Look no further for your sun-safe, sun-kissed glow. We’ve tracked down the best gradual self-tanners – whatever it is you’re looking for

The world of DIY beauty can be a minefield – particularly when it comes to tanning. Although it’s a great way to reduce the risk of sun damage that comes with a natural tan, the biscuity smell, traditionally orange hue and giveaway streaks synonymous with instant self-tan products can be seriously off-putting. 

However, formulas have come on in leaps and bounds, and today’s choices offer something for every skin type and budget. Tanning beginner? Gradual tan could be the solution for a more bespoke sun-kissed glow. 

Benefits of gradual tanner

‘If you're new to tanning, then I'd recommend using a gradual tan to build your confidence first,’ explains Skinny Tan tanning expert, Claire Lambert. ‘Gradual tanners are ideal for prolonging your tan, too, as they'll keep your colour topped up.’

‘Gradual tanners are a halfway house between a moisturiser and self-tan. They aren’t designed to tan skin instantly, but to build up a gradual glow over time,’ says tanning specialist, James Harknett – otherwise known as “the Tom Ford of tan”.

‘They often contain hydrating ingredients, which means application is easier and less likely to go awry.’

Can’t get enough of our experts? We asked Isle of Paradise founder, Jules Von Hep for his answers to your burning fake tan questions.

How to prepare the skin for gradual tan

‘Preparation is crucial, as with any tan, and will help avoid mistakes,’ explains James.

It’s all about creating the perfect base. ‘For instance, the less stripped the skin is, the more evenly the tan will cling to it. Wax 48 hours before or shave the day before, then close pores with cool water to avoid speckled legs,’ James recommends. ‘Don’t go overboard with the body scrub either, but try tackling drier areas with a nail buffing block. This will smooth out the build-up of dry skin on the elbows, knees and heels.’

How to apply streak-free gradual self-tanner

The beauty of a gradual tan is that it’s more low maintenance than traditional ‘hard core’ fake tan options. ‘To apply gradual tan quickly, you can simply use your hands as you would with a body moisturiser – just don’t forget to wash them afterwards or you’ll end up with telltale dark palms,’ advises James. Apply a small amount at a time in circular motions for even, smooth coverage and, if your chosen gradual tanner is tinted, try to do it in a well-lit room in front of a mirror to help you avoid any bare patches.

Want to know what our customers rate? These fake tan reviews could help you make the right product choice for you.

Gradual tan maintenance

‘The best thing about gradual tanning is that you can apply it every day if you’re looking for a deeper glow, or if you’re just looking to keep your tan topped up,’ says Claire. ‘I personally like applying it twice a week for an ongoing, natural-looking tan.’

‘The colour itself should last the same amount of time as standard fake tan – up to 10 days if the skin is prepped and kept hydrated,’ says James.

In between tanning, he recommends keeping skin drenched in moisture. ‘Non-tinted, oil-free moisturiser helps lock down the colour and stay on the skin longer for an even fade.

‘If you’re tanning for an event and want a flawless finish, I’d recommend prepping your skin again with an exfoliator, especially if it’s been over a week since you last did it.’

Our pick of the best gradual self-tanners 
Best budget gradual self-tanner

Try: Dove Visible Glow Fair to Medium Self Tan Body Lotion (£4.50)

- Size: 400ml

Treat yourself to a year-round holiday glow and hydrated skin without exposing yourself to the sun with this multitasking, nourishing formula that’s enriched with skin-loving essential oils. Quick-absorbing, apply daily post-shower for a subtle, sun-kissed look – whatever the weather.

Best gradual self-tanner for fair or pale skin

Try: Nivea Q10 Gradual Tan Body Moisturiser Fair to Medium (£9.99)

- Size: 400ml
- Suitable for face and body

Designed for fair to medium skin, this nourishing and subtly scented formula can be used in place of your daily body moisturiser for a buildable summer glow. Alternatively, use every other day to maintain a natural, radiant tan. 

Best gradual self-tanner for medium to dark skin tones

Try: Dove DermaSpa Face Cream Summer Revived Medium to Dark Self-tan (£3.99)

Size: 75ml

Treat your face to a daily dose of sunshine with this spa-like facial tanning moisturiser for medium to dark skin. It combines gentle tanners with the brand’s unique, streak-preventing Cell-Moisturisers, which also help lock moisture deep into skin to leave it glowing and healthy looking.

Best gradual self-tanner for deeper skin tones

Try: Garnier Summer Body Gradual Tan Moisturiser Deep, (£6.49)

- Size: 250ml
- Suitable for face and body
- Vegan

This pick’s moisturising formula is enriched with apricot oil to relieve dryness, while a subtle dose of tanning active gradually builds a natural-looking, sun-kissed glow. It’s also fast-absorbing for bonus points. 

Best gradual self-tanner for clean bed sheets

Try: Vita Liberata Fabulous Gradual Tanning Lotion (£15)

- Size: 200ml
- Suitable for face and body

With an untinted formula for minimal risk of transfer, use a tanning mitt to massage this hydrating lotion into the skin in long circular movements and leave on for a minimum of eight hours for best results. A great choice for keeping sheets and clothes stain-free.

Best gradual self-tanner for a light tan

Try: No7 Naturally Sun Kissed Gradual Body Tan (£9.95)

- Size: 200ml

This pick not only builds a beautifully light tan, but also moisturises and contains nourishing ingredients to keep skin smooth and supple in the heat. The result: soft and gently glowing skin that’s prepped for sunny and not-so-sunny days.

Best gradual self-tanner for a customisable, all-over tan

Try: Isle of Paradise Hyglo Hyaluronic Self-Tan Body Serum (£24.95)

- Size: 95ml
- Vegan
- Cruelty-free

Wave goodbye to thirsty skin with this gradual tan serum, infused with hyaluronic acid, avocado, chia seed and coconut oil. It absorbs within seconds and comes with a mess-free dropper that contains the exact right dosage. Apply four to 12 drops per body part directly to your skin – more drops means a deeper tan. Reapply as needed in place of regular moisturiser for visibly glowier skin. 

Best gradual self-tanner with added skincare benefits

Try: Bondi Sands Pure Gradual Tanning Milk (£12.99)

- Size: 200ml
- Vegan
- Cruelty-free
- Fragrance-free
- Non-comedogenic

Formulated with skin-loving hyaluronic acid for hydration and vitamin C for radiance, this pick boosts glow in more ways than one. The colourless, fragrance-free formula is buildable, easy to apply and gentle enough to appeal to a range of different skin types.

Best gradual self-tanner for face

Try: Dior Bronze Self Tanning Jelly Gradual Glow - Face (£29)

- Size: 50ml

We love this pick’s pearly, translucent jelly formula. It melts into skin in an instant and leaves an ultra-natural, luminous glow that intensifies each day. A little goes a long way, too.

Best gradual self-tanner for mature skin

Try: Skinny Tan Tan & Tone Wonder Serum Gradual Tanner (£16.66)

- Size: 200ml
- Vegan 
- Cruelty-free

The iridescent, luminous sheen of this hydrating tanner is perfect for dryer, mature skin. Containing ingredients that help the appearance of skin texture, smoothness and tone, it also develops into a lasting gradual tan in six to eight hours – making it a great all-rounder.