Whether you’re craving vacation and a mai tai but don’t have any warm travel plans or you simply desire a tan without baking in the sun’s harmful UV rays, the best self-tanners on the market will be your new best friend. But as anyone who has been unintentionally transformed into a streaky, orange version of themselves knows, scoring believably gleaming limbs can involve some rather risky trial and error. The reason it’s tougher to nail a faux glow than, say, find the perfect foundation shade, is because self-tanners rely on dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a sugar that safely darkens the skin.

As cosmetic chemist Ginger King explains, DHA reacts with the amino acids on the top layer of the skin to provide a gradual tan. The problem? It can be tough to stabilize, hence the dreaded tangerine tint, cosmetic chemist Randy Schueller previously told Allure. Luckily, self-tanners have come a long way and many of today’s options impart “tans” that are indistinguishable from the real deal — and a much healthier habit in the short and long term.

One of the golden rules of self-tanning starts with your skin-care routine: Exfoliate beforehand. Spray tanner Anna Stankiewicz of Louise O’Connor Salon in New York City, suggests sloughing dead skin with an oil-free cleanser laced with glycolic or salicylic acid. Just be sure to remove any and all residue before proceeding, so you can start off with a clean, dry, and product-free slate that’ll maximize your self-tanning results. This is a crucial step because oils “could interfere with the binding of DHA to the stratum corneum,” according to New York City-based board-certified dermatologist Shari Marchbein, MD, and lead to uneven development.

To save you from playing chicken with a million formulas, we compiled the best sunless tanners in the form of mousses, lotions, towelettes — and even tanning mists — that’ll have your friends wondering where you got that streak-free tan without jetting off to a tropical destination. Stick to these expert-approved picks and your beloved sunscreens for a healthy, UV-damage-free bronze — and thank us later.

All products featured on Allure are independently selected by our editors. However, when you buy something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

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