Self-tanning has come a long way since the days of 1980s sunbeds and orange streaks. Fast forward to 2021, and the best tanning lotions deliver a healthy glow by adding colour to your skin or helping to boost your skin’s natural tanning process. Many contain premium skincare ingredients such as hyaluronic acid, aloe vera and vitamin E to keep your skin smooth and hydrated while giving you a natural-looking summertime glow without the UV rays.
The active ingredient in most tanning lotions is dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a colour additive that reacts gradually with the dead cells in your skin’s surface to create a gently bronzed look. It wears off after a few days, but many of our recommended tanning lotions are so good for moisturising your skin that you’ll want to use them week after week. Or day after day, if you want a seriously deep tan.
Skip ahead to find out which tanning lotions we recommend for fast and gradual results on different skin types, or read on for tips on choosing the best tanning lotion for you.
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Best tanning lotion: At a glance
- Best for a natural look: Tan-Luxe The Gradual | Buy now
- Best for a dark tan: Bondi Sands Self Tanning Lotion | Buy now
- Best tanning lotion for pale skin: Skinny Tan Body Glow | Buy now
- Best for face: St Tropez Gradual Tan Classic Face Lotion | Buy now
- Best with SPF: Piz Buin Tan & Protect | Buy now
- Best for dry skin: Ambre Solaire Natural Bronzer | Buy now
How to buy the best tanning lotion for you
Is tanning lotion the same as fake tan?
It’s similar. Self-tanning products come in all sorts of formats, including mousse, liquid, oil, spray and tanning lotion. Tanning lotion is less runny than liquids and oils, so it tends to be easier to apply, although, as with all fake tan products, you’ll get best results by using a tanning mitt for an even application on exfoliated skin.
A good tanning lotion can keep the skin moisturised better than sprays and mousses, because it often contains nourishing skincare ingredients to keep your skin feeling as healthy as it looks. Many lotions offer quite gradual, natural-looking tans, but our recommendations include fast, dark tanning lotions, too.
Is it true that tanning lotion stops SPF sunblock from working?
Only if you apply them at the same time. That’s why you generally don’t get tanning lotions that contain SPF chemicals too.
The reason for this is that DHA (dihydroxyacetone, the chemical that reacts with your skin to create a fake tan) effectively stops SPF from blocking the sun’s UVA rays (the ones that deepen wrinkles and cause skin cancer). It still allows SPF to block UVB rays (the ones that burn you), so you may think you’re safe from the sun because you’re not burning, but those harmful, skin-damaging UVA rays may still be getting through.
Does this mean DHA tanning lotions are dangerous?
No. In fact they help protect you from sun damage by giving you a natural-looking tan even if you stay out of the sun all year round. However it does mean you must apply your tanning lotion in the evening, or a day or more before you venture out, so that it’s well absorbed by the morning. Then you can apply a separate broad-spectrum SPF sunblock or cream before you venture out under those blue skies.
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But I’ve seen tanning lotion with SPF in it!
Only DHA stops SPF from working properly, so tanning lotions that use other active ingredients are usually OK to use alongside sun cream. In fact, one of our recommendations (Piz Buin Tan & Protect Tan Intensifier) contains SPF as well as its non-DHA tanning ingredient, Melitan, which works with your skin’s melanin to boost its natural tanning reaction.
The best tanning lotion to buy
1. Body Glow by Skinny Tan: Best light self-tanning lotion for pale skin
Price: £5.59 | Buy now from Look Fantastic
All tanning products deliver best results if you prepare your skin first (clean, exfoliate, and don’t wax immediately beforehand because your poor old pores will be wide open), but Skinny Tan’s Body Glow is the closest you’ll get to a tanning lotion that needs no prep. This incredibly smooth body moisturiser is enriched with a hint of DHA, which gradually builds your skin to a radiant light/medium tan while also softening your arms, legs, back, shoulders and tummy. The lotion is paraben-free and vegan, and smells amazing, with a delicious coconut and caramel scent.
Buyers with very pale skin (including one with albinism) rate Body Glow’s gentle colour-building properties, which begin from the very first application but never get over-the-top. Three times a week is more than enough to build up a natural glow, but you can use it every day if you want a deeper tan. The colour lasts well, too, making this one of the best value products in our line-