We’ve tracked down the best gradual tan products that deliver a natural-looking, sun-kissed radiance that’s perfect for beginners

The world of fake tan can be a minefield, especially if you’re new to it. Good news though – if you’re looking for a super easy way to kickstart your self-tan journey, a gradual tanner could be your perfect match.

These innovative formulas have revolutionised at-home tanning, bridging the gap between tanning lotions and moisturisers for that luminous lit-from-within glow – whatever your skin type, skin tone or budget – to leave skin soft, smooth and beautifully sunkissed all-year round.

From how to pick the right formula to how to apply it for a streak-free finish, here’s everything you need to know about this radiance-boosting multitasker – plus our pick of some of the best ones to try.

What is a gradual tanner?

You’ve seen it on the shelf but what is a gradual tanner designed to do?

We asked tanning specialist, James Harknett – otherwise known as “the Tom Ford of tan” to shed light on the gradual glow-up product.

“A gradual tanner is a moisturiser that contains a low percentage of tanning agent,” he explains.

“One layer provides a subtle golden glow that, when applied just like a regular daily moisturiser, builds to your desired customisable shade over several days,” he advises. Think of it as the perfect choice for self-tan newbies and those looking for a hydrating veil of subtle sun-kissed bronze.

Gradual tanners are ideal for prolonging your tan, too, as they help keep the colour topped up.”

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

Gradual tanners provide the colour without the tan-admin. “They’re super easy to use and fit seamlessly into your daily routine,” Claire advises, “as they don’t usually require rinsing off the guide colour” – some tanning products are coloured deeper than your skin tone to help guide your application.

But do they really care for skin? “Gradual tanners are a halfway house between a moisturiser and self-tan. They aren’t designed to tan skin instantly but rather to build up a gradual glow over time,” says James.

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

How to pick the right gradual tanner?

While gradual tanners are their own sub-category and mainly perform the same job, James explains there are several choices available to us to make our bronze completely bespoke:

1. Budget

“Products containing more skincare ingredients are a little more expensive but are well worth the spend,” he advises. “They hydrate, to help skin look healthier, make the tan appear more natural and help it last a little longer.”

2. Guide colour

“White creams without a guide colour won’t transfer as easily, so you can get dressed and carry on with your day as the colour subtly develops,” he advises.

“At the same time, a guide colour can help avoid tell-tale tanning mistakes such as missed patches and orange palms,” he adds.

Side note: even clear or white creams can transfer to hands so it’s always best to use a mitt.

3. Time

“Body lotions are lightweight and quick-drying, so best if you don’t have much time for self-care and perfect if you’re hoping to layer up over several busy days,” suggests Claire.

“If skincare is a priority, then opt for a serum or moisturiser with a high-concentration of hydrating actives. These kinds of moisturisers may take more time to be absorbed into the skin but they’ll stick around for longer,” she adds.

“You can get dressed as soon as you’re dry to the touch.”

4. The shade

“Be cautious when it comes to finding your perfect richness,” suggests Claire. “Gradual tan was designed to be layered up if you want to go deeper.

“If you have a fairer skin tone, I’d recommend trying a fair or medium shade of tanner and if you have a darker skin tone, medium to darker shades.” Light-reflecting particles can also diffuse a brightening, luminosity to enhance and help even out skin tones.

The less stripped the skin is, the more evenly the tan will cling to it.”

How to prepare the skin for gradual tan

“Preparation is crucial, as with any tan, and will help you 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 the 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 help 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 at a pinch, simply use your hands as you would with a body moisturiser – just don’t forget to wash them very thoroughly afterwards, or you’ll end up with darker palms,” advises James.

Apply a small amount at a time, in circular motions for even, smooth coverage. If your chosen gradual tanner is tinted, try to do it in a well-lit room – in front of a mirror – to help avoid any bare patches.

Gradual tan maintenance

“The best thing about gradual tanners is that you can apply them daily, if you’re looking for a deeper glow or just looking to keep your tan topped up,” says Claire.

“I personally prefer to apply it twice a week for an ongoing, natural-looking tan.”

So how long will a gradual tan stick around? “The colour itself should last as long as standard fake tan – up to 10 days if the skin is prepped and kept hydrated,” advises James.

In-between tanning, James recommends keeping skin drenched in moisture. “Non-tinted, oil-free moisturiser helps lock down the colour to 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 the skin with an exfoliator again, especially if it’s been over a week since you last did it.”

