Chances are, you've heard quite a few horror stories about self-tanners — or experienced them yourself. Maybe your friend forgot to wash their hands after applying a tanning mousse and turned their palms Cheeto-orange, or your roommate woke up the morning after using a bronzing lotion and found their legs to be five shades darker than the rest of their body.
With all the traumatic tales, it's totally understandable if you're still hesitant to try a self-tanner, even in 2021. But if you're itching for a sun-kissed glow without the skin damage of sunbathing, consider giving one specific kind of product a shot: tanning drops.
Just as with other forms of self-tanners, tanning drops contain DHA, aka dihydroxyacetone. When applied to the skin, this active ingredient reacts with dead cells on the surface layer and temporarily darkens the skin, according to the Mayo Clinic. "[It's] similar to caramelization of sugar in baking or cooking," explains Melanie Palm, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and the founder of Art of Skin MD in San Diego, California. Likewise, some tanning drops also contain powerful ingredients, such as hyaluronic acid, vitamin E, or peptides, that can do your skin some good while it darkens. (Related: The Best Vitamins and Minerals for Healthy, Glowing Skin)
The key difference between tanning drops and their counterparts, though, is that you can customize the depth of the tan based on the number of drops you use at a time, says Dr. Palm. To quickly achieve a subtle glow, add a few drops via the pipette to your moisturizer. If you're after that post-tropical-vacation look, mix a dozen or so drops into your lotion, she explains. And if you want to build up to a truly bronzed look over time, gradually incorporate the tanning drops into your full-body routine, using just a drop or two at first and slowly working your way up to eight to 12 drops for each application. No matter how many drops you use, you'll see your tan develop over the course of four to six hours post-application, says Dr. Palm. (Of course, check your specific tanning drops' recommendations and consider patch-testing before applying.)
Your sun-kissed glow might last anywhere between four and 10 days, depending on the depth of the color, your skin type, and the tanning drops themselves — plus, whether you're using them once for an occasion or aiming to build your color over time. Where you apply the drops can affect your tan's longevity, too, says Dr. Palm. "Lower legs and face usually fade more quickly, but once the [desired] color is achieved, drops may be added one to two times per week to maintain the effect," she adds. Considering you're already (or should be, at least!) slathering on moisturizer each day, keeping that golden hue is pretty hassle-free.
Ready to score that mermaid-level tan without going ghostly to crisp real quick? Shop the tanning drops below to start building your color. And before you apply, just remember to cleanse and exfoliate, which will slough away any flakes and dry skin and ensure your tan is even is splotch-free. (These body exfoliators will do the trick.)
Drunk Elephant D-Bronzi Anti-Pollution Bronzing Drops
Not only does this pick from Dr. Palm give you a sought-after sun-kissed glow, but it also boasts peptides, which penetrate the surface layer of the skin to help stimulate collagen production and fight fine lines and wrinkles. The tanning drops are also infused with cocoa extract, an ingredient rich in antioxidants that brighten skin and protect it from harmful UV rays and air pollution. Just give the bottle a good shake, mix a few drops with your face cream or body lotion, and rub the product wherever you're looking to tan.
TAN-LUXE THE BODY Illuminating Self-Tan Drops
If you're dealing with supremely parched skin, you'll want to add these body tanning drops to your skin-care routine. Along with DHA, the Dr. Palm-approved tanning drops are infused with aloe vera and raspberry seed oil to soothe and moisturize dry skin. The formula also includes vitamin E — an antioxidant that fights off free radical-induced damage and helps seal in moisture — and a "Cellutone Complex" that's designed to give skin a firmer appearance. Want to give your face the same hue? Grab TAN-LUXE's THE FACE tanning drops (Buy It, $49, sephora.com), which contain the same formula as THE BODY without the Cellutone Complex.
Isle of Paradise Self Tanning Drops
You know those skin-care products that leave your skin feeling tight and dry? Well, this pick from Dr. Palm isn't one of them. The Isle of Paradise self-tanning drops contain coconut oil (which acts as a seal on your skin and locks in moisture), avocado oil (which softens the skin), and chia seeds (which are rich in omega-3 fatty acids that smooth the skin's surface and boosts hydration). Even with all these oils, though, you still need to mix the tanning drops with your go-to moisturizer to ensure even coverage.
St. Moriz Advanced Pro Formula Tan Boosting Facial Serum
For no-frills, budget-friendly tanning drops, turn to this Ulta buy. The drops contain skin-soothing aloe and ultra-hydrating glycerin — an ingredient that attracts moisture from the air and holds it on the top layer of skin. Just mix three to five drops into your moisturizer for a subtle glow that reviewers say will last a solid week.
St. Tropez Self Tan Purity Vitamins Face Serum
If you're out of moisturizer but are in desperate need of a sun-kissed look, try these tanning drops from St. Tropez. The product can be applied mixed into moisturizer or directly onto your face — just make sure to blend well to prevent any dark patches. After application, your soon-to-be bronze skin will also be met with ultra-hydrating hyaluronic acid, brightening vitamin C, and anti-inflammatory vitamin D.
SOL by Jergens Deeper by the Drop Serum
Thanks to the bubblegum-pink jar, you won't mind leaving these tanning drops out on the counter. The self-tanner will give you a subtle, sun-kissed color in just three drops or a deep, Greek Goddess-level bronze hue in 11 to 15. Plus, the tanning drops are oil-free, so expect a lightweight, quick-drying feel.
L'Oreal Paris Sublime Bronze Self Tan Drops
If you're ballin' on a budget, these tanning drops are the perfect addition to your skin-care arsenal. The fragrance-free self-tanner is designed specifically for the face and neck, is formulated with hyaluronic acid — making skin look and feel more hydrated and plump — and won't feel sticky or greasy once applied.
Coco and Eve Sunny Honey Bronzing Face Drops
Much like other tanning drops on this list, Coco and Eve's is infused with nourishing hyaluronic acid, but it also contains banana extract to further hydrate, coconut extract to soften, and antioxidant-packed fig extract to prevent skin aging caused by free radicals. Another perk? The tanning drops are PETA-approved, cruelty-free, and non-comedogenic, so you don't have to worry about the product harming animals or causing breakouts.