I've Self-Tanned Since Middle School, and I Swear By These 8 Drugstore Formulas

Believe it or not, the headline for this story is not clickbait or an exaggeration for dramatic effect. I've used self-tanner on an almost-weekly basis since I was in eighth grade (the result of being endlessly teased for how naturally pasty I was). Lacking parental permission to increase my skin cancer odds by going to tanning salons like many of my peers, I always felt like the odd one out, so I became dependent on the drugstore aisle filled with bottles and spray cans of Jergens and L'Oréal Sublime. At the time, I was convinced a fake tan would be better than looking like I had never had a wink of sun exposure, and it was then that my obsession with self-tanning was born. I've come a long way since then and now love my tan-free fair skin.


(Image credit: @hoskelsa)

These days, I generally skip self-tanner and spray tans. That said, I still consider myself a connoisseur in the art of self-tanning and all the offerings on the market. No joke, I have an entire cupboard at home brimming with mousses, lotions, waters, sprays, powders, and every other self-tanning innovation you can think of. Something that may surprise you? Some of my favorite formulas can be found at the drugstore.

Even though I love pricier picks from Isle of Paradise, St. Tropez, James Read, and Bali Body, I still have love for Jergens, L'Oréal, Sally Hansen, and other low- to mid-cost brands you can find on Amazon or at Walmart. Ahead, I'm sharing eight of the best drugstore self-tanners I personally use, have purchased in a pinch while traveling, and/or have recommended to friends when they don't want to spend $50 on a bottled bronze. Keep scrolling! All my faves lie ahead.

Overall Favorite: Jergens Natural Glow Instant Sun Sunless Tanning Mousse

I hadn't used anything by Jergens in years—until a few months ago that is when I was traveling and needed an affordable self-tanner fast. Formulas have come a long way since then, and let me just say I was wrong to assume this mousse would be as streaky, smelly, and all-around subpar as I remember the original lotions being. I was SO impressed.

This mousse applies without streaks, with minimal smell, dries quickly, and yields the most believable and even tan ever. Even though I have an entire cupboard of expensive self-tanners at home, I went out to CVS and snapped up another bottle of this the second I landed back in L.A. It's that good. I keep my original purchase at home in Arizona for any self-tanner needs on the horizon.

Customer review: "I work inside, so I never get out much to tan. I tried this to get a summer glow, and let me tell you! IT WAS AMAZING. It doesn't look fake. It has a very natural color to it. VERY easy to spread." 

L'Oréal Paris Sublime Bronze Hydrating Self-Tanning Milk

My devotion to L'Oréal's impressive selection of self-tanners has never wavered. These days, however, I prefer the brand's luxe-feeling tanning milk. It costs only $13 but delivers results similar to gradual self-tanning lotions, which are almost four times the price. It's one of the brand's best-selling tan formulas and is even boosted with an extra dose of skin-loving vitamin E.

Customer review: "No complaints and only praise from me regarding this product. Once you learn what you're doing, this is a no-nonsense bronzer. It looks great, works after a day, and can be brought to perfection with a bit of exfoliation. It is very easy and convenient to use and can be maintained over time."

Bondi Sands Aero 1 Hour Express Self-Tanning Foam

Even though this drugstore self-tanner is more expensive than most, it's worth it. Aussies don't mess around when it comes to their glowing skin. I actually wrote all about my love for Bondi Sands here, but this formula is one of my absolute favorites. It dries instantly, so you're not left with that dreaded tackiness. It actually smells good and develops fast. If you hate wearing self-tanner longer than necessary, this foaming formula will be your new BFF this summer. Plus, it works no matter how naturally dark or light your skin tone is.

Customer review: "I have received so many compliments on my tan! Works great! I leave it on for eight hours while I sleep, then wash it off that morning! Works way better than washing it off an hour. Also, there is a green tint. No worries! It turns into a beautiful tan!" 

Tan Towel Self Tan Towelette

Almost every self-tanning brand now has a wipe or towel iteration, but these are the OG. The reviews don't lie, and considering that this drugstore favorite has over 800 reviews with a solid four-star rating on Amazon, it's safe to say this is one of the most dependable self-tanners out there. Plus, the towels are perfect for traveling or touching up small or hard-to-reach spots. I keep them on hand at all times! I've tried other self-tanning towels that have left me disappointed and streaky.

