The fake tan experiment: we test the best products for a sun-kissed glow with benefits

Posted by
The Stylist web team
backgroundLayer 1
Add this article to your list of favourites

With smarter formulas and acres of choice, is it time to give fake tans another go? Three Stylist self tan cynics take on the new breed of fake tans

“I’ve been banned from sunbathing”

Lisa Smosarski, Stylist’s editor-in-chief, swaps her sun tan for a bottle

“When I was 21, I went to see a psychic who told me: ‘You love the sun a bit too much… Do you understand what I'm saying? I can’t say more, but be careful.’ She might have been mystic or she might have clocked my then-love of sunbeds (I know, I know. Don’t tweet me, I was 21!) but looking back, perhaps I should have listened.

I love the sun. A lot. As soon as it appears, I find places to plant my face, forcing my rather pale skin to bask in stolen moments of sunny bliss. I love how it feels and I love the resulting look – a smattering of freckles appearing across my warmed-up skin. I’m pale, so normally a tan makes me look healthy and well. I hold my hands up – I have shirked SPF in favour of a tan and never regretted it. Until a month ago that is, when I went to see a dermatologist at Eudelo Dermatology’s Harley Street clinic who told me that they weren’t actually freckles, but years of sun damage manifesting itself across my face. And that my sun damage was 44 per cent worse than other women of my age. With her stern words to avoid sunbathing echoing through my head, I gave the beauty team a challenge: find me a way to tailor a tan so that I can also combine the reparative anti-ageing benefits of skincare to reverse some of the damage I’ve done to my skin with a fake tan realistic-looking enough to satisfy my superficial craving for a summer glow. Fake tan with benefits, if you will.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are a swathe of new tans dedicated to my mission. There are SPFs with gradual tan like Sisley’s (£103,, which comes enhanced with anti-oxidants that help target the visible signs of ageing appearing on my face in the form of wrinkles and dark spots. And vitamin-laced moisturisers with instant glow (This Works’ Energy Bank Sunflash, £28,, which I tried with intrigue. It squeezed out a terrifying deep mahogany colour, but actually smoothed on beautifully and gave me an instant healthy glow. Packed with vitamins C, E and hyaluronic acid, this perks up a grey skin day while working hard behind the scenes on my lackadaisical approach to skincare. But for me the colour still wasn’t enough. I needed something stronger.

So I turned my attention to the instant tanners, creams applied once or twice a week that promise a full and proper tan. I started with Clarins’ Self-Tanning Milky Lotion (£20, Although slightly tricky to apply as there’s no guide colour, it left my skin feeling really soft and developed overnight to create a lovely, natural glow, with minimal streakage. The colour definitely wasn’t too overpowering, and it looked convincingly real (apart from the fact it magically appeared overnight).

Finding my confidence, I tried the Xen-Tan Moroccan Tan Ultra (£49.99,, too, on my body and Fresh Face Tan, (£20.99,, on my face and upper body, which I particularly loved. According to the bottle, it contains a myriad of vitamins and peptides that protect skin from cellular ageing (the bit that happens below the skin’s surface), plus it smells of caramel, not biscuits. Both only took three hours to develop so I was able to shower it off before bed and reveal a tan reminiscent of a fortnight in Spain. Only without the pesky sun damage.

All of these new discoveries mean that I’ve been able to get the glow I crave while layering my face in La Roche-Posay’s Anthelios Comfort Cream SPF 50+ (£15.50,, which has a high PPD (Persistent Pigment Darkening) factor to stop the increase of ‘freckles’. I have faith I’m going some way to unwind the damage I’ve caused. If I’m being totally honest I’m still not sure anything really does quite replicate that fresh-from-the-sun tan and freckles, but these are so good I’m sure I’ll learn to get used to a steady year-round glow (hallelujah!) without risking my skin any further. I bet that psychic’s nodding smugly right now.”

“I’m so milky white my legs look blue”

Joanna McGarry, Stylist’s associate editor (beauty) shuns her signature pale skin look

“A glowing tan? I’ve never had the pleasure. My Irish roots have seen to it that my summer face is that of a particularly agitated David Cameron; flush pink on a good day, postbox-red on a bad one.

In 32 years, I’ve never had a single sun tan. Even after a month in Cambodia, when my sun cream application became pretty lax, I came home with blinding white legs. If it wasn’t for a light smattering of freckles, I would look seriously anaemic.

And while I am perfectly content to be fair-skinned, I am envious of the health-giving, leg-lengthening impact of a tan. Bronzed skin is code for the well-holidayed, for women who cycle through leafy parks with flowers perched in a straw basket, for women who feel at ease in a triangle bikini and never slack on their wax appointments. A tan is the calling card of a woman who has got her act together.

I want to be one of those women. However, there is one problem. Fake tans look preposterous on me, like I’ve fallen over on a freshly varnished wooden floor. Because I don’t tan naturally, it’s simple logic that the development colour doesn’t sit well on my skin. I’ve now spent years avoiding them like the plague. So it was through gritted teeth that I took on a new mission: to find a formula that delivered a demonstrable boost in colour but also a believable result against my sheet-white pallor.

