By BETH BRESNAHAN
A sun-kissed glow is one fashion that never seems to go out of style. However, exactly how to acquire the look has varied and evolved over the years. It is believed that in 1923 iconic fashion designer and quintessential trendsetter Coco Chanel made bronzed skin chic after catching a bit too much sun while on her yacht in Cannes, France. She later admitted that her look was accidental and she simply stayed in the sun a bit too long. But that didn’t stop tanned skin from becoming an international trend or from becoming a symbol of affluence — a way of displaying leisure time spent vacationing, by the pool or on the ski slopes.
My obsession with perfecting a sun-kissed glow didn’t start until many decades after Ms. Chanel “invented” tanning, but it did begin with a photo of another tanned beauty: The Coppertone Baby. As a towheaded, pigtailed toddler with tan lines who spend many summer days on King’s Beach with my mom, I could have stepped in as the baby’s body double. The only thing missing was a puppy pulling at my bathing suit bottoms. I loved seeing my “twin” on the bottle. Thirty-five years later, I still want that perfect tan, and the puppy too, but without all the related damage and havoc each wreak.
Over the years I have done many dumb, and dangerous, things to turn my pale, Irish skin golden. As a kid, I went out to play without sunscreen. As a pre-teen, I slathered baby oil (sometimes mixed with iodine) onto my skin while laying on a tin foil-like reflective mat to attract as many rays as possible my way.
In high school, I didn’t hold a job but spent a lot of money, and time, working on my tan. While being bronze was a year-round mission, I worked overtime during prom season. I’d slip out a side door at St. Mary’s and into a bed at Bodyworks, a nearby tanning salon. On weekends I’d sometimes hit two different salons in a single day in an attempt to achieve skin the color of a Crayola crayon (Burnt Sienna). I continued this through college. I was never tan enough and never concerned about the damage I was doing to my skin or the risks of cancer. I was young, dumb and tanorexic. It took something serious to finally scare me out of the sun and the tanning beds: A family member developed skin cancer. It was thankfully caught and treated quickly, but the experience opened my eyes to some alarming statistics (like: one person dies of melanoma every 54 minutes, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation). I guess you could say that I was so scared that I went pale…or at least for a little while.
I never quite returned to my “Burnt Sienna” skin days, but still craved color, especially as spring’s warmer weather rolls in. Since I gave up on sun worshipping, I turned to self tanner.
In my quest for the perfect “tan in a can,” I made every faux pas possible: I applied pungent-smelling creams which made me, and everyone around me, gag; foam mousses that dyed my hands, and stained my clothes, with what looked a lot like Cheetos dust; and, once turned myself so orange that Willy Wonka himself called to offer me a job at his chocolate factory (ok, I made that up, but I really did look like an Oompa Loompa). I’ve also been misted with liquid color while standing in a shower-like booth, much like a car going through a car wash, and paid to stand in various states of undress while being sprayed tan by a stranger.
The most important lesson I learned from these trials and tribulations (other than don’t wear a white bathrobe, or white anything, after applying): It is possible to achieve a natural-looking, sun-kissed glow without laying in the sun or in a booth. And you don’t have to sacrifice an arm or an orange leg to get it. Self-tanning products have come a long way since first coming to market. Several brands sold at local drug stores can give you that fresh-off-the-yacht look that Coco Chanel perfected at a just-off-the-MBTA-bus price tag.
Before getting your faux glow on, here are a few tips you should know:
1. Pick the right product for your skin tone. Self tanners typically come in fair, medium and dark tone. Going with a product that is too dark for your skin tone will appear unnatural and will likely result in an orange or dirty-looking hue. Do a patch test before applying to entire body to ensure you’ve selected the best-matching product for your skin tone.
2. Prep your skin before applying self-tanner. Exfoliating is important. Removing dead skin allows the self-tanner to be absorbed evenly and helps the tan to fade more evenly. Make sure to give an extra scrub to your knees, feet and elbows, which tend to absorb more color. And shave or wax before applying the product as those processes tend to remove skin and impact a self-tanner’s staying power. Dry off your skin completely before putting on your potion to avoid streaking or dripping. But also make sure that once you’re dry to apply a light layer of oil-free moisturizer to your skin so there are no ultra dry areas which will absorb too much product and make for splotches.
