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

How to fake tan: How to apply fake tan to your back, face and body and why it smells like biscuits

1st January 2024 | Author: Victoria Woollaston-Webber

Everything you need to know about the science of fake tan from how it works to how to fake tan your face, back and body


Click the links below to jump to the relevant section:

How does fake tan work?

How to fake tan

How long does fake tan last

How to get fake tan off 

Having a real tan is commonly seen as a sign of health and youth when it can be quite the opposite – any changes to the pigment in your skin caused by the sun is a sign of damage.

This is why many people turn to fake tan as a safer alternative to sunbathing or sunbeds.

Sun exposure can accelerate signs of ageing, including wrinkles, and can cause types of skin cancer.

You can read more about the damage it does – both short and long-term – in our What is SPF and why is it so important? guide, and if you’ve realised this later in life, we’ve also explained how to get rid of age spots.

If you’re used to getting spray tan and can’t get to a salon, or want to try fake tan for the first time, we’ve spoken to experts at St Moritz – arguably one of the leading tanning companies and our favourite go-to brands – to explain how fake tan works, how to apply it and, most importantly, how to remove fake tan when it all goes wrong!

FURTHER READING: A beginner’s guide to fake tan | How to remove fake tan and deal with tan lines and patchiness

How does fake tan work?

Most fake tans contain a molecule called dihydroxyacetone (DHA). When applied to your skin, this molecule reacts with the amino acids in your dead skin cells to produce brown molecules called melanoidins.

The reaction, called the Malliard reaction, is the same one that gives baked foods their brown colour and distinct biscuit flavour. And you guessed it, it’s the reason lots of fake tan leaves you smelling like biscuits.

Most fake tans contain up to 15% DHA, and the higher the percentage is, the darker the tan will develop. Other fake tans, aimed at more of a gradual build-up, use a compound called erythrulose instead of, or alongside, DHA. This molecule causes the same reaction with amino acids but is slower to take effect and lasts longer, as a result.

How to fake tan

How to fake tan Shutterstock

With the potential to end up with patchy, orange blobs on your skin, it’s important to take care when applying fake tan products.

These products come in different formulas, including creams, sprays and mousse, and the easiest we’ve used is the St Moritz Insta-Grad tanning Mousse. It’s a tinted mousse so it instantly applies a bronze glow and also gradually develops a tan over time.

Due to its gradual nature, it smells more like a moisturiser rather than having a strong biscuit smell.

Step-by-step guide

The step-by-step guide to fake tan below is divided into three sections – pre-tanning, application and post-tanning. We go into more detail about each step beneath the list.

If you normally wax, make sure you do this at least one to two days before your tanning treatment,” Jordan Cook, expert tanner at St Moritz told mamabella. Likewise, “if you normally shave, make sure you do this at least 16 hours before tanning.” Hair removal can make your skin particularly sensitive, so giving your skin time to recover is important.

  1. Exfoliate
  2. Moisturise
  3. Shower
  4. Apply tanning product to a tanning mitt or glove
  5. Work in sections i.e. arms, legs, torso ideally from bottom to top
  6. Apply the product in circular motions
  7. Use residue on the mitt to apply a lighter amount of tan to your hands and feet
  8. Add a small amount of tan to your moisturiser for your face
  9. Wait until the tan is dry to the touch before getting dressed
  10. After your tan has developed, take a shower
  11. Moisturise daily


How to apply fake tan and should you moisturise before fake tanningShutterstock
  • Exfoliate: About 24-48 hours before applying your fake tan, exfoliate everywhere you’re going to apply fake tan. This removes dead skin cells and stops the tan from sticking to rough areas like knees, elbows and ankles. Any body scrub will work but we like the St. Tropez Tan Body Polish and Exfoliator (£10) and the Skinny Tan exfoliator mitt (£5.32).
  • Moisturise: After exfoliating, moisturise your skin well, focusing on dry areas. Well-hydrated skin will absorb the tan more evenly.
  • Shower: Take a shower and make sure your skin is clean and free from moisturisers, deodorants, or perfumes as these can affect the tan’s development.
  • Dry off completely: Make sure your skin is completely dry before applying the tan.


