Let it be known that I am really, very pale. Like, pale to the point where I make all who stand next to me look like David Hasselhoff in the ‘90s. And definitely more pale than the woman in this picture. If you imagine a piece of crustless Wonder Bread after it falls into a can of white paint, then you might be close to imagining me. Almost. And having been this pale my whole life, I’ve shifted in and out of feeling totally content with my complexion, to wishing my skin had just a hint of warmth to keep me from looking like a corpse. Which is where a lifetime’s worth of testing self-tanners comes into play, and why I feel like I’m sort of, kind of an expert of tanners for ridiculously light skin.
In high school, I dutifully loaded up my legs with Jergens Gradual Tan (the old-school stuff that burned your nostrils, mind you), only to find that it made me look jaundiced, rather than glow-y. I spent my allowance on latex gloves and bottles of the shimmer-spiked L’Oreal Paris Sublime Gelee, turning my sheets tangerine and royally pissing off my mother. I hid streaks with Sally Hansen Airbrush Leg Makeup, scrubbed my orange palms with pumice stones soaked in lemon juice, and left a big DHA-soaked stain on the better half of my early teens. And then I more or less gave up. Self-tanning was kind of exhausting—like, on the spectrum of beauty routines, not on the scale of one to coal mining—and the results were almost never worth it. For some reason, my skin just didn’t like sunless tanner. Even in the darkest of lights with the best of formulas, the color looked unnaturally ruddy or yellow on me, like a line of unblended foundation on a drunk girl’s jawline.
And, to add to the annoyance, my skin is as sensitive as rice paper and angel whispers, meaning its go-to reaction to most new products is either a fire-hot rash or a big ol’ smattering of zits and bumps. Obviously, the world was telling me to give up on the hunt and embrace my inner ghost, and, for a few years, I did. Until I stumbled across St. Tropez Express Advanced Bronzing Mousse.
OK, not really stumbled. The bottle landed on my desk one day, because beauty editor life, and I immediately pushed it to the side, exclaiming to everyone and no one that I was happy with my pale skin, thank you very much. But then I noticed its “choose your own shade” formulation (meaning you can slather it on and wash it off whenever you want), which is essentially the dream for control freaks and commitment haters—a.k.a me. I brought it home and dutifully followed all of the very necessary tanning commandments: Exfoliate the hell out of your skin (my favorite is Jergens Natural Glow Color Primer Scrub), massage a lightweight lotion into your super-dry bits (knees, elbows, ankles, wrists) to keep the tanner from sticking to dry patches, and then hang out in a non-humid room until your skin is bone dry and ready to go.
But as time-consuming as self-tanner prep is, the St. Tropez mousse was seriously easy to use. Standing in front of the mirror to make sure I didn’t miss any crevices, I pumped a baseball-size puff of mousse into the palm of the tanning mitt and brushed it up sections of my legs, thighs, stomach, etc, in long, gentle swipes, re-pumping until my entire body was covered. And that, folks, is truly the most important part. A little known fact about self-tanners: Most streaks are caused by applying too little formula, rather than too much. The level of DHA in the formula determines how dark you’ll get, not the amount that you slather on. So apply as much as you can to make sure you’re totally and evenly covered.
The bottle says to leave the formula on your skin for an hour for a light glow, two hours for a medium tan, and three hours for a dark bronze. I left mine on for two hours, being the daredevil that I am, before hopping in the shower and rinsing off. By the time I patted my skin dry, I had a warm, perfectly even bronze, like I had chilled on the beach for a few hours. It was insane. I had never once in my life seen myself look so realistically tan, and I lived in Hawaii for two years. The color was rich and warm, with caramel undertones that seemed to be coming from within my skin. Basically, it looked completely and beautifully natural. The next morning, the tan had developed just a tad deeper, and I pranced around the office, showing every co-worker my newly bronzed limbs. Their general consensus: excellent.
And unlike most sunless tanners that fade to blotchy patchiness within a few days, this one lasted a full two weeks—yes, two full weeks—before slowly and subtly fading away. It was amazing, and, dare I say it, game-changing? OK, sure, this whole thing sounds like a cheesy love poem, but if you spent a decade searching for the perfect tanner for your ridiculously pale skin and then finally found one, you’d probably write a Shakespearean sonnet, too.
I’ve since put the bottle away, convinced that if I relinquish my tan, the sun gods will let fall come sooner (PLEASE! It’s so hot), and my skin has faded back to its natural pallor of Edward Cullen’s calves. But I’m cool with that. I now get to chill with my translucent body for another eight months before I break out the mitt and start the whole process over again. And this time, it’ll be like going out with an old, trustworthy friend, rather than a questionable Tinder date that could end in murder.