10 of the best gradual tan products to try

Whatever your skin type or budget, find your perfect bronzing match with our pick of some of the best gradual tans.

For more faux glow inspo, check out our full range of self-tanners.

Best for bronzing on a budget

Try: Boots Glow Tanning Milk

• Size: 300ml

This simple, everyday moisturiser doubles up as a hydrating gradual tan that nourishes skin and provides a deeper, longer-lasting tan with every layer. For a streak-free finish, apply to freshly towel-dried skin in smooth, circular motions, washing the hands afterwards and waiting until dry to dress. Refreshingly simple.

Best for beginners

Try: No7 Naturally Sun Kissed Gradual Body Tan

• Size: 200ml
• Hypo-allergenic

Discover sunshine in a bottle with this gentle gradual tan. It melts into the skin and moisturises for up to 12 hours, leaving a light, sun-kissed tan.

Best for multitasking

Try: St Tropez Gradual Tan Lotion in Medium/Dark

• Size: 200ml

• Vegan-friendly*

If you're looking for a tan that multitasks as hard as you do, this skin-loving lotion is the one for you. Made with hyaluronic acid, plant-based marine algae and blueberry- and raspberry-seed oils, this high-performer hydrates, protects, smooths, firms and plumps as it adds a gradual sun-kissed glow.

Best for hydrating

Try: Bondi Sands Everyday Gradual Tanning Milk

• Size: 375ml
• Vegan-friendly*

• Cruelty-free

If you prefer to tan all year round, come rain or shine, you need a formula that will nourish and replenish the skin’s stores daily. Enriched with aloe vera and vitamin E, this use-daily tanning milk glides on effortlessly. The result: a longer-lasting glow that allows you to cut out other moisturisers to streamline your post-shower, tanning regime.

Best for tan top-ups

Try: Cocoa Brown Gentle Bronze

• Size: 200ml
• Vegan-friendly*

• Cruelty-free

Applied in place of your daily moisturiser post swim/gym or on a particularly sweaty day in the heat, this subtle glow is infused with skin-loving coconut and argan oil to help prevent your tan (self or sun) from fading. Hands and face are the places we wash most often, so apply daily to top up these regularly-scrubbed areas.

Best for skincare benefits

Try: Isle of Paradise Gradual Self-Tan Lotion

• Size: 375ml

Who says you have to choose between a tan or skincare? Get the best of both worlds with Isle of Paradise’s gradual tan, which is infused with vitamin C, niacinamide and hyaluronic acid, helping to brighten and hydrate your skin whilst leaving a gorgeous sun-kissed glow. The formula is lightweight and fast-absorbing, so it’s super buildable and easy to use – it’s the gradual tan that goes the extra mile.

Best for fair skin

Try: Garnier Summer Body Hydrating Gradual Tan Moisturiser in Light

• Size: 400ml
• Vegan-friendly*

• Cruelty-free

For pale skin that wants to self-tan without the results looking too fake, this intensely moisturising formula gradually builds a natural-looking colour. It's fast absorbing and its 400ml size also offers up more bang for your buck.

Best for a streak-free finish

Try: Bondi Sands Skin Perfecting Gradual Lotion

• Size: 150ml

Sand, sea and sun-kissed skin – all thanks to Bondi Sands’ gradual tan. Take the stress out of finding your bespoke bronze with Bondi Sands’ buildable formula, perfect for an all-year-round glow and suitable for a range of skin tones. Plus, the cocoa butter-infused formula helps to nourish the skin, leaving a soft, sun-kissed finish.

Best for all skin tones

Try: Palmer's Cocoa Butter Formula Natural Bronze Gradual Tanning Lotion

• Size: 400ml

With just a touch of self-tan, suitable and buildable for all skin tones and desired tan depths, this lotion is a true one-shade-suits-all gradual tan. It starts subtly and, depending on your desired tan intensity, can be built into a rich-looking tan within a few days. Containing cocoa butter, a great source of vitamin E, it has a delicious, chocolatey scent.

Best for a deep tan

Try: Dove DermaSpa Summer Revived Medium to Dark Self-Tanning Body Lotion

• Size: 125ml

• Cruelty-free

For a deeper holiday hue, this self-tanning lotion enriched with moisturising natural seed oils could become your new go-to. Fellow Boots customers love it for its streak-free, natural-looking finish and how it leaves skin feeling silky soft.

*Contains no animal-derived ingredients or by-products.