We’re fans of self-tanner for one big reason: it’s much safer than getting a tan from UV exposure (whether from the sun or tanning booths). After all, Curology is a skincare company and we’re in the business of making great skin possible for everybody—and sunscreen is an effective step in preventing aging and skin cancer (along with staying out of the sun).¹
We also know how tempting it is to go for that bronzed glow—especially when summer rolls around. Nevertheless, it’s undeniably better to fake it with a self-tanner than to expose your skin to harmful UV rays.² Read on to learn about self-tanners, sunscreen, and which one you should apply first.
Self-tanner is a way for you to tan your skin artificially through topical application, giving you that glowy, “just got back from a tropical getaway” look. Self-tanners come in a wide variety of types, including lotions, sprays, liquid, mousses, or drops.
So how do self-tanners work? They contain dihydroxyacetone, or DHA, an active ingredient that reacts with skin cells by darkening their appearance. This darkening is what creates the illusion of skin that looks as if it’s been basking in the sun for a few hours.³ Before you apply self-tanner, you may want to consider exfoliating your skin. Exfoliating beforehand can support your skin’s natural process for shedding excess dead skin cells,⁴ which can help prevent your sunless tan from looking blotchy.
When using a self-tanner, you’re probably going for a sunkissed glow—without exposing your skin to all those harmful UV rays. When applied to well-moisturized skin, self-tanners can go on more smoothly and possibly leave your sunless bronze looking more even and natural. Self-tanning lotions make it all the easier, because (like any quality lotion) can help hydrate your skin while simultaneously bronzing it.
Also, dry skin may be more likely to appear rough or scaley and flake off sooner than freshly moisturized skin. If your skin is dry and flakey, this can leave your tan not only looking uneven, but you also may find yourself having to reapply more frequently than you would like. By moisturizing your skin first, you help that self-tanning product to look fresh and even.
Exfoliate your elbows, around your cuticles, and around your ankles where dead skin cells tend to build up before you apply self-tanner to ensure an even application. Use your favorite product for physical exfoliation to give you a smooth canvas for the self-tanner to work on. Shaving your legs right before using a self-tanner can help, too, as it also aids in the removal of dead skin cells.
Using an applicator like the ULTA Sunless Mitt makes it much easier to get an even, consistent result—and for $6, it’s a smart investment.
If you’re going outside after applying your self-tanner remember you still want to make sure you apply SPF.
Self-tanning towelettes are perfect for quick and easy application when you’re on the go.
Self-tanners are a great alternative to tanning in the sun or tanning beds, but it’s important to remember that they don’t offer protection from the sun.
Always make sure you apply sunscreen (and reapply regularly, ideally every two hours) whenever you’re outside, even if it’s cloudy. If you go in the water for a swim, remember to reapply your sunscreen as soon as you dry off, too.⁵ Don’t forget, sun damage can occur regardless of your skin tone or type.⁶ Plus, it can intensify other skin problems, too. For example, if your skin is prone to dryness, tanning could dry it out even more.⁷
You want to give your sunblock 15 minutes to absorb into your skin before you go outside, and don’t forget to make sure it’s broad spectrum to protect from both UVA and UVB rays.⁸
Self-tanners are a safer, effective alternative to achieving that balmy glow without the very real risks that come with traditional tanning, but that still doesn’t mean you should skip out on sunscreen altogether! Some of the benefits of sunscreen include:
They protect you from harmful UV rays, both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB). Ultraviolet A rays are the main cause of aging, while ultraviolet B rays are the main cause of skin burning and redness.⁹
They reduce the risk of skin cancer.¹⁰
They can help prevent wrinkles and other signs of aging (like sunspots) caused by being out in the sun. Sun exposure significantly accelerates the signs of aging in your skin¹¹ no matter what. However, the severity of the damage depends on several factors, including your genetics and skin type.
Sunburns are never fun, no matter how extreme. Thankfully, you can help avoid them by regularly using sunscreen.
