Before communing with sun, sand and surf this summer, consider how you can become as bronze as you want while sparing your skin unnecessary sun damage.
"Self-tanning is in, and sunbathing is out," says Encino dermatologist Helene Rosenzweig. Her patients are shunning the sun, she says, "because they know that sunbathing causes skin damage and may even lead to skin cancer. My patients and I see bottle tans as healthier, safer and more attractive than suntans."
While self-tanners of yore routinely turned users shades of pumpkin without offering any sun block, many of today's products provide a natural look with the added benefit of sunscreen.
To explore the beauty and health realities of sunless tanning, we tested self-tanners and bronzers in various price ranges. But it's worth noting that there are some drawbacks to these products.
"Any self-tanner may cause allergic reactions or skin irritations," says Los Angeles dermatologist Howard Murad. An associate clinical professor of dermatology at UCLA, Murad is upfront about taking precautions when using any self-tanning product, including his Murasun self-tanner with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15. "Always do a tiny skin test before applying a self-tanning product," he says. "Put a dab on the ankle or underside of your forearm. Remember that allergic reactions can occur as early as a few hours after application or 48 to 96 hours later."
If your skin is highly sensitive, advises Rosenzweig, perform two skin tests, "since allergic reactions may manifest the second time you use a product."
After the skin test, Murad recommends that you "bathe and exfoliate those parts of your body that are going to be treated with self-tanner. Use a loofah or a body scrub. Towel dry and use a light moisturizer on thick-skinned areas, such as ankles, feet, knees and elbows. Use a rubber or latex glove to apply the self-tanner."
Daphne Harris in Rosenzweig's office suggests using an amount about the size of a quarter to cover one leg.
"For your feet," she says, "mix equal parts of self-tanner and a light moisturizer together and apply." Wait 24 hours before your next shower so the tan can "set."
Now for some essential bottle-tanning tips acquired through cruel experience: When self-tanning the face, also apply some under the chin and on the neck--unless you're going for a Harlequin look. And always apply to the ears to avoid a two-toned color scheme that screams, "Fake tan!"
The tanning and bronzing products below were rated on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the best. Ratings were based on tanning results, price, texture, ease of application, skin reactions and scent.
* Dior Bronze Transparent Face Self-Tanner SPF 10.
Price: $25 for 1.7-ounce tube.
Where to Find It: Introduced in May and available in upscale department stores and cosmetic boutiques.
Texture and Application: Silky, skin-softening cream goes on smooth and absorbs instantly. Feels luxurious.
Scent: Beautifully subtle and vaguely redolent of wildflowers and vanilla. The most pleasingly perfumed facial self-tanner tested.
Tanning Results: A convincing, golden tan after two applications.
Rating: 10. Expensive but worth it; provides a sun-kissed look while making face feel and smell lovely.
* Estee Lauder Self-Action Go Bronze Tinted Self-Tanner for Face.
Price: $18.50 for 1.7-ounce tube.
Where to Find It: Introduced in May and available in high-end department stores.
Texture and Application: Light cream goes on bronze, so you can control application and eliminate mistakes. After two hours, the tan reaches full bloom.
Scent: Generically sweet, synthetic cologne.
Tanning Results: Imparted such a reddish patina that my face resembled a Thanksgiving gourd. Yet after I applied some to my medium-complexioned friend, his face looked beautifully tanned. And my 50-ish girlfriend believes Go Bronze is the best self-tanner she's ever used.
Rating: 6. May achieve better results with dark complexions than with fair or light sallow skins.
* Green Valley Radiance Body Moisturizer / Self-Tanner
Price: $16 for 4-ounce jar; $26 for 9-ounce jar.
Where to Find It: Order from Green Valley Spa in Utah, (800) 237-1068, Ext. 19.
Texture and Application: This rich cream absorbs right away and stimulates circulation. The label indicates this is a body-care product, but on the face it also promoted a natural tan look while softening the skin.
Scent: Western canyon botanical--sage, alfalfa and other native plant extracts create a natural, romantic scent. Essential oils such as ginger add spice to the blend.
Tan Results: Mild tanning action imparts a ruddy, blushed look that is unfortunately ephemeral. A product well-suited for pale and sallow or peaches-and-cream complexions.
