How to Apply Self Tan

I get asked about this so often I thought I'd do a little post on it.  Lots of people have their own preferred methods, but this is my tried & tested technique that has produced streak free, non-tango style results after many trials over the years!

Preparation - this will determine how well your self tanner works... so please don't just open a bottle and slap it on!  This may all sound a bit complicated, but it's really not - it's a great routine to get into and your skin will thank you for it - plus you'll love having beautifully soft - and hopefully golden - smooth skin!
Sweet Lemon Body Scrub
Exfoliate - I like to start preparing my skin for self tanning a few days before application, initially by exfoliating several times during the week.  I like to use an exfoliator or body scrub with fine grains, as I find these the most gentle and effective on my skin. I'm currently using the Body Shop Sweet Lemon Sugar Scrub, which smells as divine as it feels. The sugar grains dissolve as you rub them into the skin, to leave a gentle citrus fragrance and moisturising, almost oily coating (in a good way!).

Defuzz - I prefer to shave as I'm a wuss when it comes to more painful hair removal methods. I like to do this the day before, to give the skin a chance to settle as mine can be quite sensitive after shaving and applying self tan immediately can make it sting.

Moisturise - Many self tanning formulas now advise against moisturising immediately prior to application, as the ingredients may cause a reaction with the self tanner and dilute its effectiveness. Others suggest moisturising only the very dry areas where self tan tends to 'catch', such as elbows, ankles and knees. I prefer to moisturise thoroughly every day in advance of tanning, following exfoliation. I will also moisturise on the same day, but preferably an hour or so beforehand using a gentle, preferably unfragranced product, to give it time to sink in avoid the issues mentioned earlier.

Almost ready - Preparation complete - beautifully smooth, moisturised legs all ready for application!  I suggest not applying self tan immediately after showering or bathing. Your pores will still be open from the warm water and unless you like the speckled hen effect, it's best to wait until your skin has cooled, preferably at least half an hour after.

Application 'tools' - Before you start, make sure you have everything you need at hand:

  • Moisturiser or Vaseline
  • Latex gloves or a tanning mitt for application
  • Cotton wool pads or an old face cloth/ flannel
  • Exfoliator
  • An old towel to stand on
  • Dark, loose clothing
I sometimes apply a small amount of moisturiser to any patches which are still a bit dry, such as elbows, knees and ankles. I also apply lots to my palms and wrists as I can't bear to see orange bits there and find this helps prevent absorption. Vaseline (or any petroleum jelly) can be applied to brows and edge of hairline if you are feeling extra cautious.

Hands - I prefer to use my bare hands for application but find that many self tans, especially tinted ones, are incredibly difficult to wash off. That's where the exfoliator comes in - I use it to scrub my hands with at the end if I'm not wearing gloves.  I find it hard to achieve precise application with a mitt, plus I feel I'm losing half the product in them, so normally opt to use latex gloves. 

Let's Go! - Standing on an old towel incase of any drips, I always work from the legs up - no idea why it's just what works for me.  I start by putting the product in my hand first, rub it quickly between my palms then use both hands to apply to each leg, smoothing it in until the area is coated evenly. I'll use the remainder in my hands to swipe over knees and feet, taking care to apply evenly around the ankle bones and skimming gently over toes. 

Upper body - Same goes for each arm and torso, taking particular care around the wrists, elbows and backs of arms. Again I'll just use any excess to skim over elbows, but don't miss them out completely or they'll look really odd! I don't tend to use regular self tan on my face, so will gradually stop the application at my jaw line, not forgetting the back of the neck and ears.  I have weirdly long arms and can manage to do my own back using the back of my hand, but you can ask someone else if you're a normal-armed person!  

Face, hands and feet - I like to use a separate facial self tanner as it's generally a little lighter in colour and non-comedogenic (won't clog pores), so is also perfect for a more subtle effect on hands and feet where self tan can often be the most obvious. We've all seen people heading out for the night with orange streaks on their feet - not a good look!  For the hands, I do each one while wearing a glove on the other hand, or apply with a small blob on a slightly dampened cotton wool pad. 

Buffing - Last but not least is the all important step of buffing. By this I mean taking a soft old flannel or cotton wool pad and gently swiping it on any areas where the tan tends to 'catch' - eg wrists, between fingers, sides of hands, hairline, collar bone, elbows, knees, ankles and toes. 
Hang loose - For obvious reasons, a tight white dress isn't the best thing to wear straight after self tanning. A dark, loose style maxi dress, sweatpants or PJs all work well - depending on whether you're going out afterwards!  It's also best to avoid bra straps incase they cause the tan to smudge, so go strapless if you can't go without! Also avoid tight fitting socks or strappy shoes which could leave strange marks on your skin. 

And relax - You deserve a rest after all that, so put your feet up, pour yourself a glass of something nice and wait to turn into a bronzed goddess! 

I find most self tans take around 4 hours to take effect - and most don't show the full results until next day. I prefer to apply around tea time then shower off before bed, to minimise sheet tanning, especially with tinted versions.  I almost always apply a second layer the second day... self tan is a bit like nailpolish - it usually looks best with two coats! This can be repeated until you achieve the depth of colour you're happiest with. Most tans will last around 5-7 days, when all of the above should be repeated.

If you're too scared to DIY or have had disasters in the past, either choose to stay pale, cover up or have a professional spray tan.  I see so many beautiful girls out for the evening with a gorgeous dress on, looking ridiculous due to big streaky patches of self tan on their arms and legs. Not a good look! Much better to stay pale and interesting or go see a pro! 

I hope you've enjoyed this tanning tutorial... I promise the process isn't as complicated as it sounds. If you do give it a go, please let me know how you get on and leave a comment or email me if you have any further queries

I have a few other ideas in mind for this kind of Tried & Tested tutorial and would love to know if you'd be interested in reading them. 


  1. I loved this post, i always struggle and panic when i get an invite out that will usually require fake tan.
    I never even thought about buffing before tonight but it makes perfact sense!
    I would love to see more of these tried and tested types of posts :)
    Love the blog!

  2. Thanks for the tips! I have yet to apply my first fake tan for the summer yet but I know I'm going to have to ditch the white and pasty look soon and apply, so I'll definitely make sure I have this post open for reference when I do!

    The things women have to do eh ;)

  3. This is going to come in handy because I cannot for the life of me apply fake tan! x

  4. A really informative post, I particularly like the buffing tip.

  5. I'm like you hun, I too prefer the bare hands method of application, I also exfoliate my hands afterwards to avoid the oompah loompah look, always works for me. Jude xx @jadlgw

  6. Thanks for yor comments I'm so glad some of you have found this useful! Do let me know how you get on or if I've missed anything. X

  7. FAB post! So thorough and you covered every aspect of it! I think I may have to print this off and use as a guide ;)

  8. FAB post! So thorough. I may have to print this off and use as a guide!

  9. Ah thanks Simone that's a huge compliment! X

  10. That is one of the best "how to"s I have ever seen about tanning!! I usually tan straight after a shower (on the rare occasion I do tan!) *penny drops* I now know how to avoid the speckled hen legs!

  11. Thanks for this post. I'm a total tanning novice but will follow your steps carefully when I tan for a wedding I've got in a couple of weeks. Wish me luck - I'm so out of my depth with fake tan!!! xx


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