The 1 Myth About Self-Tanners You Need to Stop Believing

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The best self-tanners give your skin the kind of golden, sun-kissed glow that usually only comes after days of laying in the sun (but without all the dangers). It doesn't mean, however, that the layer of color is keeping you from getting a real tan underneath — in fact, while the pigment sits on the surface of skin, it doesn't protect against UVA/UVB rays or create any form of barrier against burns.

Translation: you'll still need to wear (and frequently reapply) a good broad-spectrum sunscreen. Though the tan might look real, that darker color forms from a reaction between the active ingredient in the most self-tanners called dihydroxyacetone (DHA) and the amino acids in your skin. This is different from exposing your skin to UV rays from the sun, which then causes melanin to spread to the surface in order to protect it from damage, thus creating the darker pigment in your skin. That means that if you get a spray tan or use self-tanner before vacation, you can still tan (and burn) underneath it.

That's why you should apply sunscreen liberally — especially since the deeper color could also disguise your sunburn, meaning you may not notice the red until it's too late. Don't let that faux glow fool you into thinking you need a lower SPF, either: again, your skin isn't really tanned. Always use SPF 30 or above when you're out in the sun, which is the lowest number recommended by the American Academy of Dermatology.

Best Sunscreens to Apply on Top of Self-Tanner

We know, we know: some sunscreens can make your faux tan look blotchy, which might make you want to skip the step altogether — but you don't have to. If you're worried about what all those sun creams will do to your fake tan, opt for oil-free formulas that won't break down the color so quickly. While there aren't many self-tanning products out there that contain an SPF, there are options that give you a temporary tint like the Supergoop! Glowscreen SPF 40 Sunscreen ($38), although those work best if you aren't planning on laying out in the sun all day. Still, this can work in a pinch if you don't want to compromise on your tan or sun protection.

You can also choose a gradual tanner with a built-in SPF like Jergens Natural Glow + Protect Daily Moisturizer Sunscreen SPF 20 ($10). This will enhance the glow you've got — but allow you to build up your own tan, too, so you'll have less risk of overdoing it. Just note that since it doesn't hit that recommended SPF 20, you'll want to seek shade and reapply your regular (oil-free) sunscreen more often to avoid burning.