A beginner’s guide to fake tan: What to do – and what to avoid – when using fake tan for the first time

15th January 2022 | Author: Victoria Woollaston-Webber

Long gone are the days of bright orange, streaky fake tan products. Today’s best fake tans come in all forms – from clear sprays, to mousses, and gradual tanning lotions – and it’s easier than ever to get a sunkissed golden glow without the risks associated with UV rays or sunburn.

However, we’ve still been incredibly hesitant about venturing into the world of fake tan for the first time. We have notoriously pale skin. So much so, our legs are almost transparent and we burn even thinking about going outside.

As a result, we’ve never been fans of sunbathing or sun beds despite our skin looking lovely when it does have a touch of tan.

We recently published a guide about how fake tan works – and why it makes you smell like biscuits – and this guide inspired us to at least give it a go.

A beginner’s guide to fake tan

The first thing we noticed when venturing into the world of fake tan was how vague the instructions are.

We opted for the Isle of Paradise Glow Clear Self-Tanning Mousse in shade Light, because friends of ours said that a) a mousse is easier to manage and more accurate than a mist or a spray and b) if you buy a clear mousse, you’re less likely to transfer the tan to your bedsheets or clothes.

We’ve also got the St Moritz Advanced Pro Formula Clear Tan in a Can if you would rather use a spray, but still want a clear product to avoid it being transferred.

Another friend advised we apply using a tanning mitt (like this one from Bondi Sands for £4.99) to avoid covering our hands with fake tan. This is useful for any form of fake tan – spray, water, cream, lotion, mousse and mist.

A tanning mitt increases the surface area of application, and makes it easier to make smooth, sweeping movements. The mitt we’ve listed above is reusable and can be washed in the washing machine.

Here are all of our tips for how to apply fake tan if you’ve never done it before – or if you’re nervous about getting it wrong.

FURTHER READING: Fake tan fails: How to remove fake tan and deal with tan lines and patchiness

1. Create a smooth, blank canvas

If you’ve let your body hair run free during lockdown but are looking to get started with fake tan, you’ll need to create a smooth and blank canvas. Otherwise, your hairs or stubble will get a dye job of their own.

It’s best to do this the day before you’re thinking about fake tanning to make sure that any skin sensitivity has calmed down.

You can read more in our guide to the best hair removal creams as well as the science of hair removal. 

2. Exfoliate and moisturise

Beginners guide to fake tan first timeMamabella

Exfoliate your legs properly to avoid having orange knees and ankles (pictured)

You’ll also want to exfoliate and moisturise all the areas you’re looking to fake tan.

We know this sounds tedious but making sure your skin is clear of dead skin cells and is hydrated will stop the fake tan sticking to flakes of skin, and prevent it creating dark patches on your knees, elbows and ankles.

We moisturised, but clearly not enough…check our knees.

Read more in our best moisturiser and best exfoliator guides. 

3. Don’t go in too hard

It’s better to apply a small amount of fake tan, slowly, and build up. Putting it on the mitt and spending time sweeping it over the areas you want to tan will make it look more even.

Don’t be tempted to go in all guns blazing, attempting for a quick and dirty tanning session. Slow and steady gets the glow.

3. You’re gonna need help – or a makeshift stick

We were happily sweeping and applying the fake tan mousse until we realised we couldn’t reach parts of our back.

Standing naked in our bathroom while our partner was on a work call meant that we had to use our initiative and fashion a makeshift arm extender out of a long cactus brush (this one from The Body Shop) with the tanning mitt on the end.

We could then use this to massage the fake tan into these hard-to-reach places, but it was less than ideal.

You can also buy products to help solve this particular tanning dilemma, and we swear by Skinny Tan’s Fake Tan Back Applicator (£11.99). As its name suggests, it helps you apply fake tan to your back and is effectively a longer, thinner version of a standard tanning mitt.

You apply the fake tan to the “mitt” and then use the handles on each edge to run the applicator across your back in the same way you would grab two ends of a towel and dry yourself. It takes a little bit of getting used to and we still missed the odd section but it’s so much easier than wrapping a mitt around a cellulite brush…!

You can also use it to apply SPF if you’re ever stuck sunbathing on your own!

Body parts you’re likely to miss the first time (if you’re anything like us!)

  • The back of your knees
  • The patch of skin between your armpit and your shoulder blade
  • Your heels
  • The very back of your thighs

4. How to manage fake tan on your face

When it comes to applying fake tan to your face, it’s a bit of a minefield. Firstly – it’s unlikely you’re going to be removing the hair on your face as well as your body.

