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The best fake tan for imperfectionists.


After my first self tanner experience went horribly awry, I abandoned it for nearly a decade. But in college I got desperate and hit the bottle again, with somewhat better results.

This was the 80s, when fake tans were still considered taboo; you wouldn’t dare risk telltale stained palms at a sorority rush. It’s only recently (thanks to Hollywood? doctors?) that the whole self tanner thing has become de rigueur.

Or perhaps I just care less now about what people think.

Regardless, while I realize it may not be cool to use self-tanning products, it’s much less cool to have skin cancer. And in case I forget, I have a squamous cell carcinoma scar that’s always happy to remind me.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with pale skin — if I had the creamy complexion of a Scarlett Johansson, I’d gladly embrace it. But I don’t, so I’m resigned to using self tanner from time to time when I need a little boost for a big event.

Or cheerleading tryouts.

Luckily, it just so happens that the cheapest self tanner I’ve tried is also the one I like the best: Banana Boat Summer Color Self-Tanning Lotion in Deep Dark.

Why I like it:

  1. It’s inexpensive, easy to find and quick to apply
  2. It’s tinted. This is good not only for seeing where you might have missed, but also for giving you a little hint of color until the DHA starts to work its magic.
  3. It’s a light, creamy lotion. I have fairly dry skin, so I prefer creams and lotions to gels and foams. Plus, I think they absorb better.


Here are some of the questions I’m often asked about self tanners. Unless otherwise noted, answers apply specifically to Banana Boat Summer Color Self-Tanning Lotion.

1. Does it stink?

No — out of the tube; yes — once it’s developed. But not as bad as some, and the scent goes away after a shower. I’m sure there are some brands that contain more perfume than others and thus are better at masking the smell initially, but over the years I’ve tried so many — Clarins, Estee Lauder Bronze Goddess, Au Courant, Clinique Self Tan, Lancome Flash Bronzer, Neutrogena Instant Bronze, L’Oreal Sublime Bronze and Jergens Natural Glow — and they all stink once they start to develop, thanks to DHA.

I’ve also had four salon spray tans. They also stink.

2. Does it turn you orange?

That depends on your definition of orange. I have fair skin with yellow undertones, and when I used to get tan by the sun, it was more orange-y than brown. So to me, this is probably about as natural a tan as I’m going to get when using something to replicate the sun. (I initially tried the ‘Light to Medium’ color, but it actually turned me more orange than the Deep Dark. Go figure.)

3. Does it come off in the pool? The ocean?

Yes. And yes. But less so if it’s been applied a few times and allowed to develop for several days before hitting the water (see below*). Even expensive, professional salon tans eventually come off in the pool, thanks to the chlorine which essentially bleaches everything. And the salt in the ocean has a similar effect, because it’s essentially an exfoliant.

*Once I’m in maintenance mode with the self tanner (two consecutive days of application allowed to dry and develop), as long as I shower and shave my legs before swimming to remove any bronzer that might rub off on my beach towel, a reasonable amount of color remains even through the pool and/or ocean.

4. How do you use it?

Here’s an overview for getting a decently realistic fake tan in limited time and on a budget. (Note: Although writing out these steps makes it look time-consuming, the whole self-tanning process should only take about five minutes once you get the hang of it.)


Start with clean, dry, freshly shaved legs. I never use any kind of special exfoliating anything – a regular washcloth works fine, if needed, on rough heels and elbows.

Apply a couple drops of light body lotion (I like Lubriderm) to feet, ankles, kneecaps and elbows. Rub in well.


1. Face: Apply a little (dime-sized amount) self tanner to your face, neck and chest, being careful to blend carefully at hairline and jawline. (Although Banana Boat Summer Color isn’t specifically made for faces, I’ve been using it on my face for years with no problems whatsoever.)

2. Legs: Squirt a glob of self tanner into your hand and — starting slightly above your ankle (this point is critical) apply to your left leg. Go as far up the leg as the glob allows, rubbing in thoroughly to make sure no spots are missed. If needed, apply more self tanner to the top of your leg, stopping wherever a bathing suit would start.

2. Feet: Make sure there’s no self tanner visible on your hands; if so, wipe it off on a paper towel — you only want a hint of residue remaining. Add a few drops of body lotion to your hands and apply it to the top of your left foot, extending slightly past your ankle (where you started) and avoiding the heel at all costs. I promise that this is enough tanner for your feet. It is far better to have white feet than oddly striped feet.

Wash hands with soap and dry. This helps reduce stained palms and prevents buildup of tanner/lotion.

Repeat the entire process on the right leg.

3. Arms: I don’t often use self tanner on my arms, but when I do, my only “trick” is to rub my elbows and the insides of my wrists with a wet washcloth after I’m done to avoid dark patches.

4. Clean-up: When I’m finished, I scrub my hands with soap – twice – and rinse – twice. Then I put soap on a washcloth and scrub my palms again, rinse the washcloth and my hands, and scrub again with water.

