If you’ve ever applied your fake tan with bated breath, desperately manifesting a non-streaky, non-smelly finish, you’re not alone. But in recent years, that once-dicey experience has changed. “Self-tans are so advanced these days. They are a far cry from the first ones that I remember, which smelled like the McVitie’s factory and turned you a ripe shade of orange,” says Susannah Taylor, beauty editor and columnist. But with more developments comes more products, and the choice can become overwhelming. To help you identify which fake tan is right for you, we’ve compiled a list of the six very best, according to experts, reviewers, and our own expertise.
What we’re looking for:
Type: The most popular forms of self-tanners are drops and mousses. Self-tanning drops can be added to your existing moisturiser and applied across the body or face. You can customise the shading of the finished result by deciding how many drops to add, and they’re often unscented. Mousses, on the other hand, will have a fixed shade. They can be a little more intimidating than drops, especially to beginners. But after a few applications, you’ll get into the groove and be left with a uniform, long-lasting glow.
Development time: On average, a tan takes around six to eight hours to fully develop. For this reason, many people will pop a layer on before bed so they wake up bronzed and glowing. (With this in mind, I’ve found tans that won’t transfer and smudge your bedsheets.)
Shades: I wanted to make sure there was a tan for every skin tone. Where a product offers a shade range, I’ve flagged what’s available. Some products (especially drops) will only come in one shade, because they’re highly customisable. In those cases, you should use fewer drops on paler skin and more on deeper skin tones to achieve a sun-kissed, healthy glow.
Scent: For me, the worst thing about poor-quality tans is the stench they leave on the skin. That typically “pungent biscuit tin” smell becomes pronounced when you’re sweatier, as in the summer. With this in mind, I scoured reviews to find out what the product smells like both in the bottle and on skin.
Best overall tan for body
Drops | 6-8 hours | Light/medium and medium/dark | Fragrance-free
Three of our experts named these Tan-Luxe drops as their No. 1 pick, and all made a note of how easy it is to apply, even for beginners. “It’s my absolute favourite,” says Joelle Dyson, an actor and singer who previously starred in Tina the Musical. “I use medium/dark as I have a darker skin tone. Having the flexibility to customise the finish is so useful, and it always fades evenly.” You just add a couple drops to your standard body lotion, squeezing out more for a deeper shade. That customisable shading can take some of the intimidation out of applying for newcomers, while letting more experienced self-tanners experiment to find what they like best. Stylist beauty director Shannon Peter received the light/medium drops in a press sample: “It’s super-simple to dial up the intensity just by shifting the tan-to-cream ratio.” And no matter how dark you decide to go, the drops always look “illuminating” in a “flawless but natural-looking way,” according to makeup artist Cher Webb.
Unlike other options, the tan drops don’t demand precision. “I get a bit slapdash with it, but it still looks beautiful,” Dyson says. “As long as you wash your hands immediately after applying, there is no staining, so you don’t need a mitt or any tools.” It’s on the pricier side, but should last for a few months with five or six drops applied each time. I think it’s truly worth it: Unlike other tans, it doesn’t leave an overwhelming odour on the skin, and reviewers report that it doesn’t stain clothes or bedsheets. Add in the nourishing bonus of raspberry-seed oil and vitamin E, and you’ll be able to sneak in some skin-care benefits, too.
Best (less expensive) tan for body
Cream moisturiser | 6–8 hours | One shade | Cocoa butter
Dyson also advocated for this option from Palmer’s, with a price that “you’d be hard pushed to beat.” But we didn’t just include it because it’s cheap. The little bottle packs a lot in. “It’s an absolute godsend for maintaining your skin’s natural glow,” explains Dyson. “Although I’m mixed race and naturally darker skinned, I can easily start to look quite sallow, ashy, and lacklustre with the change of weather or after a few heavy nights, and this lends my skin the warmth I’m after. They only do one shade, but I find it’s very adaptable.” By using it all over her body a couple times a week, she ends up with a finish that’s “not a dramatically dark tan, more of a subtle, healthy glow.”
