When it comes to fake tan, you probably fall into one of two camps. You either love it, or you're curious but also terrified of it. As someone who has tried a lot of fake tans and bronzers over the years (and made a lot of tanning mistakes, may I add), I can safely say that tanning products have come a very long way. Forget the orange-toned instant tans or dreaded biscuit smell of a certain gradual tanning body lotion from the 2000s. Today's formulations won't leave you with an unusual-looking hue or ruin your expensive white bed sheets. Instead, they are your key to getting a realistic glow without any of the damaging effects of UV exposure from the sun. We're all wearing our SPF now, right?
Whether you're a fake-tan aficionado who wants to know the best fake tans of 2023 or a shy self-tanner looking for tanning tips, we've got everything covered ahead. I spoke to Michaella Bolder, St.Tropez's tanning and skincare expert, for all the deets on how and where to begin with fake tan. I also asked beauty editors who use tanning products to share the best fake tans they have come across. It's time to get glowing.
Self-tan, instant tan and gradual tan—what's the difference?
There are so many types of tan out there. And while having choices is great, it can be overwhelming if you're not sure where to start, especially as a fake-tan beginner. The best place to begin is to choose a formulation that works best for your lifestyle and needs. Some tans will give you a glow for a week, whereas others will give an instant glow but wash off in the shower.
Self-tan is a tanning formula that contains DHA, the ingredient that develops on the skin over several hours to give you a glow that will typically last for around a week and won't wash off during that time. "Self-tan is ideal for those looking for a long-lasting tan," says Bolder. "For those short on time and wanting a non-transfer or 'no need to rinse' formula, an express tan such as St.Tropez Express Mousse for one or two hours is a great option."
Instant tan, on the other hand, gives the skin an immediate deeper hue and will wash off in the shower. "Instant tan is a fantastic solution that washes off after one wear to top up your glow last-minute, add a sun-kissed glow to your pins or décolletage or even to contour your face and body," says Bolder.
For those who want to slowly build up their tan, gradual tanner is the way to go. "Gradual tan is ideal for people that love to create their own desired glow or are slightly nervous tanners looking to apply a tanning lotion daily or every other day," says Bolder. "The St.Tropez Gradual Tan Daily Firming Lotion is also a great option for mature and dry skin, as it has super-nourishing shea butter and collagen-enhancing properties."
How to choose the right tanning product for your skin tone:
Whatever your skin tone, there is a tan to suit your complexion. "You can find the perfect tan for your skin tone that replicates the glow you would have if you were sat in the sun," says Bolder. "Lighter skin tones carry a cool pink or blue undertone, therefore a light tanning solution such as a gradual tan or the new St.Tropez Luxe Body Serum is for you. Medium skin tones carry a green undertone, which will suit a warmer tanning solution like St.Tropez Luxe Whipped Crème Mousse. Deeper skin tones carry a red undertone, which is a great option to introduce a dark tan such as St.Tropez Extra Dark Mousse."
How to prepare for fake-tan application:
Failing to prepare is preparing to fail when it comes to fake tan, whether you're applying on the face or body.
To prepare the body for tan: "It all starts in the shower," says Bolder. "Exfoliate the body all over with an oil-free solution to buff away dead cells, unveiling a smooth and soft surface ahead of self-tan. Then remove all unwanted hair at this stage if you want to, then rinse your skin with cool water to reduce any inflammation and close your pores. Pat dry your skin and apply an oil-free moisturising lotion over any dry areas and wait a few minutes until the skin is cool and settled."
To prepare the face for tan: "Massage your usual cleanser into the skin before rinsing off, and head in with a hydrating serum and moisturiser. Add your SPF here if you are heading straight out afterwards," she says. "Avoid any exfoliating products either in your toner or serum on the day of applying a fresh layer of self-tan."
How to apply fake tan:
"The best way to apply self-tan products is on freshly prepared skin with a clean tanning mitt and your chosen tanning solution," says Bolder.
"Use long, sweeping, fast motions to move the self-tan freely around the skin, covering all areas. Begin on the legs and work your way up the body one area at a time," she says. "Don't rush the process—just go with a flow that you feel comfortable with and check that you have covered all areas evenly before putting the mitt down. Go over drier areas with the clean side of your mitt or a black sock to buff away any excess residue and blend the tan further."
If you're using tanning drops for the face or body, then simply add a couple to your usual serum or moisturiser and follow the same steps.
Tanning dos and don'ts:
To avoid any mishaps, it's important to be clued up on the common tanning mistakes that can often be made. Applying tan last-minute and not preparing the skin correctly or at all is one of them. Bolder says, "Self-tan sits beautifully on a smooth, even surface, so applying tan onto dead and dry skin cells leaves your tan uneven and patchy."
It's key to apply moisturiser to dry areas too. "Make sure you overload moisturiser on hands and wrists, feet and ankles, elbows, knees and all around your feet, as this will help to dilute the self-tan rather than the dry skin grabbing too much colour in one area," says Bolder.
To get the most out of your tan, it's important to follow a few pointers. "Avoid hot baths, exfoliating acids and oils applied directly to your body, as this will enhance cell turnover and make the tan patchy," she says. "Moisturise, moisturise, moisturise! Ensure you are using a moisturiser every day to keep your skin healthy and supple, resulting in a longer-lasting glowing tan, and gently buff the skin on day three or four to help the tan fade evenly."
