We all like to look tanned, glowing, and summery, but that can be challenging in the UK, where there is often not enough sun to get this look on a regular basis. Not to mention, tanning from either the sun or sunbeds can be bad for our skin, raising risks of cancer and encouraging signs of ageing to form. So, this is where fake tanning enters — this way, you can look sun-kissed without damaging your skin, and enjoy having that glow all year round, even in the rainy British weather.

If you’re new to fake tanning, there’s probably some things you’re wondering about, from how to apply self-tan to how long to leave it on for. In this guide, we’ll be taking you through everything you need to know to get started with fake tan and get your perfect summery glow.

In this guide, we’ll be covering:

  • How does fake tan work?
  • Types of fake tan
    • Tanning sprays and mists
    • Self-tanning lotions
    • Gradual tanning moisturisers
  • How to choose a fake tan shade
  • How to fake tan
    • Exfoliate the skin
    • Dry the skin thoroughly
    • Apply tanner in sections
      • Applying spray tan
      • Applying tanning lotion
    • Wait 10 minutes before dressing
  • How to maintain your fake tan
  • Is fake tan safe during pregnancy?
  • How to remove fake tan

How does fake tan work?

Before you dive in with your own fake tan, you should first understand how sunless tanning works. The active ingredient used in these tanning products is the colouring agent DHA, also known as dihydroxyacetone, and this combines with the amino acids in our skin to produce the tanned colour that we enjoy so much. Unlike the reaction caused in our skin by the UV rays of the sun, DHA doesn’t damage our skin or cause a permanent change in its condition.

It's worth noting that your fake tan doesn’t provide any UV protection, so you’ll still need to apply sun cream when you go outside on a bright day. Don’t be fooled, and make sure that you still have your sunscreen, protective clothing, and some nearby shade when necessary. Whatever your skin’s usual sensitivity to the sun, it will continue to be broadly the same with fake tan applied.

Types of fake tan

If you’re interested in using sunless tanning products, you’ll want to look at which ones are available, to judge what might suit you best for your first foray into at-home tanning. There is a big range of tanners available all of which provide a different kind of coverage, so take the time to see which you prefer:

Tanning sprays and mists

If you want an at-home tanner that can give you a similar effect to that of getting a spray tan, then this could be the type of tanner for you. Both sprays and mists (lighter sprays) are excellent choices for those who want to ensure their tan is free of streaks, however they can be somewhat trickier to use for your first time, as they require lots of precision to produce the even result they’re known for.

Self-tanning lotions and mousses

Self-tanning lotions and mousses are classic choices for at-home tanning. These are lotions that you put on your skin and wait for a period of time to develop. This is the easiest method to apply and will give you the desired result as long as you apply it slowly and carefully.

Gradual tanning moisturisers

Lastly, gradual tanning moisturisers are a great way for you to ease into the world of fake tanning if you are unsure. Gradual tanning moisturisers build up a colour over the course of a week or two, and while you apply them the same way as tanning lotions, they are more forgiving of mistakes as their colour is less intense. So, if you want to work up to a tanning lotion, this is a great way in.

How to choose a fake tan shade

Once you’ve decided which type of fake tanning formula might be best for you, you’ll then need to decide which shade will suit you best. This can be tricky, as there are so many to choose from, but the key thing to consider is how fair your natural complexion is. If you are very pale, then a darker fake tan will look extremely unnatural. Those with olive skin tones will do best with a fake tanner that’s a little darker or is specially made for olive skin tones.

A good general rule is that your fake tan should only be a few shades darker than your natural skin tone, as you are aiming to mimic the colour that your skin would naturally go if you spent long enough out in the sun. So, don’t go overboard and make sure the finished result is realistic. And remember that extra layers can always give a darker colour, so it’s often better to go too light, as you can always reapply if you decide to.

How to fake tan

If you’ve decided to go for a fake tanning product, then you can begin thinking about how you’re going to apply it. Of course, the method you need to use will vary slightly depending on what tanner you’ve chosen, but there are lots of things that are the same whichever tanning product you reach for.

