The conditions were perfect: 10 days in Sri Lanka – just enough, as someone who tans fast, even under high-SPF, to get breezily bronzed and return to London two days before my high-summer university graduation, slip into the short, pale, sleeveless designer dress I’d saved for and rock up looking too cool for school. 

Readers, I still turn a faint umber at the memory. The day before we left, I drifted off face-down on a lounger, lifting the suncream off my legs, then sleepily turned over and burnt a lozenge-shaped wedge down the front of each shin. Which then went brown. Far deeper than the rest of me. It looked for all the world like a fake-tan fail and – irony of ironies – required me to self-tan the rest of me to match the patch. Did it blend seamlessly? It did not. And despite being a by-the-book (or in this case, by-the‑bottle) kind of girl when it comes to meticulous application, my feet looked crummy, with no time to get a more substantial sandal. Who noticed this hot mess? I’m not sure. But I felt irritable and self-conscious throughout a day that was meant to be sunny and carefree.

Since that day I, like many others with their own sorry tale, have considered the self-tan less “resort chic”, more absolute last resort – preferring to leave it to the professionals, who can spray on a few flattering contours at the same time. But in the face of this year’s lockdown – all of us hemmed up indoors, salon appointments verboten and holidays cancelled indefinitely with no sense of when normality would return – women (and, increasingly, men) in their thousands have been hitting the bottle.

Bobbi Brown Summer Glow Collection
Bobbi Brown Summer Glow Collection

Lockdown has turned out to be a golden moment for the self-tan industry. Sales have soared, with brands and online retailers staggered at the scale of demand. Cult Beauty, which would ordinarily see self-tan sales gear up in mid-April, was swimming in orders by early March, and by April the category was 217 per cent up on last year. “There’s definitely a psychological aspect to it,” says co-founder Alexia Inge. “But I think this year it’s less about aspiration. There’s no illusion that you’ve been somewhere exotic – no one could leave the house. It’s not necessarily for others at all; it’s for the mirror… and the brain.”

Why is it making us feel better? It’s not purely escapism, Inge says. “If you eat a good diet full of beta carotene – lots of fresh veg, basically – your skin takes on a natural self-tan colour by itself: literally the appearance of good health. We’re biologically programmed to find that attractive. Sunless tanning is unlikely to ever go out of fashion. It lifts your face and your spirits.”

From left: Estée Lauder Limited-Edition Bronze Goddess Shimmering Oil Spray for Hair & Body, £39. Vita Liberata Fabulous Self-Tanning Mist, £15. James Read Click & Glow, £25
From left: Estée Lauder Limited-Edition Bronze Goddess Shimmering Oil Spray for Hair & Body, £39. Vita Liberata Fabulous Self-Tanning Mist, £15. James Read Click & Glow, £25

But now it’s a lot more appealing, because innovation in both formats and formulations is creating fantastically realistic and desirable tailored results. Take the new-generation “mists”. Dior’s new Liquid Sun Self-Tanning Water Sublime Glow, a lightweight spritz for the body, appears like almond milk and diffuses really evenly, leaving your skin velvety and luminous, with a sweet, floral fragrance and believable glow, and organic brand Vita Liberata’s delicately scented Self-Tanning Mist is also ultra-simple to apply.

Melissa McGinnis, head of beauty buying at Selfridges, which experienced a huge spike in sales in the lead-up to Easter weekend, believes we’re simply embracing a new “ease”. “First of all, today’s tanned ‘look’ is a lot more discreet – there’s no expectation of that full-on, ultra-deep, flat colour; it’s a lighter, natural, more subtle glow we’re seeking now,” she says. “And while both men and women are buying up lots of all-body gradual tanners for a natural glow, one particular innovation – self-tanning drops – has created a new level of control.” 

From left: Tan-Luxe Super Glow Body, £35. Dior Bronze Liquid Sun Self-Tanning Water Sublime Glow, £45. Sisley Self-Tanning Hydrating Body Skin Care, £86

Facial-tanning drops by Tan-Luxe and Dr Sebagh, which you simply add to your moisturiser, serum or night cream and dial up or down according to the result, are streaking (but not) ahead of the pack. This year, the category has been joined by a Click & Glow product by James Read, in a handbag-friendly dosing-pen format.

“In the past, ‘doing your tan’ meant abandoning everything else and inevitably disrupting your skin,” McGinnis continues. “The huge advantage of these products is they drop into an existing, established skincare routine. Skincare aficionados and first-timers have more control, more of a chance to learn how they work with the products they already use, and can play around to customise the result.”