3. Apply generously starting with your feet and work your way up. This technique helps to prevent streaks and marks created from bending over. Leave your arms and hands last on your list to lather. For the face, you’ll want to dilute the product a bit to reduce the intensity of the color as well as to help prevent irritation. Just mix a tiny bit of self tanner with an oil-free moisturizer and apply. Also, be careful not to let the product pool around your hairline and eyebrows.
4. Wash your hands, extremely well. There is no greater tell-tale sign of a self-tanner than discolored palms. But if you happen to notice streaks or other mishaps, a mixture of baking soda and lemon juice used to lightly scrub the affected area can help lighten the color.
One’s picks for best drugstore self-tanners (not) under the sun:
Banana Boat Summer Color Self-Tanning Lotion, $6.99 (6 oz.)
This is by far my favorite drugstore self-tanning lotion. At first glance, I was a bit skeptical of Banana Boat’s Summer Color. At just $6.99, it is one of the least expensive self-tanners sold at the major drugstores. I figured the price was indicative of the quality. I was also concerned about the density of the product – it is thick – and it’s grayish brown color. But, my initial apprehensions were eased when I started to put it on. The product glided on like a regular moisturizer and also had a pleasant scent. By the end of the day I could see color generating. I used it for two days in a row to achieve the perfect sunless glow. I knew it was working when on the evening of Day 2 I posted a selfie to Instagram from my Grammy Anne’s 84th birthday party. Almost immediately I received a text from my friend Wendy (a childhood friend and my Burnt Sienna tanning partner). “You’re so tan! Where have you been?,” she asked. I simply replied: “Aisle 2, CVS.
L’Oreal Sublime Bronze Tinted Self-Tanning Lotion, $11.99 (5 oz.)
When I first tried L’Oreal’s Sublime Bronze line of self-tanning lotions I thought: “Finally a self-tanner than smells more like a suntan lotion than a Dow Chemical factory.” And the company has only since improved upon the product line. The lotion is thin and tinted so it is easy to immediately spot any streaking or uneven application for quick correction. It dries fairly quickly and produces nice color almost instantly (but also remember to wash your hands even more quickly!). Because of this, I wouldn’t use it for a prolonged period as it would build up quickly. I think L’Oreal Sublime is best for a one-time application. There is also a hint of shimmer in the lotion, so I prefer to apply it if I am going out at night.
Neutrogena Build-A-Tan Gradual Sunless Tanning Lotion, $10.99 ( 6.7 oz.)
I had used this sunless -tanning lotion in the past with mixed reviews. While I loved the result – a healthy-looking, sun-kissed glow, I was turned off by its strong odor. So I was intrigued when I saw on the packaging that Neutrogena’s Build-A-Tan Gradual Sunless-tanning Lotion was advertising a new, light fresh scent. I decided to give it another try and I am glad I did. The lotion was moisturizing and went on easy. And as advertised, it smelled much better this go around. After just two days of using I started to see subtle color appear – just what my pasty white limbs needed heading into the spring months. I used the lotion for five straight days with no signs of streaking or turning an unnatural shade of tan.
Jergens Natural Glow Daily Moisturizer, $9.99 (7.5 oz.)
Jergens Natural Glow states that it gradually creates flawless, natural-looking color. I couldn’t agree more. While there was no noticeable difference after using for just one day, the next day I received the first compliment that I looked tan. The following day, Day 3, I got a “wow, you look tan” comment, which made me happy. I beared through the slight scent of the lotion. It is not at all an unpleasant scent. It just smells more like hair conditioner than a skin product. Jergens suggests that you use this product as a daily moisturizer. I don’t recommend doing so. Personally, after Day 4 of use, I could envision using the product every other day or skipping two to maintain color and avoid a borderline orange glow.