Secondly, the skin on your face is typically different from that on your body. You may have an oily complexion but dry skin elsewhere, or you may be prone to acne or blemishes.

Thirdly, if you’re successfully found your perfect foundation match (and if you have please help us find ours!), you’ll soon realise that it won’t match your new golden glow. You’ll need to either get a shade darker, add a mixer to your foundation, or use a colour-changing foundation. You can read more about the latter in our TLM colour-changing foundation review

In terms of a mixer, we recommend the foundation range from Revolution Pro. They only cost £3.99 each and you can buy a lightening, darkening and orange version.

The lightening one helps you tone down a foundation that is too dark.

The darkening one lifts your usual foundation up to what your tanned skin tone is and the orange version helps make a cool foundation, warmer.

As an aside, if you’ve bought a foundation that is too warm/orange for your skin tone you can buy a blue foundation mixer (honestly, trust us…) to make it cooler. We use the L.A Girl Pro Colour Foundation Mixing Pigment in blue.

The way around this is to avoid using too much fake tan on your face, which you can do by using the residue left on the tanning mitt, as opposed to using additional product.

This means that once you’ve finished sweeping the tan elsewhere on your body, use the glove to rub fake tan lightly on your face.

You can also buy a fake tan just your face. These products are designed specifically for the needs of facial skin – and they’re usually non-comedogenic, meaning they’re less likely to cause breakouts.

We really like the Isle of Paradise Self Tanning drops because you can add them to your existing skincare products to make sure you’re getting all the benefits while gradually tanning.

Chances are you won’t need as much fake tan on your face anyway, as it will have been in contact with the sun’s rays more recently compared to the rest of your body.

FURTHER READING: What does non-comedogenic mean?

5. Watch out for your cuticles

We were already aware that we didn’t want to have orange palms or soles on our feet, so we knew we had to wash those afterward. What we didn’t consider was the fact we have skin on our nails in the form of cuticles.

The cuticles on all of our toes looked dark, but the one on our right big toe, particularly, looked like it had mud (or worse) on it for days after we tanned.

This was the same on our hands and it made our nails look like we were heavy smokers. Grim. To avoid this, get a cotton bud and wipe over the cuticles with soapy water.

Fake tan: How to remove fake tan instantly from hands, how it works and how to apply fake tanGetty Images/iStockphoto

6. Wait until you’re dry before getting dressed

It may feel a little odd to stand for ages when you’re naked, waiting for your fake tan to dry, but it’s vital. Not just to avoid your tan rubbing off, but to save your clothes.

7. Choose your clothes wisely…

Despite knowing that we’d literally just covered our body in a mousse that, over the following six to eight hours, was going to get darker, we of course opted for a cream and navy, puff-sleeved dress.

Thankfully, because the mousse was clear, we didn’t get any on our dress BUT the puff sleeves, with their elasticated bands, meant that we had a single white strip on our forearms where this band had been sat.

And if you’re wearing a face mask regularly at the moment, avoid wearing it for a couple of hours to prevent white lines from appearing on your face.

The best way round all of this is to apply fake tan before you go to bed but be aware that some products may transfer onto the bedsheets so sleep on a towel or similar.

8. Don’t worry!

Having put off using fake tan for so long, reading guide after guide, and asking friends for advice, we actually really enjoyed it. And that was despite the fact we had dirty cuticles, weird white lines on our arms, patches under our armpits, and orange knees.

All the things we were worried about, and some we didn’t even realise could go wrong, didn’t look that bad at all and no one else noticed. We only knew because we were looking for it!

It’s also possible to lessen the effect if you absolutely have to, or if you’re looking to remove old tan before applying more. For example, the Isle of Paradise Over it Magic Self-Tan Eraser (£17.95) and the Bondi Sands Self-Tan Eraser (£14.99) both remove a large amount of pigment.

You can alternatively use a body polish, such as Evolve’s Tropical Blossom body polish. This polish helps remove dead skin cells, and softens the appearance of the tan while the oil inside breaks down the DHA molecules which helps the tan fade faster.

So if you’ve been putting it off, or you’re nervous. What’s the worse that could happen? It will fade within a couple of days anyway and you can read our guide on how to remove fake tan if you’re really not happy!

In summary, just go for it and glow like a goddess.

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