Note: I never wear gloves to apply self tanner. As a result, my palms are sometimes slightly stained. This doesn’t bother me that much, or last that long, but if you think it will bother you, you might want to try gloves. Or a little Soft Scrub with Bleach.

5. Hands: Since washing your hands removes the self tanner, if you’ve tanned your arms you may need to add a bit of product to the backs of your hands (unless you’re going for a perpetual ‘white glove’ look). I use a foam makeup sponge to mix a few drops of tanner with a few drops of lotion and apply sparingly. Works like a charm.

6. Drying: This is really the most painful part of self tanning. I don’t wait an hour, but I do let it absorb pretty well (at least 20 minutes) before getting dressed.

7. Maintenance: I find that for my skin tone, two applications (applied a day apart) is enough to give me the color I want for at least five days.


If you’ve found something better (really doesn’t stink? lasts through chlorine? even cheaper?) or have a different technique, I’d love to hear about it. Let me know and I’ll include in the post.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. 03/02 2:15 PM

    I will definitely pass this on to my girls. You’re so precise.

    • Jennifer permalink*
      03/02 2:19 PM

      Love your comments, Tami! (As my husband said about this post, “not really my thing.”) :-)

  2. 03/05 2:59 PM

    I’m a big fan of self-tanner (I would trade the real thing for less wrinkles any day!)…makes me think I need an application right about now. I’ve always used Neutrogena, and lately the spray on kind but I’m thinking you are right about the absorption of the lotion. Perhaps I’ll have to give Banana Boat a try. Thanks for the good tips!

    • Jennifer permalink*
      03/13 7:55 AM

      My sister-in-law swears by Neutrogena — and she has much more olive-y skin like yours. I tried it but ultimately missed the instant bronze glow of the BB stuff. By all means, stick with whatever works!

  3. Amanda permalink
    05/20 8:09 AM

    Tomas Tan Perfect Lotion has always worked for me. It has a color guide as well and never streaks or looks orange. It always comes out a nice deep golden brown. It also covers spider veins and small imperfections.

    • Jennifer permalink*
      05/20 12:13 PM

      Thanks for the tip, Amanda! I will definitely check it out. (What’s the smell factor?)

  4. Lauren permalink
    05/26 8:07 PM

    I’m pale with freckles, brown hair, with red undertone to my skin. I’ve tried anything and everything when it comes to self tanners….It always turns out orange or streaky. So I finally broke down and bought Tarte Maracuja Self-Tanner from QVC. It’s pretty pricey around $32 plus shipping. (which makes me cringe because I’m a bargain shopper :) But, It’s honestly the The BEST self- tanner I’ve ever tried. It glides on and actually hydrates skin, and smells much better than most self tanners I’ve used. I get SO many compliments from my friends and they ask, “I thought you didn’t tan AT ALL??!”. It’s a great tan without the harmful effects from the sun. My tan is flawless; it’s a great product and I recommend it to everyone :)

    • 01/17 12:18 PM

      Thanks for the suggestion, Lauren. I’ll check it out if I’m in the market for something new, but Banana Boat is still my self tanner of choice.

  5. Roxanne permalink
    04/13 1:26 PM

    I couldn’t resist commenting. Very well written! Ready to try this weekend.

  6. Tayla Stecker permalink
    04/22 8:48 PM

    This design is wicked! You obviously know how to keep a reader entertained.
    Between your wit and your instructions, I was almost moved to try self tanner for the first time.
    (well, almost…HaHa!) Great job. I really enjoyed what you had
    to say, and more than that, how you presented it. Thanks for the inspiration!

  7. 01/17 9:58 AM

    I grew up practically living in the lake on the lake. I was a teen when you would use baby oil and iodine and just fry and bake every minute I could get in the sun. I have gradually backed off laying and baking as now in my my late 50’s I find it extremely boring unless I am on a beach or in a boat. A couple significant family members have also had melanomas and I have many moles and sun spots on my body now. Last summer I did not have the time to spend in the sun but had events to attend and still won’t present myself with no color in the summer. I decided to do the alternative and not a tanning bed as I often did late Spring to get myself started for summer attire. I bought the Banana Boat Dark Summer self tanner and I loved it. Applied 2 nights in a row on my legs, showered in the morning and was good for a week with a bronze summer tan look. No streaks. Very natural. Stinks but thats why I did at night. Going to try it on my face now. Kinda nervous but I think it will be fine. You can see where it gets applied as its colored. My friends couldnt believe how natural my leg color was and they know that I like to be tan. I recommend this product.

    • 01/17 12:14 PM

      Happy to *meet* another fan, Terri — Banana Boat is still my go-to self tanner. Also glad more retailers are carrying it year-round now!


  1. The hard way to find the best self tanner. « Edit by Design

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