guide

Choose your method

Mists, sprays, oils, creams—all are effective, so choose the self-tan that is easiest for you. “The whole trend is all about lifestyle tanning, products that allow you to go along with your everyday business,” Read says. He’s particularly proud of his Coconut Water Tan Mist, which dries quickly enough to allow you to get dressed right away.

Respect your skin tone

“A tan should work with your look, not overpower it,” Read says. “If you use self-tan right, it’s about enhancing your own color.” So, for example, people with porcelain skin should aim for tawny, not deep bronze. On that note, self-tanner complements a variety of skin tones, not just fair ones. “Some people with dark skin think they can’t tan,” Read notes, “but it brings a really nice glow to the skin.”

But first, selfie

“A common mistake people make is forgetting to test a tan to see if it’s for them,” Read says. He advises doing a patch test to gauge whether a formula flatters your skin tone. Here’s how: Apply a small amount on an inconspicuous place, then wait for it to develop. Snap a picture with the flash on. “You’ll see if it suits you, and if the tan is orange, the camera will show that, too,” Read says.

Exfoliate, then moisturize

Rough skin is the culprit behind uneven, patchy tan. So, 24 hours before applying your self-tanner, exfoliate from head to toe and shave or wax if you like. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to avoid oil-based scrubs. “People say oil affects the tan,” Read says. “It doesn’t. Small amounts are fine the day before, because it dries anyway—and it makes the skin even more supple and hydrated.” After exfoliating, moisturize dry areas such as hands, feet, elbows, and knees. There, you’re ready now.

rosie huntington-whiteley with self-tan from james read

Layer your tan

Read swears by layering smaller amounts of product rather than applying everything at once. “When I’ve tanned Rosie, it’s in really fine layers,” he says. “She then goes out with it on, so it looks natural.” Another bonus: This method leads to faster drying, so you’ll actually save time in the long run.

Cover every inch

For hard-to-reach places like your back, wrap a tanning mitt around a wooden spoon and secure it with a rubber band. Boom—there’s your applicator. (Read confesses that in a pinch, he’s also used a mini paint roller.)

Watch your hands

“When you look at your hand, it should look glowy—you don’t want to see lines between the fingers,” Read says. After using a tanning mitt to apply self-tan to your arms, use the leftover product on the mitt on your hands. By never applying directly to your hands, you’ll produce the most realistic tan. (The same technique goes for legs and feet. Now you know!)


Make it last

Moisturize your skin daily to keep your faux glow going, consider using an electric razor to avoid shaving off your tan, and don’t reapply self-tanner until the existing tan has faded first. “A lot of people keep putting new tan on top of an old one, but then it gets patchy,” Read says. As your color begins to fade, do as many of his clients do: Use a wash-off tan to keep the tone even. Then, self-tan all over again.

Repeat this mantra

Even if you harbor dreams of achieving a Malibu Barbie level of bronze, start slow. “Less is always more with self-tan,” Read says. Adding another layer is easy; frantically scrubbing off excess self-tan is not. Go forth and self-tan accordingly.

Pool and model photographs courtesy of James Read.

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  1. CottonCandyDreams

    This article is right on time! I just started my summer self tanning for an event I have in 3 weeks. I am going to try the slowly- build- a -tan with thin layers every day until I get to the golden bronze I try to achieve every summer ((( laugh emoji/cry emoji)))

    • Rose Inc.

      That is *commitment.* We’re impressed. —Team Rose Inc.

  2. Maryam

    I love this and I am a fan of self tan too thanks for the beautiful explain ❤️

  3. Emily

    What is a “wash-off tan”? Never heard of this – product recommendation?

    • Rose Inc.

      Hey Emily! These are just temporary tinted creams. They stay dry (and won’t rub off on your clothes) and then can be washed off in the shower. We like James Read’s version, and if you’re looking in the drugstore, Sally Hansen Airbrush Legs is another option. Hope this helps! —Team Rose Inc.

  4. Hannah

    Any advice on using fake tan on the face as part of a skin care regimen? I am using retinol and AHAs and wonder if these will reduce the longevity of fake tan?

    • Rose Inc.

      Hey Hannah! AHAs and retinols will make your skin turn over faster, so you’ll probably need to apply self-tanner more frequently. Be sure to apply your skin care before the self-tan (in other words, don’t apply self-tan, then retinol). —Team Rose Inc.

  5. Kirsty

    Great tips, Jaclyn Hill has a great video on fake tanning, it’s years old but really good, it’s where I learned to use a makeup brush to get even tan in certain places! xx

  6. Alisha

    I tan so easily, it’s somewhat shameful how often I forget to put on sunscreen. Any recommendations for a daily face moisturizer with SPF?

    • Rose Inc.

      Yes, yes, yes! RHW is a fan of Suntegrity. We’re working on a guide to moisturizers with SPF, which will be out later this month. We will have a variety of options for every skin tone and budget. More very soon! —Team Rose Inc.

  7. Ella

    Do you have any product recommendations?
    Thank you in advance 🙂

    • Rose Inc.

      Hi Ella! James uses his own products on RHW, of course—they’re excellent and pretty much goof-proof. Team Rose Inc. has had good results with those products, the St. Tropez in-shower tan, and Jergens Natural Glow, which is a gradual tan that develops over a few days. —Team Rose Inc.

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