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Best gradual tan 2023: Get a gentle springtime glow without sitting in the sun

Create a soft and natural-looking gentle tan for spring and early summer with our pick of the best gradual tanning products

Create a soft and natural-looking gentle tan for spring and early summer with our pick of the best gradual tanning products

After a long, cold winter, a soft golden tan is a great way to add a healthy glow to your face – and rather than achieve it by sitting out in the sun, a fake tan delivers just that, but without the harmful effects of the latter. While full-strength fake tanning products give skin a bronzed appearance in just a day or so, gradual tanners build colour over time for a gentle, natural tint. As such, they’re perfect for an early springtime look, taking the edge off winter skin by giving a gentle boost to your skin’s golden undertones, without going full-on fake bake.

Modern gradual tanners deliver a natural and streak-free finish, with no risk of UV damage from the sun’s rays. Many also come with built-in moisturising and skin-nourishing ingredients, leaving skin smooth, soft and hydrated – as well as gently gilded.

We’ve tested products at a range of prices to help you find the best gradual tanner for you, no matter your skin tone, skin type or budget.

Best gradual tan: At a glance

How to choose the best gradual tan for you

What’s the difference between fake tan and gradual tanner?

Gradual tanner uses the same chemical (dihydroxyacetone or DHA) as full-strength fake tan, but in a lower concentration. Put simply, this means that instead of bronzing skin rapidly, you’ll build up a wash of colour over three to five days. Once you’ve reached your desired colour, you switch back to your usual moisturiser or body lotion until the colour fades again.

Like full-strength fake tanning products, gradual tanners come in different formulations for face and body; gradual face tanners tend to be lighter in both shade and texture than heavier body creams and lotions. As with full-strength fake tans, gradual tans also come as lotions, sprays, mousses and wipes. You may prefer the moisturising feel of a lotion, the ease of a spray, or the speed of a fast-drying mousse. Once you’ve stopped applying gradual tanner, the colour will usually last a few days to a week.

More expensive gradual tanners will often contain a greater number of skin-nourishing ingredients, such as antioxidants and richer moisturisers; but for building gentle, natural colour without frills, some of the budget options are excellent.

How should I apply a gradual tanner?

Gradual tanning formulations are generally more forgiving than a full-strength fake tan when it comes to blobs and streaks, but there are still some good principles to follow when applying your gradual tanning product. First and foremost, exfoliate your skin before you apply; this especially applies to dry areas such as elbows, knees and ankles. Buff dry areas with a dry brush or bath mitt to ensure your tanner goes on smoothly and doesn’t “cling” to drier areas, and follow up with a light moisturiser.

It’s also wise to wait around 30 minutes after bathing or showering to apply your tan, so that the product isn’t diluted by moisture on the skin – and so alkaline soap doesn’t interfere with the tanning chemicals.

As gradual tanner contains less colour than full-strength fake tan, you won’t have to use a tanning mitt for application. Nevertheless, do wash hands thoroughly afterwards to prevent staining. When applying gradual tanner, consider which areas of the body are most likely to be exposed to real sunshine and focus on those spots. Avoid scrubbing or exfoliating the skin immediately after applying a gradual tan, since this will stop the tan from developing; and it’s best not to jump straight into bed to avoid rubbing your tan straight off onto your sheets.

Finally, if you’re stepping out into the sunshine having applied your tanning product, be sure to apply a sunscreen – the colour from gradual tanner won’t defend against the damaging effects of the sun’s rays.

How we test gradual tanners

At Expert Reviews, we know that hands-on testing delivers the best and most complete information about a product. We’ve personally tested all of the gradual tanners in the roundup below, following the directions on the packaging. We measure the time each tanner takes to develop colour on the skin, noting the results, along with how easy the product is to use, how the product feels and smells in use, and how easy it is to apply. We also note how well the colour lasts after application.

READ NEXT: Best fake tan for pale skin

The best gradual tan you can buy in 2023

1. James Read Sleep Mask Tan with Retinol: Best gradual tanner for the face

Price: £30 | Buy now from Lookfantastic An update to the original Sleep Mask Tan from professional spray tan artist James Read, this hydrating overnight face mask with hyaluronic acid, Persian silk-tree extract and refining retinol nourishes the skin and creates a natural glow as you sleep. Simply apply the clear sleep mask after your usual nighttime skincare routine, wash your hands and head off to sleep. What could be better than waking up with soft skin and a gentle bronze glow?

Suitable for all skin tones, the Sleep Mask Tan with Retinol is available in a Light-Medium shade. For a darker tan, check out the original Sleep Mask Tan (£27.50) in Go Darker.

Key details – Pack size: 50ml; Shade options: 2 (original sleep mask; 1 option with retinol)

2. Bondi Sands gradual tanning face lotion: Best budget gradual tanner for the face

Price: £9.99 | Buy now from BootsAustralian tanning brand Bondi Sands created this moisturising gradual facial tanner to go with their gradual body tanner in the same range. The lightweight lotion contains nourishing shea butter to leave the skin feeling soft and healthy; oily/combination skins might not even need a separate moisturiser underneath. The lotion is vegan and cruelty-free, comes in a mess-free pump bottle, and has a fresh and clean scent.