Customer review: "I love these! I've used them before, and they give a perfect tan that lasts for about 3 to 4 days. No streaks and very natural." 


(Image credit: @erin_jahns)

Banana Boat Summer Color Self-Tanning Mist

If you're looking for something fast, mess-free, quick-drying, and suitable for all skin tones, I recommend this affordable drugstore self-tanner from Banana Boat. The smell is one of the less offensive I've sniffed, and its believable and buildable finish is one of the best. It has over 1500 reviews on Amazon and still manages to maintain a nearly solid 4.5-star rating. The fact that it's oil-free is important to me as someone who's prone to breakouts.

Customer review: "Makes you look like you spent the week in Hawaii!" 

Sally Hansen Airbrush Legs Leg Makeup

Here's the thing—everyone talks a big game about Sally Hansen's Airbrush Legs spray, but I prefer this water-resistant lotion formula. Body makeup is having a moment right now, and compared to some other new and popular options on the market, this drugstore pick holds up. But back to this lotion versus the spray: Not only does this formula result in more satisfying coverage (the spray is a little too sheer for me), but it also instantly blurs and hides anything you'd rather not show off while staying on your legs and not on your clothes or in the pool. Plus, I love that you can wash it off at night. The brand also has a cool new illuminator that looks ridiculously pretty when mixed with the self-tanner/body-makeup hybrid above.

Customer review: "I was absolutely SHOCKED at how good this looked! I immediately went out and bought a second bottle! I was expecting just another bronzer, but nope! It covered up every single blemish or scar on my legs. They looked flawless!" 

Neutrogena Build-a-Tan Gradual Sunless Tanning Lotion

I prefer self-tanning mousse, but Jergens and Bondi Sands are the only two I've ever liked from the drugstore. And as far as buildable lotions go, this one from Neutrogena is one of the best I've tried. It's surprisingly hydrating for parched skin, dries in five minutes or less, and is extremely customizable. When I just want a touch of color, I apply it once or twice a week. But if I really want to go for it, I apply it three to four nights in a row. If you really want to glow, pair it with the brand's cult-favorite sesame body oil.

Customer review: "Been using it for years. Nice, even color. No eye-sore embarrassing bronzing." 

Tanologist Self Tan Water

The first time I spritzed this onto my skin and began spreading it with a mitt, I was nervous I'd wake up the next morning looking like an Oompa Loompa. But I woke up impeccably bronzed. There wasn't a streak or uneven inch of skin in sight. My skin was hydrated, supple, and glowy. The color was almost unfathomably natural and perfect. Like, wow. I'm so excited I discovered this drugstore gem because it's become one of my go-to formulas when I want my skin to be glowy. It also lasted a week with zero touch-ups needed, and when it did fade, the process was patch-free. I love the dark, but the brand also makes light and medium formulas.

Customer review: "I love this stuff. First time trying, and now my go-to. Super easy to use. I've used it about 5x so far and barely made a dent in the bottle." 


(Image credit: @erin_jahns)

Shop 8 Other Highly-Rated Self-Tanners 


(Image credit: @erin_jahns)

This article was originally published at an earlier date and has been updated. Up Next: 12 Self-Tanning Tips From the Woman Who's Seen Hollywood Naked

Beauty Director

Erin has been writing a mix of beauty and wellness content for Who What Wear for over four years. Prior to that, she spent two and half years writing for Byrdie. She now calls Santa Monica home but grew up in Minnetonka, Minnesota, and studied writing, rhetoric, and communication at University of Wisconsin, La Crosse. She studied abroad in Galway, Ireland, and spent a summer in L.A. interning with the Byrdie and Who What Wear family. After graduating from UW, she spent one year in San Francisco, where she worked as a writer for Pottery Barn Kids and PBteen before moving down to L.A. to begin her career as a beauty editor. She considers her day-to-day beauty aesthetic very low-maintenance and relies on staples like clear brow serum (from Kimiko!), Lawless's Lip Plumping Mask in Cherry Vanilla, and an eyelash curler. For special occasions or days when she's taking more meetings or has an event, she'll wear anything and everything from Charlotte Tilbury (the foundations are game-changing), some shimmer on her lids (Stila and Róen do it best), and a few coats of the best mascara-type product on earth, Surratt's Noir Lash Tint.