Exfoliate the skin

While many people think you should moisturise before fake tanning, this is in fact false, as you should be keeping your skin moisturised in the week leading up to tanning to promote smooth application. This will have much more effect than hydrating your skin immediately beforehand.

Just before applying your fake tan, what you need to do is exfoliate the skin. The reason for this, is that exfoliation removes dead skin cells from the surface of your skin, and this makes the tan more even. You should pay particular attention to exfoliating the places on your body where the skin is thicker, such as your elbows, knees, heels, and ankles. As a bonus, this stage should make your skin feel nice and smooth too!

You can use either a physical exfoliating cloth or a chemical exfoliator, but more sensitive skin types might prefer a chemical exfoliator as these are usually gentler. However, an exfoliating brush is also a good option. We also have a guide to sensitive skin with information on exfoliating and other care tips for this skin type.

Dry the skin thoroughly

Make sure to fully dry yourself before starting the tanning process. Leaving water or damp patches on your skin will disturb the evenness of your finish, and it can also make it more challenging to apply the fake tan and get it to soak into your complexion too.

If you have enough time, it can be a good idea to dry yourself as you would normally after a shower or bath, and then wait half an hour before you begin tanning to ensure that your skin is indeed fully dry and doesn’t have any residual dampness.

Apply tanner in sections

When you’re applying self-tan, the easiest way to do it is by splitting your body into sections. This might be the arms, then legs, then torso, or whichever way is easiest for you. This will make things easier whether you are applying a lotion or a spray. Concentrate on each particular area and don’t rush — take the time to apply the tanner evenly so that you don’t need to go back over anything.

Applying spray tan

Hold the spray can about eight inches from your skin and apply an even spray, making sure you leave no gaps. You may want to ask someone to help you with areas that are difficult to reach, such as your back. Make sure that you are applying the product in a place that is easy to clean (such as the bathroom, with the bath matt removed) as tanning sprays can be messy.

Wear gloves while applying the tanning solution to your body to make sure your end result is an even colour. At the last stage, apply a light mist across your face, then remove your gloves and do the same for your hands. If you don’t wear gloves throughout applying the tanner to your body, then you’ll find that your hands will become too tanned compared to your body.

Applying tanning lotion or mousse

Tanning lotion should be applied to your skin using gentle circular motions. This will ensure that it soaks in properly and is even when it dries. Unlike when applying spray tan, you can’t apply tanning lotion while wearing gloves, so instead you should be washing your hands between each section of your body. For instance, if you begin by applying the fake tan to your arms, then you should wash your hands before moving on to your torso or legs.

Blend the self-tan on your wrists and ankles to ensure that the sections flow smoothly from one to another. Then, dilute the fake tan over your joints, for instance on your knees and elbows. This is necessary because the skin is thicker here, and these areas tend to absorb more fake tan. The way to avoid them appearing darker than the surrounding areas is to make the fake tan you apply to them thinner. A tanning mitt can also help you work the fake tan into your skin thoroughly.

Wait 10 minutes before dressing

Most home tanning products don’t require long waits before being able to get dressed, as they are designed to dry relatively quickly. However, make sure to follow the instructions on the packaging of your specific product, whether it says to wait 10 minutes or 20.

Allowing your fake tan to dry for at least 10 minutes will mean that it’s soaked into your skin fully and will ensure it won’t rub off onto your clothes. Furthermore, after you’ve given your tanner time to soak in, you should still wear loose clothes for at least three hours to make doubly sure that it will be as even and smooth as possible when it dries.

How to fake tan your face

Applying fake tan to your face can be somewhat fiddly, but it’s easily achievable with a few tips. Just as with the rest of your body, you should exfoliate the skin on your face before tanning — this can be done either on the same day, or the day before.