What does moisturiser doShutterstock
  • Create a smooth canvas: Apply a light layer of moisturiser to your knees, elbows, ankles, and any other dry areas to prevent the tan from clinging too much to these spots.
  • Add product to a tanning mitt: To avoid stained hands, use a tanning mitt. It also helps in applying the product more evenly.
  • Apply in sections: Work in sections and apply the product in circular motions for even coverage. Start from your ankles and work your way up to avoid creases in the tan as your bend down.
  • Blend: Blend the product well at your wrists, ankles, and neck to avoid harsh lines.
  • Apply residue to hands and feet: These areas can easily absorb more product. Use the residue left on the mitt for a lighter application.
  • Face application: If you’re tanning your face, mix a small amount of tan with your regular moisturiser to ensure a more natural look.


  • Dry: Wait until your tan is dry to the touch before getting dressed or getting into bed. Wear loose, dark clothing to avoid staining.
    Develop: Make sure you leave the product on for the length of time according to the packaging. Each tan’s developing time is different and it can range from a few hours to overnight.
  • Avoid water and sweat while it develops: Avoid showering, sweating, or getting wet while your tan develops.
  • Shower: After your tan has developed, take a lukewarm shower to rinse off the excess product. Avoid using oils, harsh soaps or exfoliants.
  • Moisturise daily: To maintain your tan and make sure it fades evenly, keep your skin hydrated by moisturising daily.
  • Touch-ups: For maintaining the tan or correcting any streaks, use a gradual tanning moisturiser or a small amount of the original product.

If you’re not familiar with how to apply fake tan we highly rate the St Moriz Advanced Pro Formula Clear Tan in a Can (£12.99). Not only is it super easy to apply, but because it’s clear you don’t have to worry about it staining your clothes or bedsheets.

How to fake tan your back

If you don’t have someone to help you fake tan your back, you can create a makeshift arm extender out of a long brush or similar – like this one from The Body Shop. Put the tanning mitt on the end and apply it to your back.

You can also buy products such as Skinny Tan’s Fake Tan Back Applicator (£11.99). It’s effectively a long, thin tanning mitt that you hold in both hands and can rub over your back. You can also use this application to apply SPF if you’re ever stuck sunbathing on your own!

How long does fake tan last?

St Mortiz tanning bundleSt Moritz

The better you care for your skin after you’ve applied a fake tan, the longer it will last.

After it is applied to the skin, the reaction will continue to darken your skin for around 24 to 72 hours, then it will last three to 10 days.

For St Moritz, Cook recommends waiting four to six hours after applying the tan before you shower. “The longer you leave it the darker the tan will be, but we recommend to not leave it on for longer than 12 hours.”Other tanning products require different waiting times, so read the bottle carefully for instructions.

“Try not to get caught in the rain after applying tan as raindrops may distort where the tan has been applied and you may end up with small white dots where the rain has landed,” added Cook. Getting too hot and sweaty straight after fake tanning can also create patches as your tan develops.

In the shower, the tan will start washing away. “Do not panic and think all your tan is coming off!” said Cook. “The tan leaving your skin is just a guide colour and will leave you looking tanned and glowing underneath.”

From this point on hydration is the key. The tan will continue to develop even after the shower, for between 24 and 72 hours depending on the product. “Keep skin well moisturised as this will increase the longevity of the tan as well as ensure it fades evenly and doesn’t become patchy in drier areas,” she says.

Using a non-abrasive skin wash will also mean the tan is not stripped away by your soap or shower gels.

How to get fake tan off

If you find you have applied too much fake tan, or it has turned out patchy, do not panic. While it’s difficult to remove fake tan instantly (the only real way is to remove it before it’s had time to dry and develop) – acting fast can help lessen the effect.

We got into more detail about how to get fake tan off in our how to remove fake tan guide but as a summary:

Fake tan erasers

We recommend the Isle of Paradise Over it Magic Self-Tan Eraser (£17.95), the Bondi Sands Self Tan Eraser (£14.99), and the St Mortiz Self Tan Remover Pads (£6) and Self Tan Remover Foam (£4.99).

Body polish

We recommend Evolve’s Tropical Blossom body polish.

Bath oils

We recommend the Olverum Bath Oil or just Johnson’s Baby Oil.

Bath bomb

There is also a bath bomb which claims to remove fake tan in just ten minutes called the GlowBomb.

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