Every dermatologist will tell you to use sunscreen daily, but how does it work? There are two types of sunscreen: physical and chemical. Physical sunscreens (also called mineral sunscreens) protect against UV rays using natural ingredients (zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide) that reflect the sun’s light away from the skin. Chemical sunscreens, on the other hand, focus on absorbing UV rays as a way to protect your skin.¹² Common ingredients in chemical sunscreens include octisalate, homosalate, oxybenzone, and avobenzone, among others.¹³
Most experts recommend sunscreens that are broad spectrum and at least SPF 30,¹⁴ as lower SPFs may not be as effective in protecting your skin. Pro tip: the sunscreen by Curology is made for acne-prone skin, but great for all skin types. It's a mineral based SPF 30 formula with a silky, non-greasy texture that leaves no white cast—perfect for everyday wear.
SPF stands for “sun protection factor,” and the number indicates how much UV radiation is needed to sunburn skin that has sunscreen applied to it versus the amount of UV radiation needed to sunburn skin without sunscreen.¹⁵ For SPF to have its full effect, it’s all the more important that you apply per the sunscreen’s instructions and avoid mixing it with any other product.
If you've committed to self-tanner in place of good old-fashioned UV rays for your summer glow, good for you! You're already making a solid sun safety choice. Pair your self-tanning practice with a daily SPF habit to both achieve the bronzed look you like now and help prevent future sun damage.
That said, to make sure your sunscreen is most effective, you should avoid mixing it with any other products. Doing so can dilute the sunscreen and may lead to uneven application. Instead of combining the two, always apply your sunscreen as a base layer first, and give it time to absorb into your skin fully before adding your self-tanner or makeup.
At Curology, we’re all about self-tanning being an alternative to lying in the sun or a tanning bed. That’s because traditional tanning exposes you to harmful UV rays that cause premature skin aging and can cause skin cancer. Remember to wear your sunscreen as part of your daily skincare routine and, if you want to achieve that golden summertime glow, use your favorite self-tanner.
When it comes to building a solid skincare routine, we know it can feel a little overwhelming at times. If you want to take the guesswork out of it, sign up for a free trial of Curology* (just pay $4.95 plus shipping and handling)!
Take a quick skin quiz, snap a few selfies, and one of our licensed dermatology providers will review all of your info. If Curology is right for you, we’ll send you a bottle of your Custom Formula to tackle your unique skin concerns, plus any of our recommended skincare products (like our cleanser, moisturizer, or sunscreen).
Go ahead and start your Curology free trial now!
Self-tanner is a way for you to tan your skin artificially through topical application, giving you that glowy look. Self-tanners come in a wide variety of types, including lotions, sprays, liquid, mousses, or drops.
To make sure your sunscreen is most effective, you should avoid mixing it with any other products. Doing so can dilute the sunscreen and may lead to uneven application. Instead of combining the two, always apply your sunscreen as a base layer first, and give it time to absorb into your skin fully before adding your self-tanner or makeup.
Deborah S. Sarnoff. Sun Protection. Skin Cancer Foundation. (June 2021).
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.UV Radiation. (2021 Jun 28).
Ciriminna, R., et al. Dihydroxyacetone: An Updated Insight into an Important Bioproduct. ChemistryOpen. ( 2018, March 6).
American Academy of Dermatology. How to safely exfoliate at home. (n.d.)
American Academy of Dermatology. How To Apply Sunscreen, (n.d.).
American Cancer Society. Are Some People More Likely to Get Skin Damage from the Sun?,(2019, July).
Harvard Medical School. Sun-Damaged Skin. Harvard Health Publishing. (2020, February).
American Academy of Dermatology. How To Apply Sunscreen. Ibid.
The American Cancer Society Editorial and Medical Team. Ultraviolet (UV) Radiation. The American Cancer Society.( 2019, July 10).
Sander, M., et al. The efficacy and safety of sunscreen use for the prevention of skin cancer. CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association journal. (2020, December 14).
Flament, F., et al. Effect of the sun on visible clinical signs of aging in Caucasian skin. Clinical, cosmetic and investigational dermatology, (2013).
American Academy of Dermatology. Sunscreen FAQS. (n.d.).
American Academy of Dermatology. Say Yes to Sun Protection, (n.d.)
American Academy of Dermatology. Say Yes to Sun Protection. Ibid.
Food and Drug Administration. Sun Protection Factor. (2017 July 14). USander, M., et al.
American Academy of Dermatology. Say Yes to Sun Protection. Ibid.
This article was originally published on May 2, 2018, and updated on March 7, 2022.
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Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C