How to apply sunless tanning lotion to legs


We have this problem every summer: we try to use sunless tanning lotion, but instead of an even tan, we get streaky, blotchy arms and legs. But now we're tanned and gorgeous, thanks to dermatologist and author Dr. Doris J. Day, who shares her expert secrets of how to apply self-tanning lotion.

How to apply sunless tanning lotion to legs The legs are a very difficult part of they body to apply the self tanners to. This is because your legs have varying skin thickness levels and sunless tanning products only penetrate through the upper layer of your skin. This means that areas that are thicker on your leg, such as your knees and your ankles, absorb more of the self tanning product and leave you with an uneven tan. In those areas you’ll want to use very little product.

Here’s how to get natural and even-looking tanned legs with self-tanner:

Exfoliate First
The most important thing you must do before applying a self tanner is exfoliate your legs. Simply take a shower and use a scrub. This gets rid of the upper layer of dead skin which can absorb more of the product and leave your legs looking streaky or uneven.

After your shower pat your skin so that it’s moist. Do not use any other moisturizer first; the self tanner is your moisturizer.

One Leg at a Time
Apply the lotion to one leg at a time. Start by squeezing a little bit of self tanner in the palm of your hand (about the size of a quarter). With the lotion in one hand, take your free hand and begin to distribute it over the smoothest part of your legs—your calf and shin.

Downward strokes. Avoid your knee and ankles.
Brush your hand in a downward stroke using your whole hand. Massage the self tanner in like you would your moisturizer to cover your entire calf, front and back. Massage it into your calf really well. Avoid going above your calf to your knee and below to your ankle. If you need more lotion, you can get some more, but you’ll be surprised how a little self tanning lotion goes a long way.

Once you have evenly covered your calf with the sunless tanning lotion you’ll want to move on to your ankle. Use as little product as possible to cover this area. As you approach your ankle use your hand to simply feather the lotion down as you go—using a light but consistent stroke. This way you get a little bit on your feet as well. But you don’t need to do your toes.

Now onto the upper part of your leg—your thigh. Use the same technique to apply it as you did to cover your calf. Apply some more lotion to your hand (about a quarter size) and then using both hands massage it into your thigh. Make sure you get your entire leg evenly covered including the back of your knee. But avoid covering the front of your knee at this time. Remember to massage it in very, very well.


Without adding more product use your hand to feather down the lotion onto your knee. If you feel like you made a mistake and you have applied too much lotion to your knee, quickly take a towel or a washcloth and gently wipe off the excess product. But do it quickly as you only have a few minutes before the product sets in.

Repeat the entire process on your other leg. And when you are all done, don’t forget to wash your hands. The self tanning product could stain your hands so wash it off promptly once you’re done.

LISA: I’m Lisa Birnbach for Want to get that beautiful sun-kissed look on your legs without exposing yourself to the damaging rays of the sun? You could use one of the self-tanning lotions. And here to show us how to use self-tanning lotion correctly on your legs is dermatologist and author Doris Day. Hi, Doris.

DORIS: How are you?

LISA: Fine, thanks. You?

DORIS: Good.

LISA: Exfoliate, exfoliate, exfoliate. Is that what its all about?

DORIS: That is the single most important thing you do before you apply the sunless tanner, is you want to take a shower, and in the shower you want to exfoliate really well so that you get rid of the upper layers of dead skin cells that are maybe sticking up and may actually accumulate more of the sunless tanner and make it look streaky or uneven.

LISA: Do you moisturize between the shower and the application of the sunless tanner?

DORIS: Once you take a shower, you pat your skin dry so its almost still damp. And you would apply this product instead of your moisturizer, and definitely do not moisturize first.

LISA: So Doris, the legs. Is that a hard part of the body to apply sunless tanner?

DORIS: It’s a very difficult part of the body to apply the sunless tanner because some areas, such as the ankles and the knees, have skin that’s a little bit thicker. And because the sunless tanners only go through the upper layers of your skin, those areas that are a little thicker, like the knees and the ankles, may absorb more of the product. So there is a technique to apply it so that you don’t get too much there and you’ll look perfectly even.

LISA: Okay Doris. Lucy’s willing to be our guinea pig, can you show us how its done?

DORIS: Sure, I’d love to. Lucy’s already exfoliated, and this is after the shower, so her legs are well hydrated and very smooth. So now Lucy, we’re going to apply the product. So I’m going to apply about the size of a quarter into the palm of your hand. And we can always apply more if we need to.

LISA: Okay.

DORIS: With your other hand, you’re going to distribute it over the smoother parts of your legs, where the skin is really quite even.

LISA: So am I taking all of it, or just some?

DORIS: As much as you need. You’re going to keep going back for more.

LISA: Like that?

DORIS: That’s right.

LISA: Okay.

DORIS: Perfect. And then just go in a downward stroke.

LISA: Okay.

DORIS: And just keep going so you have it all covered. You can use the whole hand. That’s it. Just massage it in like you are a moisturizer.

LISA: Alright.

DORIS: There you go. So you want to avoid going below the ankle or above the knee.

LISA: And do I go around with this as well?

DORIS: Go all the way around to the back. Look what great coverage you had with just that little amount. And if you need more you can just go back and get more.

LISA: Right.

DORIS: Then what you do is, you really want to have as little product over your ankles and over your knees because those areas of the skin are thicker. And what this does is it binds to the upper layers of the skin, and where the skin is thicker it will absorb more, and that’s why we get that darkening around our ankles and our knees. So as you get to your ankle you just feather it down. Kind of lift up as you go. Perfect. That’s great.

LISA: All the way down?

DORIS: And this way you get a little bit on your foot as well. All the way down. That’s perfect.

LISA: How about the toes, do I –

DORIS: Toes I don’t even do. Don’t worry about. Okay.

LISA: Okay.

DORIS: That’s perfect. Now you’re going to do the thighs. Same way. You’re going to massage it in as a moisturizer. And you could probably use all this product to cover your thighs so you can use both hands now.

LISA: Okay.

DORIS: To massage it in. There you go. Cover everywhere but avoid the knees. Make sure you get the back of the leg. And you could spend a good minute or so covering everywhere. Just massage it in really, really well, but you still haven’t done the knees yet. And make sure you get the back of your legs, your calves.

LISA: Is it the same feather?

DORIS: Not yet. Just straight down.

LISA: Straight down –

DORIS: This area is still thin.

LISA: Okay. Okay.

DORIS: Now the very last step is over your knees. So now your knees still haven’t been touched.

LISA: Right.

DORIS: And now you just feather and lift up. Perfect. This way you have almost no product there. And if you think you have too much product, if you really just went over it and you said oops, I just went over where I don’t want to go, you have a few minutes. You can take a towel or washcloth, and you can actually wipe off excess from those areas. And now its important to go wash your hands, so you don’t stain your hands.

LISA: Right, right. Okay, great.

DORIS: But you’ve covered your legs in about a minute, very evenly and smoothly. And because this is a tinted product, I can already see that you have great, even coverage, and you’re going to have a beautiful tan, and nobody’s going to know that it wasn’t directly from the sun.

LISA: That’s perfect.

DORIS: But your skin will know, because it will look young and healthy for years to come.

LISA: Thank you.

meet theexpert
  • Dr. Doris Day

    Dr. Doris Day Dermatologist Doris Day is a board certified dermatologist who specializes in laser, cosmetic and surgical dermatology. She's clinical assistant professor of dermatology at the NYU Medical Center and author of the book Forget the Facelift (Penguin/Avery). more about this expert »

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