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by DJ Miller
When the Emmys rolled around in September, I had a problem: my arms and face were brown from a summer’s worth of sun exposure, but my covered-up legs were whiter than a corpse. Not a good look. Instead of dropping lots of money on a salon spray tan, I decided to try a self-tanning cream for the first time in decades: Vita Liberata Fabulous Self Tanning Gradual Lotion ($30).
I had some reservations based on experience with drugstore self-tanners in the past. Would it stain my clothing and hands? Would the tanning chemical “grab” the rougher skin of my ankles and knees to create unnatural-looking dark zones? Would it wear off unevenly, leaving my skin looking like a patchy lizard? Would my own lack of coordination in applying it produce streaky results? Would the color match the my arms, or would I turn “QT-orange”? And what about that…distinctive self-tanner smell?
I was pleasantly surprised on almost all counts. First of all, this particular Vita Liberata product is not tinted, so it leaves absolutely no stains on white sheets, skirts, or towels (the tanning effect is produced not by a dye, but by a chemical reaction in the surface layers of the skin). The instructions recommended a tanning mitt but I just used my bare hands and washed them with soap afterwards. No stained fingers.
Does the lack of tint as a visual cue mean you’re likely to miss spots or apply it unevenly? Not in my experience. This thick, creamy lotion is worlds away from the watery self-tanners we used back in the ‘80s. It spreads evenly and feels like a quality moisturizer going on. Over-application in one area or another didn’t seem to result in uneven tanning, so I felt free to slather. And it dried quickly so I could get dressed and go about my day.
Vita Liberata claims their “moisture locking system nourishes the skin and gives 72-hour hydration,” and I’d say this is accurate. My 40-something skin is fair and extremely dry, but I found this lotion provided plenty of moisturizing on its own. Skin-conditioning ingredients include moisturizer aloe barbadensis leaf water, grape seed extract which is an antioxidant and skin conditioner, hyaluronic acid for hydrating skin, shea butter which lessens loss of moisture and softens skin and glyceryl stearate which locks in moisture and protects from free-radical damage.
Aloe and grape seed extract also reportedly protect cells from UV damage, which is helpful because a self-tanner tan does not protect your skin from UV exposure (the browning you see is from the Maillard reaction, not melanin) It’s a good idea to cover up or wear sunscreen if you’re going in the sun after using a self-tanner.
The color produced was subtle and natural-looking, not orange at all. When I wanted a deeper shade, I repeated application over several days. Even then, there was no streaking or unevenness. Best of all, the tan wore off evenly over the course of a week or two. Even though I shaved my legs as usual and forgot my moisturizer (as usual), there was no patchiness in the weeks after tanning — this was perhaps the most impressive feature of Vita Liberata’s lotion.
And what about the smell? Does Vita Liberata’s trademarked Odour Remove technology “ensure no smell whatsoever,” as they claim? In a word, no. Dihydroxyacetone is the same active ingredient used in every self-tanner since the 1970s, so a few hours after applying, you’ll notice that old familiar smell, which will persist for at least 24 hours (even if you shower). So plan ahead, and maybe don’t apply the lotion before a date. Because of the distinctive smell, I reserve the Vita Liberata lotion for special occasions and don’t incorporate it into my normal day-to-day routine.
Dihydroxyacetone is a controversial ingredient. I do think it's a good idea to stay out of the sun when using it, since the research I read suggests that free radical production under UV exposure is increased when this ingredient is on your skin. But it is still safer than actual sun tanning, I think.
I would recommend this product as a convenient and far less costly alternative to salon spray-tanning. Please note that I did not use it on my face, so I cannot say whether it would cause sensitive facial skin to break out.
Vita Liberata is made in the UK. The package doesn’t boast any cruelty-free certifications, but if you dig down far enough on their website you’ll find a statement saying none of their products are tested on animals. Most of the ingredients are identified as organic, natural origin, or ecocert. There is no indication of whether its palm-oil derived ingredients like cetyl alcohol are sourced from sustainable palm plantations (I’d like to find out).