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Fake tan buying guide: From gel to mousse, this is how to choose the right product for your skin type

Confused about all the different varieties? We’ve got expert advice on which formula will suit you best

Ellie Fry
Friday 22 May 2020 10:22
There is a range of new formulas on the market that prove we've moved on from streaky and orange tans
There is a range of new formulas on the market that prove we've moved on from streaky and orange tans

We could all do with a pick-me-up right now, and although the warmer weather certainly helps improve our mood, spending an excessive amount of time in the sun can cause damage to our skin.

If you’re looking for a golden tan without any of the risk, opt for sunshine in a bottle, otherwise known as a fake tan.

It’s the best way to fake a healthy glow, especially as we’re currently stuck inside for the most of the day which can lead to dull, lacklustre skin.

Many people are reluctant to embrace the world of fake tanning through fear of streakiness, orange shades and patchiness.

But finding the right one for you has never been easier, with brands developing innovative formulas such as correcting mousses and hydrating gels, to suit every skin type. Investing in the right products for skin prep and maintenance will also help you achieve the best finish.

Read our expert guide covering everything you need to know about buying fake tan, from which formula to choose to the products you need for maintaining your tan and removal.

You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps to fund journalism across The Independent.

Choosing the right fake tan formula

No matter what your skin type, look for skin-loving ingredients that will nourish as well as deliver a glow, such as hyaluronic acid, coconut water and joba joba oil. If you are acne or oil-prone, avoid oil-based formulas.

Serums and gels

If you have dry skin, try a water based formula, which are often called gels or serums, as these will hydrate your skin and avoid tan clinging to dry areas – giving you a glow without any patchiness. Products that feature hyaluronic acid are particularly good for intense hydration and soothing of the skin.

We love Tan Luxe’s super glow serum (£35, Space NK) which feels nourishing on dry skin while delivering a natural and healthy glow, as well as St Tropez’ purity bronzing gel (£20.60, Amazon), which we featured in our round-up of the best fake tans for its skin-loving ingredients and long lasting golden colour.

Our tester said the gel "feels soothing and cool on the skin, with the signature tropical scent that takes us straight to the beach," and noted that it left no colour transfer on her sheets.

This gel formula feels soothing on the skin (St Tropez)

These formula types tend to be more subtle in colour than others, but are buildable, which we’d recommend for dry types as other formulas can appear patchy and could also irritate the skin.

In our review of the best fake tans, we rated Fake Bake's ultimate gel double shot espresso tan (£24.95, Look Fantastic) highly, although if you're not a fan of coffee, the scent might not be for you.

With a more intense colour pay-off than other gel formulas, you may panic at first when you apply to the skin as it looks like it could go streaky. But fear not, it buffs in beautifully and gives an even coverage which dries almost instantly.

Mousses and lotions

If you’re wanting instant colour pay-off and/or you’re an experienced tanner, opt for a mousse or lotion formula, these are harder to use but deliver the most impact and tend to last longer. You’ll need to use a mitt with these.

Our favourite is Isle of Paradise’s self tanning mousse in dark (£16.95, Boots), which won our best buy in our fake tans review for its innovative colour correcting technology that gave us a deep tan without any orange in sight.

Isle of Paradise's dark mousse contains colour correcting ingredients for even coverage (The Independent)

Our tester said: "It dried within minutes and left no sticky residue. Our only bugbear was that it was hard to tell what colour the tan would develop to after the initial application, it does go a lot darker so we wouldn’t recommend a double layer."

We also loved Bondi Sands’ aero aerated foam (£12.72, Look Fantastic) for its instant colour-pay off and easy, buildable application that doesn’t go patchy.

Gradual self tan

If you’re wanting a lighter, more natural colour pay-off, opt for a gradual tanning lotion. These are another great hydrating option and give you more opportunity to tailor the colour you want to achieve as they are buildable.

Face tan

The skin on your face is very different, namely more sensitive, to the rest of your body, so you’ll need a formula designed for your face. These usually come in the form of serums or drops.

You can apply these with your hands but you will need to wash them after, or if you’re worried about tell-tale signs, use a clean make-up brush to buff into the skin.

These tanning drops give an even coverage and a natural glow

We love Isle of Paradise’s tanning drops (£15.95, Feel Unique) for their even coverage and natural colour, coming in three shades for different skin tones.

If you have dry skin, opt for Tan Luxe’s super glow hyaluronic acid self-tan serum (£35, Look Fantastic), which is gentle and hydrating, providing a healthy glow without clinging to dry areas of the face (a common problem with other face tans).

Find the right base colour for you

Fake tan shades have different undertones, much like your own skin, but fake tan base shades work to counteract unwanted colouring.

For example, those with pale or pink-based skin should choose a green-based tan to counteract redness (although these are universally good for everyone), and those with darker skin or who want the deepest colour pay-off should choose a violet-based formula to avoid yellow (read: orange) tones.