Rating: 7. Aromatherapeutic cream pampers skin and senses, provides healthy color and protective barrier against sun and wind.
* Murad Murasun Self Tanner with Antioxidants and SPF 15.
Price: $20 for 4.2-ounce tube.
Where to Find It: Call (800) 33-MURAD and ask for a salon or store near you that stocks Murad.
Texture and Application: Slippery lotion applies with minor difficulty but absorbs rapidly. Feels light on the skin, like a good moisturizer.
Scent: Reminiscent of aerosol hair sprays.
Tanning Results: Turned legs a light and natural hazelnut color. Three more applications deepened the tan.
Rating: 8. Great color shows up after three or four applications. SPF 15 is a plus.
* Nature's Gate Self Tanning Lotion / Medium to Dark.
Price: $8.99 for 4-ounce bottle.
Where to Find It: Available in health food stores such as Wild Oats and Whole Foods markets.
Texture and Application: Light, non-oily; readily absorbed. The label warns, "Facial application is not recommended for oily or problem skin." Seconds after application on normal skin, the lotion burned and stung so violently it felt like flesh-eating acid. After five minutes of chemical catastrophe, the pain subsided.
Scent: Imagine an eau de toilette of Bazooka bubble gum, aloe vera and floor cleaner.
Tan Results: Mild tanning action, a little on the orange side. My husband likened the color to the inside of a mango.
Rating: 1. More skin scare than skin care, and the color didn't cut it.
* Physicians Formula Sun Shield Sunless Tanning Lotion SPF 20.
Price: $7.50 for 4 ounces.
Where to Find It: Pharmacies, beauty supply stores, drug store chains.
Texture and Application: Designed for hands and body, this moisture-rich but light cream glides on instantly.
Scent: Contains no fragrance; smells like generic suntan lotion.
Tanning Results: Creates a subtle tan the first time around and protects skin with SPF 20. Three or four applications may be necessary to achieve a convincing sun-darkened look.
Rating: 10. This multitasking product is a superb value at only $7.50.
* Thrifty / Payless Sunless Tanning Lotion.
Price: $4.99 for 4 ounces.
Where to Find It: Rite-Aid drug stores. Since testing, the brand name may have changed to Rite-Aid following its recent acquisition of Thrifty Payless.
Texture and Application: Skin instantly drinks up this light, frothy lotion, which is for hands and body only. Despite careful application, some streaky areas made parts of my legs look like topographic maps.
Scent: Faintly chemical, classic suntan lotion aroma.
Tanning Results: Took three applications to solve the streak problem. Underpowered tanning action, but well-suited for leg use and pale complexions.
Rating: 7. A serviceable bargain brand.
* Gianni Versace Bronzing Powder.
Price: $36 for 0.26-ounce powder compact, without a brush or powder puff.
Where to Find It: Neiman-Marcus and other upscale department stores.
Texture and Application: You'll have to buy a brush for this. A Versace pony skin brush costs $60 at Neiman-Marcus. Powder repeatedly clumped on a $20 beauty supply store pony hair brush. Powder concentrated on certain parts of the face, requiring finger-blending.
Scent: Smells like classic face powder.
Tanning Results: This is a dark powder that may be unsuitable for fair complexions. In natural light, my face looked like it had been dusted with cocoa, while silvery flecks of mica glittered at random. Come evening, however, this bronzing powder looked fine.
Rating: 6. Powder clumps made application irksome. For $36, the manufacturer should supply a brush.
* Zia Sans Sun Self Tanning Creme.
Price: $16.99 for 5-ounce tube.
Where to Find It: Health Food stores such as Wild Oats, Whole Foods, etc. Call (800) 334-7546 to order or to find a location near you that stocks the product.
Texture and Application: Greasy cream absorbs slowly and feels slightly sticky for several hours afterward.
Scent: A cross between dry-cleaning solvents and nail polish remover. This unfortunate aroma lingered on skin for several hours.
Tanning Results: Deep tan a la Greek island vacation in just one application. This cream provided more bronze for the buck than any of the other products tested.
Rating: 8 1/2. The workhorse of self-tanners. Now, if Zia could just improve the scent and texture.