Tan-Luxe, which has seen a 200 per cent sales uplift since lockdown began, launched in 2015 and now has a smorgasbord of formulas for all skin types and colours. Having just launched a body version of its hero facial product, the Super Glow Hyaluronic Self-Tan Serum (the bestselling tan product at Space NK), the brand is also leading the field at Cult Beauty. “I remember before they launched, when they were touting samples around as the world’s first ‘Scottish self-tan’. I thought, “This I’ve GOT to try,’” laughs Inge, who uses its products herself. 

Fenty Beauty by Rihanna Cheeks Out Collection
Fenty Beauty by Rihanna Cheeks Out Collection

Where it has been clever is not only in spearheading ‘tailored tanning’ but also in blending tanning with sophisticated skincare, she says. “The sweet spot for today’s ‘skintellectual’ customers is tan that has other benefits too.” It chimes with the demand for what Inge calls “multi-hyphenates”, which are, in themselves, a huge growth area. “It means minimalism, less packaging and getting a lot more outputs from a single product.”  

Hence the allure of all-things hyaluronic (the plumping, hydrating dewiness-maker that’s riding high in skincare) cropping up even in St Tropez’s latest offering, a buildable one-, two- or three-hour wash-off Express Bronzing Gel. Meanwhile, Dr Sebagh’s Self-Tanning Drops shield the skin against the ageing effects of high energy visible (HEV) light – and let’s face it, we’ve all been saturated with blue/violet light in tech-addled isolation.

From left: Victoria Beckham by Augustinus Bader Cell Rejuvenating Priming Moisturiser in Golden, from £92. Dr Sebagh Self-Tanning Drops, £35. Tom Ford Skin Illuminator Face and Body, £52
From left: Victoria Beckham by Augustinus Bader Cell Rejuvenating Priming Moisturiser in Golden, from £92. Dr Sebagh Self-Tanning Drops, £35. Tom Ford Skin Illuminator Face and Body, £52

Sisley, renowned for its advanced scientific formulas, and whose tanning sales have leapt in the past three months, has invested heavily to eradicate the classic self-tan sins and embed its products with skin-boosting properties – making its two new gradual-tan formulas, Self-Tanning Hydrating Skin Care for face and for body, some of the best I’ve found.

Reducing the dosage of DHA, the traditional tanning agent (the one with the naff biscuity smell), and combining it with a second called erythrulose also leads to a more natural, harmonious and uniform result, explains Sisley scientific director José Ginestar. It makes the tan appear gradually: “The DHA-led colour emerges two to four hours after application, followed by the erythrolysis reaction after 24 hours, which lasts several days,” he explains. Self-tanning molecules have a dehydrating, dulling effect on the upper layer of skin, which causes patchiness on elbows and heels, but here, “stevia-leaf extract, biosaccharides and plant-based glycerin combine to compensate, while the exfoliating properties of hibiscus-flower extract help make the skin smoother – and the tan is more uniform.” In short: it’s game-changing. 

While those with darker skin mightn’t necessarily be looking for colour-deepening properties, there are benefits in some tanning products – namely evening out skintone, disguising blemishes and adding holiday “gleam”. The darker shades of Vita Liberata’s wash-off Body Blur bronzer even out any discolouration and create a beautiful airbrushed finish. 

Chanel cruise collection 2020/21
Chanel cruise collection 2020/21 © Karim Sadli

As the quest for summer skin is compounded by fashion and beauty’s current obsession with metallic highlights, there’s also a whole world of bronze and gold-pigmented body creams, oils and illuminators for an instant (but no-commitment) boost. I love Chanel’s super-soft gel-touch Les Beiges Healthy Glow Bronzing Cream, now with skin-protecting kalanchoe extract, to highlight everywhere the sun naturally catches the skin. It can also be used for contours or an all-over look. Estée Lauder’s Bronze Goddess Shimmering Oil Spray, with its nostalgic beeswax scent, suits all, giving a sunny bronze-flecked radiance to shoulders, limbs and accent points on the face. Worn alone, Victoria Beckham by Augustinus Bader’s new Golden take on its sensational Cell Rejuvenating Priming Moisturiser adds a silky, subtly gold-enhanced glow to the face, neck and décolletage. And Tom Ford, the original “glow-getter” whose oil-free Bronzing Gel for men is still a bestseller, has a new light-diffusing Skin Illuminator Face and Body, in shades to flatter every skin tone and inspired by “the look of skin bathed in summer evening light”. 

So whether you’re holding out for Cowes, California or Cap Ferrat, the message (on this at least) is clear. Stay calm. Fake it. Till you make it.  

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
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