Caramel-based tans are the happy medium between a light bronze and serious tan, giving a golden glow for all skin types.

Some fake tans, like Isle of Paradise's mousse, now feature colour correcting ingredients that do all the hard work for you, evening skin tone for the most natural finish. Be wary of any tan that promotes itself to have an orange base.

The best products for skin prep

It may sound laborious, but the secret to a flawless-looking tan is in the skincare prep.

Shave at least 24 hours before you plan to tan, and exfoliate your skin using an exfoliating glove or brush and a body scrub. This will give the tanning formula a smooth and clean base to work from, helping you to achieve the most natural-looking results.

We love Mio's heavenly body radiance salt scrub (£23, Look Fantastic) for sloughing away any dead skin or patchy tan from a previous application.

Make sure you always follow any exfoliation with a body moisturiser. Sol de Janeiro's much-loved Brazilian bum bum cream (£18, Space NK) won best buy in our IndyBest review of body moisturisers, with our tester noting its nourishing ingredients, including "caffeine-rich guarana to brighten and tighten skin, as well as cupuacu butter and acai coconut oils for serious moisturising."

When the pH balance of your skin is at its optimum, your tan will apply perfectly and last longer. The skin’s barrier, known as the acid mantle, is responsible for keeping in lipids (fatty acids) and moisture while blocking out outside aggressors like pollution, toxins and bacteria.

Our tester loved this body moisturiser for its skin nourishing ingredients (The Independent)

To work at its best, the acid mantle should be slightly acidic (at around a 5.5 pH balance), when it’s too alkaline, your skin can become sensitive and dry, leading to eczema in some cases.

Jules Von Hep, celebrity tanning expert and co-founder of Isle of Paradise, recommends using the brand’s priming spray (£12.95, Boots) to prep your skin for tan application.

He says: “This will lower your pH and will help the tan penetrate deeper into the skin," adding, "you wouldn’t put make-up on without a primer so why tan without one?”.

Michaella Bolder, skin finishing expert at St.Tropez, recommends following up with an “aloe vera based moisturiser, applying to any dry areas on your body especially our super dry hands, feet, elbows and knees – this stops the tan settling in these areas.”

We love the Vaseline intensive care aloe lotion (£5.99, Superdrug), as it’s calming on the skin and absorbs easily, which is perfect for pre-tanning.​

The best products for tan application

The key to easy and successful tan application is the products you use. Always use a mitt to apply your tan, and a clean one at that, as Bolder notes that “unclean mitts can lead to streaks."

Our favourite has to be Doll Beauty's doll tanning mitt (£6.50, Boots). The mitt's velvet texture helps to buff and blend any tanning product into the skin with ease, and doesn't absorb all of the product – which is a frequent issue with other mitts.

The mitt is large which makes it easier to cover wider areas, but doesn't slip off when you're tanning. The thumb hole gives you extra grip and control over your tan application, something that other mitts don't offer.

The best products for maintaining your tan

After applying your tan, you’ll want it to stay fresh and glowing for as long as possible. Molly Mae, Love Island winner and founder of tanning brand, Filter by Molly Mae, suggests “moisturising daily after washing off the first layer of your tan to maintain the best possible results.” This will keep your skin hydrated, avoiding potential patchiness.

For a luxury treat, we love Laura Mercier's ambre vanille souffle body creme (£53, Space NK) from the brand's coveted body and bath collection. The cream has a whipped-like texture that feels rich and deeply nourishing on the skin, and the sweet vanilla scent is one of our favourites.

This mitt has a velvet texture which makes for smooth application

After following these steps to hydrate and exfoliate your skin after application, we recommend topping your tan up once a week for a continual glow. Filter by Molly Mae’s fake tanning mousse (£19.99, Filter by Molly Mae) is currently sold out, but we managed to get our hands on it and loved the formula for its golden colour that isn’t at all ashy, and how hydrating it felt on the skin and how long lasting it was, so we recommend watching out for the next stock release that's coming soon.

The best products for removing your tan

After a week of wear, your tan will fade, but it can cling to dry areas like elbows and ankles, or even look completely patchy, especially if you have dry skin. Before tanning again, you should remove the remains of your last layer to give yourself a fresh base for the next application.

To remove it, use exfoliating gloves, a mitt or brush in the bath to buff away any unwanted product. This will also slough away dead skin cells, giving you smooth skin ready for other products. We love using Face Halo’s body mitt (£17.95, Beauty Bay) for removing fake tan.

The dual-sided circular mitt is designed for exfoliating and cleansing the skin, tackling the most stubborn tan while still feeling gentle, even on sensitive areas. We are yet to find another product that removes tan so successfully. Make sure you always follow any exfoliation with a body moisturiser.

IndyBest product reviews are unbiased, independent advice you can trust. On some occasions, we earn revenue if you click the links and buy the products, but we never allow this to bias our coverage. The reviews are compiled through a mix of expert opinion and real-world testing.

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