If, despite your best efforts, your tan has still gone awry, there are things you can do. "Always keep some tan-removal options in your kitchen cabinet or bathroom! St.Tropez Prep and Maintain Remover Mousse is a great one which you can massage into the area that has overloaded self-tan, and wait five minutes before buffing with a tan-remover mitt to buff the tan away," she says. "An at-home option is baking soda and lemon mixed into a paste and massaged into the area for a few minutes, then leave for another few minutes to break down the self-tan colour."
Now that we're clued up on the application process, read on for beauty editors' favourite fake tans and the best-of-the-best products.
The best fake tans, as loved by beauty editors:
"As an ex–Irish dancer and now beauty editor, it's fair to say I've tried more tans than the average person. I'm also really pale, so I've also had my share of tan fail—all of which have led to truly knowing my way around the category. Without a doubt, my favourite tanning brand is Isle of Paradise. In my opinion, you can't beat the formulas or the brand ethos. For me, the tanning mousse is foolproof, leaving a golden tan with zero orange streaks in sight. It is easy to apply, doesn't dry too quickly (which I find causes streaks) and doesn't have an incredibly strong smell. (Though, a scent is still definitely there. Since it has a colour guide, it will leave a few marks if you're sleeping in it. As a committed tanner, this doesn't bother me, but the brand offers plenty of colourless formulas. I also love the drops mixed in with moisturiser for my face."
"My favourite body tans are the Tanologist Extra Dark Mousse and the Utan Turbo Mousse. Both leave medium-dark skin with a healthy-looking and believable tan. Plus, the Utan mousse smells like a cherry bakewell—amazing. For my face, I often use Tan-Luxe face drops for extra glow. I need about 10 drops for a noticeable difference, so it's not for every day, but when my anaemia is screaming, it's the perfect overnight glow booster."
"My fake-tan MO is not looking like I've used fake tan. I like a subtle sun-kissed glow, but my skin is very pale, so I find any hint of orange really stands out against its pasty backdrop. This isn't an issue with Isle of Paradise's brilliant colour-correcting formulas (hardly surprising when you consider that its lovely founder, Jules Von Hep, has a decade and a half of experience as one of the go-to celebrity tanners). The Light range nails my personal brief, but the Face Drops, in particular, have a place in my heart for offering that bit more control. I can add a tiny drop to my moisturiser to take the edge off of a particularly luminous pallor, but adding one or two more won't result in Lucy à l'orange. I'm excited to try the body version that's just launched for the same reasons. I also like Tan-Luxe's drops, although they are more expensive."
"Amanda Harrington's Body Mousse in Olive is my perfect tan. Not only does it spread and soak into skin so easily, but the shade is also spot-on for my yellow-based natural skin tone. The brand's kabuki brush makes it instantly easy to get into cracks and crevices like knuckles and in between fingers. If I need something much deeper, then Luna Bronze's Eclipse Tanning Mousse is my go-to."
"I've tried a lot of bad fake tans (as my very old Facebook albums will attest), but nowadays, I like my fake tan to give me a realistic glow—more my skin tone, but healthier looking—and they have to be fuss-free. I'm not waiting around for my tan to develop, and I hate the feeling of sitting in a sticky fake tan for hours on end. So lightweight and fast-acting formulas are my go-to. I've recently been testing the Tan-Luxe Express Mousse, which is like having a pro tanner on speed dial to get you glowing within a matter of hours. Like my fellow beauty editors, I love Isle of Paradise's formulations as well as St. Tropez, which I've used for years. I particularly like the new Luxe Body Serum, which is so lightweight it practically disappears into the skin with no stickiness. For my face, I like Beauty Pie's Awesome Bronze Gradual Tan Drops, which deliver a subtle glow that you can build over a couple of days."
"Growing up, fake and artificial tanners were never my jam. In large part because of how scarce appropriate shades were for women of colour. Instead, I became a bronzer enthusiast. Now, years later, I have an arsenal of failsafe, glow-giving 'have you been away?' bronzers on hand at all times. Amongst these are some old and new favourites. For a blusher-bronzer hybrid, the Jones Road Lip + Cheek Stick in Chocolate Mocha takes the place of two pieces of makeup and is an ideal travel companion. For 'your skin but better and also like you've been on holiday' skin, the Merit Bronze Balm is buttery soft and requires little blending—a great choice if you favour using your fingers or hands to apply makeup. If you prefer powder, the Victoria Beckham Matte Bronzing Brick comes in five shade combinations and imbues skin with a '90s-supermodel baked, healthy glow. Finally, when a wash of sheer colour is what you want, the Dr. Hauschka Transluscent Bronzing Tint is suitable for sensitive skin, can be built up in intensity and feels featherlight on the face."
"Calling all fake-tan stans—this one's for you. I've finally done it; I've found what I believe to be the best instant tan on the market. And because I don't gatekeep, I'm happy to tell you that it's by St. Moritz. What makes it so good? Well, when applied with a mitt and moisturiser, it leaves not a single streak. It also has a lovely golden colour that makes you look like you've spent two weeks on a yacht in the Mediterranean, and what's more, it's only £5!"