FARGO - I envy women who have the ultimate summer accessory: a golden glow. A tan seems to suggest summer days of margarita-sipping poolside relaxation rather than a 40-hour work week in an overly air-conditioned office.
But, we all know that too much sun increases the risk of skin cancer and premature wrinkles. The next-best thing to a summer of sun worshipping? A tan from a bottle - it's faster and safer.
I reviewed five drugstore sunless tanners that cost less than $10 in hopes of helping myself and other women find a flawless faux tan.
To ensure that each tanner had a fair shot at success, I heeded self-tanner application tips from makeup artist and author Carmindy Bowyer. Bowyer, who appears on TLC's "What Not to Wear," wrote a self-tanning tips blog post for beauty information website Daily Makeover.
1. Exfoliate. "Smooth skin will absorb the self-tanner in a nice even way, and minimize the streak factor," she wrote. "Get into your shower, and shave all the necessary bits. Now exfoliate the skin with a good scrub that contains granules that will help with the sloughing off of dead skin."
I used St. Ives' Purify Exfoliating Body Wash, $4.99, CVS Pharmacy.
2. After the shower, Bowyer said to towel dry and skip the moisturizer.
"If you slather on moisturizer first, it will make you a bit streaky," she wrote. "To avoid having dark tan areas where skin is thick and absorbs more of the tanner - knees, elbows and ankles - keep a wet washcloth handy. After you apply the self-tanner all over, use the washcloth to buff over these rougher areas."
3. Scrub your hands after applying the self-tanner to avoid brown palms.
Nivea Sun-Kissed Radiant Skin Gradual Tan Moisturizer - Medium to Dark Skin, $6.89, Target
Finally, Nivea achieves what I thought was impossible: a self-tanner that doesn't smell like a self-tanner. Nivea's lightly citrus-scented take on the gradual tan lotion utilizes "non-stop Hydra IQ" technology that moisturizes for 24 hours.
I purchased the medium- to dark-skin tone option since it was the only one I saw. I applied it twice. The color worked fine on my fair skin and achieved an even, natural-looking tan.
Verdict: 4 out of 5 stars
L'Oreal Sublime Bronze Luminous Bronzer Self-Tanning Lotion, $9.47, Walmart
L'Oreal's luminous self-tanner promises "instant radiance and a sun-kissed glow" that is "smooth, streak-free and even-looking."
It achieved only the instant radiance for me. The bronzing lotion, which felt more like a gel, instantly gave my arms and legs a shimmery glow. Hours later, however, the shimmery glow was more of a brownish, blotchy mess. The scent is typical of a self-tanner.
Verdict: 1 out of 5 stars
L'Oreal ProPerfect Salon Airbrush Self-Tanning Mist, $9.24, Target
The words "continuous" and "even" drew me to this sunless tanner spray. It was a cinch to apply, and I imagined that I'd have a J-Lo-esque tan once it developed. I let the tanner dry for 30 minutes and went to bed.
I wore a dress to work the next day, thinking I looked like a golden goddess. Too bad I didn't examine my legs and collarbone first - streaks galore. This was the worst of the bunch.
The scent is typical of a self-tanner.
Verdict: No stars out of 5 stars
Coppertone Gradual Tan Moisturizing Lotion, $7.42, Walmart
Gradual sunless tanners are where it's at for the fair skinned. After two applications, I had a natural-looking tan that was relatively streak-free.
The only downside is the typical self-tanner scent.
Verdict: 3½ out of 5 stars
Banana Boat Summer Color Self-Tanning Lotion - Light/Medium Color, $6.47, Walmart
I originally bought the Banana Boat Summer Color Self-Tanning Lotion because I was desperate, and it was cheap. I was pleasantly surprised.
One application of the lotion gave me an even (minus one blotch on my right leg, which was my own fault for not rubbing it in thoroughly) tan that looked natural.
The scent is self-tanner-ish but not as strong as other brands. Banana Boat's Summer Color Self-Tanning Lotion packs more color per application than Nivea's gradual tan moisturizer.
Verdict: 4out of 5 stars
BOTTOM LINE: Nivea's nice smelling gradual tan moisturizer is my top pick for a buildable tan. For a tan that packs more color, get on the Banana Boat.
No matter which tanner you pick, prep your skin and blend, blend, blend. Some people can be allergic to ingredients in sunless tanners, so it's best to test the tanner on a small patch of hidden skin. And remember, a tan from a bottle is always better than increasing the risk of skin cancer and wrinkles.