It’s easier than ever to bronze without UV rays, thanks to one magic ingredient: dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a sugar molecule that temporarily darkens skin color. The only downside is that when skin cells begin to slough off a few days later, they take your tan with them. No biggie if you’re wearing black, but in your gorgeous white gown … not a good look. The solution is in the timing, says Sophie Evans, a New York–based skin-finishing expert for St. Tropez Tan. “Tanner comes off on clothing when the color is either too old or too new.” Your mission: Mark your calendar!
Four Weeks Out
First, pick your potion. Self-tanners come in several forms, including lotion, mousse, gel, and spray. Ultimately, the choice comes down to personal preference, but make sure you get a tinted formula—those contain a vegetable dye so you can see exactly where it’s being placed (the tint washes off in the shower, revealing bronzed skin underneath). Even if you’re going the pro route, the schedule remains the same. A test ensures that you like the effect, and it allows time to refine your color. “Put on a white shirt and snap a picture afterward,” says James Read, creator of James Read Tan. “You’ll know you’ve found ‘the one’ if the shade complements the white without overpowering it.”
Our List of the Best Self-Tanners
Two Weeks Out
Read advises going cold turkey on the self-tanning to avoid any bronze buildup on skin.
One Week Out
Time to do all your other primping because waxing, manicures, hair color, and facials can remove tanner.
72 Hours Out
Exfoliate skin, head to toe. “You want to remove all the dead skin cells so they won’t shed and cause tanner transfer,” says Katie Quinn, owner of Kona Tanning Company. “And don’t forget the underarm area.” Avoid oil-based sugar or salt scrubs, though—oil creates a barrier that will impede a tanner’s absorption.
48 Hours Out
Today is T-day! First, moisturize: Use a silver dollar–size amount, just enough to hydrate, paying special attention to dry areas around palms, cuticles, elbows, knees, ankles, and between toes. Apply tanner with hands or an application glove: Start at the neck and shoulders and work downward. If you feel confident applying a facial self-tanner, grab a makeup sponge and buff on a dab at a time (go easy; you can always add more). Anxious? Stick to a more forgiving wash-off liquid or powder bronzer. Let dry: Slip on a dark tee and stay vertical for at least 10 minutes. “Give the tanner six to eight hours to develop before bathing, then shower once or twice over the next two days to ensure you’ve removed all the guide tint,” says Evans.
Moisturize all over! Extra insurance: “Apply talcum powder to the areas where you sweat. It helps soak up any self-tanner that might transfer to your dress,” says Read. Should you still end up with stains, “Windex makes for a quick fix,” says Quinn—though we strongly advise testing it on the inner hem first.