I wade in with Rimmel’s Sun Shimmer Instant Tan in Light (£6.99,, smearing a blob onto my face, lower legs and forearms. I am floored! My skin is not orange, nor ruddy, nor teak. It’s sort of caramel, like it’s been licked by the sun. You can’t see the edges and it blends seamlessly into my hairline – like a sheer foundation three shades darker than my own. And as this is an instant formula, it’s without the scare factor of waiting till morning to see what colour you are. Later, at a Stylist meeting, I ask my colleagues if it looks real and am met with a hearty chorus of ‘YES!’ (disclaimer: there was also one ‘no’).

Buoyed by my success, I try Espa’s gradual tan serum (£24, on my face and Dior’s Beautifying Protective Milky Mist Sublime Glow SPF 30 (£31, on my legs. Again, the fear factor is vastly minimised by its customisable approach – just add two to four drops to your face cream. I added three and then forgot about it. The next day, my brother-in-law remarked that I look liked I’d “caught the sun”. No-one has ever said those words to me. This must be how Jane Birkin felt after a weekend on Pampelonne Beach, I thought. The result is subtle, but noticeable too, and surely that’s the holy grail of all self-tanning?

Something good has definitely happened between the last time I used a fake tan – some five years ago – and now. The results are now credible: it’s as though the warmth and orange tones have been replaced with earthy grey tones. So much so that it’s become virtually impossible to tell a pretend tan from a real one (unless the application technique has been rather heavy-handed).

The £6.99 tube by Rimmel is just as transformative as say, having your teeth whitened, but so much more accessible. Genuinely, I am a convert. I am bona fide, card carrying, born-again disciple of the church of fake tan. Sure, it’s a bit finickity and ruins your clothes (I lost my favourite white T-shirt to a stain during this process), but hell, it’s worth it. My look is now a bit more glowy editor, less rosy politician.”

“I haven’t got time for an elaborate tan”

Samantha Silver, Stylist’s beauty editor, opts for a speedy tan fix

“Whenever there’s a fake tan feature within Stylist, there’s a general presumption that I’ll write it. This is because I’m rather partial to a tan and aside from a questionable spell at university (triple layering St Tropez Self Tan Bronzing Mousse with two layers of Rimmel Sunshimmer was, in hindsight, not a good look), I had it nailed. When I got married, I spent months perfecting my wedding glow with a three-step prep, tan and extend regime. And a spray tan was a regular occurrence for me. My monthly appointments with A-list tanner James Harknett combined with a strict at-home regime meant I had the whole faux-glow thing down pat.

But now that I’m back to the 9-5, I just don’t have time. I’m lucky if I can get five minutes to myself to sit and collect my thoughts at the end of the day, so where am I supposed to find half an hour for bronzing? Tanning has well and truly been bumped down my list of priorities but I can’t forgo it completely; the cold hard fact is that a tan makes me feel better and look healthier, even when I’m surviving on four hours’ sleep and a drip feed of strong coffee. I just have to find a way of doing it quicker and smarter. I need easy-to-apply formulas that develop super-quickly into natural shades.

First up, I try NKD SKN’s pre-shower tan (£13.95,, which promises to develop in 10 minutes. Ten minutes! I put the dinner in the oven and run up to the bathroom to apply it; it feels slightly gloopy, not like the usual airy mousses I’m used to. While I’m stood on the landing in my knickers, my husband comes out of the bedroom. ‘Have you had a spray tan – you look brown?’ he asks. What? It’s only been six minutes! Four minutes later, I shower, change into my pyjamas, and get dinner out of the oven. The formula continues to develop for four hours after you shower it off. At 6.30am I wake up totally golden, with no tell-tale smell of biscuits and no stained sheets. This is a tanning revolution! So happy am I with this time-saving discovery that I can’t help asking everyone at work, ‘Do I look brown?’, just so I can tell them about this great new formula. Win.

Next up is James Read’s H20 Tan Mist (£20, Read makes it his mission to develop innovative products that fit seamlessly into busy women’s lives. The instructions say to spritz evenly and then leave it to develop, so I do so mid-morning, at my desk. It’s formulated with rose water and aloe vera, so provides a rather pleasant hit of refreshment in the stuffy office. At 3pm I’m called into a meeting with the rest of my colleagues. Someone jokes that I get progressively darker throughout the hour-long meeting. I’m sure that I’m exuding a strong biscuity aroma but when I wash my face that evening, I’m pleased. I look naturally tanned and it lasts the whole weekend. But now my face is browner than my body. Step up St Tropez’s new gradual tan body lotion (£14.50, Re-formulated without the tell-tale biscuit smell and with a clever instant guide colour, this gel formula is an easy win for last-minute tanning when you remember at 7am that you have an important event that evening. I quickly and haphazardly apply it before work and it slowly develops during the day, unbeknownst to my colleagues that I am tanning on the job. Easy street. I’m impressed, and suitably glowing in time for that evening’s cocktail party.

So turns out, there is a way to slot tanning back into my increasingly busy routine. I’m saving the subtle gradual tan for emergencies, but it’s NKD SKN’s pre-shower formula that has earned itself a prized spot in my more-streamlined-than-ever beauty regime. A tan that takes ten minutes? Unbeatable if you ask me.”

Photography: Sarah Brimley