So, yes, the product is less of a full-on tan and more of a tanning moisturiser. One great benefit of this, as I picked up from several Boots reviews, is that you’re not left feeling sticky after applying the lotion. In fact, as with the Tan-Luxe drops, Palmer’s self-tan nourishes the skin using the brand’s signature cocoa butter and vitamin E formula. Despite being less of a full-on tan, reviewers have found that the lotion appears quite dark once developed. If you have fairer skin, apply sparingly and build up the colour gradually.
Best tanning mousse for body
Mousse | 6–8 hours | One shade (suitable for fairer skin) | Coconut
I’ve tried a large bucketload of tans over the years, and Liquid Gold is my absolute favourite. So much so that when reports of a Brexit-induced tan shortage circulated in 2021, I ran to Boots to panic-buy three bottles. I initially bought it because I was fed up with others that I’d tried, which left smudges and streaks on my clothes. My friend suggested this, since it doesn’t develop a guide colour that you need to wash off. Instead, it develops into your skin gradually; if you splatter yourself with water after application, you won’t streak up your tan. Truly great if, like me, you’re a little clumsy.
The tan comes in one medium- to deep-bronze shade, ideal for those with paler skin. If you want to go darker than a natural-looking finish, you can build layers after the initial eight-hour development time, but I always find one layer to be enough on my fair skin. I wouldn’t say the tan is forgiving: If you miss a spot, it will be obvious, so it takes some time to perfect your application. But once you do, you’re left with a streak-free, subtle coconut-scented tan that lasts for a week and doesn’t leave smears on your tees and sheets. Remarkable for £15.
Best tan for body for beginners
Mist | 4–6 hours | Three shades, from medium to ultra-dark | Light eucalyptus
For first-timers, this self-tanning water may be less daunting than a mousse. “[It] allows you to customise your individual tan,” says facialist and skin-finishing expert Nichola Joss. “It’s colour corrective, really easy to apply, absorbs quickly, and leaves a smooth texture on the skin.” By colour correcting, Joss means that the water actively cancels out red tones to create a bronze veil.
Like Liquid Gold, the product has no guide colour, so won’t transfer onto clothes and bedsheets once you’ve sprayed it on. It also includes fatty acid–rich grapefruit, chia seeds, and avocado oils, which beyond sounding like the components of a delicious salad are great for thirsty skin. The water works well on a variety of skin tones, too, which makes it an essential for every piece in Joss’s kit: “There’s three shades on offer, but I personally use the dark self-tan water, spritzed straight onto the skin and buffed in with a mitt to give an even glow.”
Best overall tan for face
Drops | 6–8 hours | One shade (customisable) | Fragrance-free
Just as you’d use different moisturiser on your face than on the rest of your body, you should do the same with your tan. Every time Taylor adds this Clarins tan booster to her moisturiser, she says people compliment her. “It gives a really smooth, radiant glow and slightly evens out your skin at the same time.” Much like Tan-Luxe, just a few drops will get you your desired level of bronze.
“It’s one of those products that you can apply in the morning and forget about, but when you see yourself in the mirror midmorning, you look much better than you did when you left for work,” says Taylor. There’s a larger version available for the body, but this 15ml size can slip neatly into your makeup bag. Even though there’s only one shade, it’s easy to customise and develops quickly. Plus, since it blends into your regular moisturiser, it doesn’t transfer either.
Best (less-expensive) tan for face
Drops | 6–8 hours | One shade (customisable) | Fragrance-free
I use this slightly cheaper option to tan my own face. You mix it into your usual face moisturiser and apply that as normal. A tip: A thicker, creamier moisturiser such as Cicoplast Baume works best, because the drops can be very runny. Milkier moisturisers can leave you chasing everything around your hands.
I used to just use a body tanner on my face and would end up breaking out. These drops have stopped those flare-ups, giving me a much more natural glow than a haphazard swipe of body mousse. And using three or four drops a week makes each bottle last around three to four months. One final tip from me: If your body tan isn’t quite faded enough to warrant another layer, or you want an added glow, add a drop or two into some Garnier tanning moisturiser and apply to your entire body for a quick and subtle top-up.
Some other fake tans we’ve written about:
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