The tan colour develops in around six hours, resulting in a natural, sun-kissed look – which we very much liked on our medium-pale skin. For a more noticeable effect, apply the lotion daily. This is a very good budget option that won’t clog pores and is suitable for all skin types, including sensitive skins.

Key details – Pack size: 50ml; Shade options: 1

Buy now from Boots

3. ESPA gradual tan body moisturiser: Best gradual tanner for the body

Price: £29 | Buy now from AmazonThis rich lotion from luxury skin and body care specialist ESPA will give your body that just-been-to-a-spa feeling with its nourishing combination of shea butter and sweet almond oil, with the fresh floral scents of rose and jasmine. Colour builds gradually, developing over four hours, and skin is left feeling hydrated, with a gentle and pleasant fragrance and no stickiness. Colour results are beautifully natural, especially on fairer skins.

Key details – Pack size: 200ml; Shade options: 1

4. Palmer’s Natural Bronze Gradual Tanning Moisturiser: Best budget gradual tanner for the body

Price: £5.19 | Buy now from BootsThis gradual tanner from Palmer’s is great for even, streak-free colour that builds convincingly over time. The creamy moisturising lotion has a good, non-sticky texture and is easy to apply. In addition, as with all Palmer’s products, it smells deliciously chocolatey; rather than the unpleasant biscuity smell that some tanners can display.

Use as you would any body moisturising lotion, taking care around drier areas such as elbows and knees; the colour will develop to a gentle golden tint in a few hours. Use daily to achieve a stronger colour result.

Key details – Pack size: 200ml; Shade options: 1

5. St Tropez Purity Bronzing Water: Best gradual spray tan

Price: £22 | Buy now from Cult Beauty

St Tropez is the go-to name in self-tanning products, and this tanning mist is part of the brand’s new “Purity” range of lightweight, transparent products that come with a fresh tropical scent. This hydrating tanning mist can be sprayed onto the face under – or even over – makeup for quick, gentle tanning; there’s no need to rub in or rinse off. One spray will give a gentle, natural glow, and repeat applications build colour gradually and convincingly. For the body, there are simple-to-use and pleasant-smelling mousse and gel options in the same range.

Key details – Pack size: 80ml; Shade options: 1

Buy now from Cult Beauty

6. Dove DermaSpa Summer Revived Body Mousse: Best gradual tanning mousse

Price: £5.50 | Buy now from BootsDove’s lightweight, non-sticky DermaSpa gradual tan was already popular in its lotion form. More recently, the company has launched this fast-drying and easy-to-apply gradual tanning mousse. The formula glides on easily without any stickiness or mess, and is quickly absorbed into skin, allowing you to dress and go about your day without waiting for it to dry.

The skin feels silky and moisturised after application, without any hint of greasiness. Dove’s fruity fragrance is on the stronger side, but not unpleasant; and a little goes a long way, so a 150ml bottle gives plenty of applications. Available in Fair and Dark options.

Key details – Pack size: 150ml; Shade options: 2

7. Tanologist Self-Tan Face and Body Drops: Best gradual tanning for a custom colour

Price: From £16 | Buy now from Beauty BayTake control of how fast and deep you tan with these self-tan drops that can be added to your usual moisturiser, body lotion or makeup. Simply add the clear drops to your favourite skincare product and apply as usual, remembering to wash your hands afterwards to avoid staining. Two drops will give a very light tanning effect, and more will deepen results.

Tanologist’s drops are vegan and cruelty-free, with a gentle fresh scent. They’re available in four versatile shades: light, medium, dark and extra dark.

Key details – Pack size: 30ml; Shade options: 4

Buy now from Beauty Bay

8. Isle of Paradise Happy Tan Everyday Gradual Glow: Best gradual tanning for sensitive skin

Price: £15 | Buy now from House of FraserFormulated without parabens, sulphates or mineral oils, this vegan and cruelty-free gradual tanner is ideal for sensitive skins that may not get on well with synthetic ingredients. Instead, this moisturising gentle tanner uses avocado, chia seed and coconut oils to nourish skin and leave it fresh and hydrated. The lotion also contains light-reflecting and colour-correcting particles to give you a glow that’s both radiant and natural, mimicking skin after a sunny spring holiday without the UV rays. With its natural and organic skin-nourishing formula, Happy Tan Gradual Glow will leave you feeling good and smelling great.

Key details – Pack size: 200ml; Shade options: 1

Buy now from House of Fraser

9. utan Exfoliating Tan Mylk: Best exfoliating gradual tanner

Price: £20 | Buy now from utanSkip the skin-scrubbing stage of self-tanning with tanning specialist utan’s effortless new exfoliating gradual tanner. The formula contains 1% salicylic acid, an effective exfoliator that removes dead skin cells as you go, to help prevent clogging and streaking. Made with coconut and aloe, the gradual tanner has a light and gentle scent and feels soft and not at all sticky on the skin.

utan’s vegan and cruelty-free formula creates a gentle, golden tan that will suit most skin tones. For an even gentler effect simply stir the tanning milk into your favourite moisturiser or body lotion.

Key details – Pack size: 150ml; Shade options: 1

Buy now from Utan

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