Then, the first step in applying your fake tan is to cleanse your face thoroughly with your usual cleanser. It’s important to remove any dirt and extra oil from the surface of your skin, as this can create streaks and an uneven finish in your tan. Remember not to use any oil-based products on your face immediately before tanning as this can also cause the tan to be streaky — if your complexion is dry, just stick to a hydrating moisturiser and let it soak in completely before moving to the tanning product. Apply the tanner carefully, using gentle circular motions. Make sure not to touch it while it’s drying, and dust some transparent loose makeup powder over your face to speed up the drying process if you’re in a rush.

If you are blonde, or your hair is prone to picking up the colour from you fake tan, then cover your eyebrows in a non-irritating lip balm. Some people find that it’s also beneficial to cover their lips too. This will protect them from the tanning process.

How to maintain your fake tan

After you’ve completed your fake tan and have the look you’re happy with, you’ll want to maintain it for as long as possible by reapplying every two days or so.

It’s also important that when your glow does begin to fade (which is unfortunately inevitable) that it fades evenly, without creating patches that fade more or less over time. The key to this is to moisturise after every time you shower or take a bath using an intensive moisturiser. Moisturised skin will keep the tan longer, as it prevents the top layer of your skin from flaking.

You should also avoid using harsh skincare products that can strip the tan away. Applying gradual tanning products such as moisturisers over your tan can help to keep it looking great too.

Is fake tan safe during pregnancy?

If you’re wondering whether fake tan is safe for use during pregnancy, the answer is mostly yes. There is no known adverse effect from applying fake tan lotions, however you should refrain from using spray tan products during pregnancy as it’s not yet clear what the effect of inhaling the spray might be. It’s not really possible to apply a spray tan at home without inhaling some of it, so if you want that summer glow while you’re expecting you should use either a tanning lotion or a gradual tanning moisturiser.

You should however bear in mind that, although there is no known risk to your baby from using fake tanning products while pregnant, you can often be more sensitive to skincare ingredients during this time, so it’s possible you might have an allergic or irritated reaction to the DHA or something else in your tanning product.

Do a patch test prior to using your fake tan on an area of skin that won’t usually be seen to ensure it doesn’t disturb the look of your tan. For more pointers, read our blog post on how to deal with and navigate inflammation in your skin, as well as our entry on pregnancy skincare for tips on this.

How to remove fake tan

However carefully you apply your fake tan, there are some situations where you’ll want to take it off, whether because you’ve accidentally ended up with a steaky finish, or just because you dislike the way the tan has faded and want a blank canvas for your next application. So, how can you remove fake tan quickly and easily?


It might surprise you, but steam is a great way of dislodging fake tan. So, next time you go to the gym, simply take some time in the sauna and let the steam do its work before your shower. Before you get in the shower, try rubbing the fake tan off with a wet towel applied in gentle circles to encourage it to come off.


A less surprising option to remove fake tan is to exfoliate your skin. This is usually best done while you’re having a shower. Removing any dead skin cells and encouraging cell turnover will mean that your tan fades quickly. However, don’t exfoliate on consecutive days as this could dry out your skin or cause irritation. To assist with the exfoliation process, you can also add a moisturising oil prior to getting in the shower and exfoliating, as the oil helps to loosen the dead skin cells before you exfoliate, therefore making the end result more thorough.


Did you know that the chlorine in your local swimming pool could help to remove your fake tan? This is because the chlorine has a slightly abrasive and bleaching effect on skin, and while usually this is insignificant, when you’re wearing fake tan it can be used to help get it off. Don’t worry though, it won’t come off directly into the pool water — the chlorine just assists with the fading process.

Use these tips to choose a fake tan that suits you and apply it so that it is even and long-lasting. If you’re planning your fake tan ahead of a trip abroad, check out our blog on travel tips for more tips to keep you looking and feeling fresh. You can also check out the rest of our blog for information and tips on all aspects of beauty and wellbeing.

Remember that you’ll need to apply sunscreen even after your fake tan, as it doesn’t provide any protection. So, browse our suncare section to grab your natural sunscreen option, as well as picking up your self-tan.