While autumn weather is well and truly upon us, there’s no reason to let our complexions hibernate. But as it’s unlikely we will see the sun again until spring, we’ll have to find other ways of achieving a sun-kissed glow.
Switching to a self-tanner can give you more natural-looking colour than ever, and without the risk. They work thanks to dihydroxyacetone (or DHA) in the formulas – an ingredient derived from plants, like sugar cane – that interacts with the amino acids in dead skin cells to produce a colour change darkening the skin.
But don’t go digging out any old fake tan from the back of your cupboard. If you want a natural convincing golden colour on your face, you need a targeted formula that’s been designed specifically for the area. The best types even come with added skincare benefits that will also prevent your complexion from drying out and won’t cause sensitivity or breakouts.
For best application, slot a formula into your skincare routine day or night. “It’s key to exfoliate 24 hours before,” recommends tanning expert James Read.
“Start from your hairline and work down your face and neck in stages, making sure you go left to right and lightly dust the remaining product over the ears.” And remember to always wash your hands after use.
How we tested
We put the latest serums, drops, mists and moisturisers to the test, so you don’t have to trail your way through those that leave an orange skin tone, a streaky finish or smell like a traditional “biscuit” fake tan.
All our winners were tested on a fair complexion and provided a natural-looking golden glow that didn’t look like it came out of a bottle.
The best face tanners for 2021 are:
Best overall – Amanda Harrington London face set natural honey, 75ml: £39.52, Amazon.co.uk
Best for hydration – Bali Body face tan water, 100ml: £25.95, Balibodyco.com
Best for luxury – Sisley Paris self tanning hydrating facial skin care, 60ml: £100, Spacenk.com
Best for fair skin – Isle of Paradise hyglo self-tan face serum, 30ml: £18.65, Feelunique.com
Best gel product – Dior bronze self tanning jelly gradual glow, 50ml: £29, Johnlewis.com
Best for busy mornings – St. Tropez self-tan purity vitamins bronzing water serum, 50ml: £21.35, Feelunique.com
Best for a time crunch – James Read express glow 20 facial tan serum, 50ml: £17.25, Qvcuk.com
Best to add to your skincare – Tan-Luxe the face illuminating self-tan drops, 30ml: £28, Lookfantastic.com
Best for overnight tan – Bondi Sands pure self tanning sleep mask, 75ml: £14.99, Boots.com
Best for bespoke shade – Dr Sebagh self-tanning drops, 20ml: £35, Spacenk.com
Amanda Harrington London face set natural honey, 75ml
From the tanning expert, who has a long list of A-list clients, Amanda Harrington has a modern layering approach to self-tanning with beautiful results. Her three-step method starts with a low-level gradual tan primer you apply like a moisturiser. Step two uses a bronzing mist that you buff in with a large soft kubuki brush. It instantly adds a golden hue that sets quickly. The third step uses the same mist to contour. Think of this step as a semi-permanent bronzer that you apply to areas of the face where the sun would normally naturally hit.
Applying self-tan with a brush is a first, but we can’t believe it’s not been done before. The buffing technique makes it impossible to go wrong as you work the formula similar to how you apply foundation. We were left with glowing results, such a natural-looking tan that we didn’t see the need for make-up. A winning technique!
Buy now £39.52, Harveynichols.com
Bali Body face tan water, 100ml
Best: For hydration
Just as the name suggests this has a clear, water-like texture that fits in well with a morning or evening skincare routine, as you apply like you would a toner. After cleansing, pump the product onto fingers or a cotton pad, we preferred the latter, leave to soak in (it does this pretty instantly) and then moisturise as normal.
It develops after around three hours, leaving you with a natural “I’ve been having fun in the sun all weekend” kind of bronzed complexion, that fades after two days. Using jojoba oil and sodium hyaluronate (a derivative of hyaluronic acid) this is a hydrating formula that leaves skin feeling well-nourished too. A great option for skin on the dry side.
Buy now £25.95, Balibodyco.com
Sisley Paris self tanning hydrating facial skin care, 60ml
Best: For luxury
The priciest of the bunch, but if you have the budget this uses a variety of plant-based actives and antioxidants such as alpine rose extract for a truly believable sun-kissed colour and a hydration boost too. It’s a pleasure to use, as there’s no tell-tale self-tan smell, instead a fresh floral fragrance.
The key with this one is to build it up gradually. It’s so natural, we liked to apply a couple of continuous days to intensify colour. You can’t go wrong with this formula, as it fades naturally too. A worthy investment for skin, as it keeps skin comfortable and smooth too with no signs of drying skin out like other formulas can.
Buy now £100.00, Libertylondon.com
Isle of Paradise hyglo self-tan face serum, 30ml
Best: For fair skin
This gradual tanner provides a very light colour pay-off making it a great pick for those with fair skin. You apply this directly to face, but we found you have to work quickly as our skin would drink up the formula. The more drops you apply the deeper the colour, but we found even with the highest amount of drops skin still looked very natural as it developed.
Infused with hyaluronic acid, it packs a hydrating punch leaving skin looking bright, plump and well-nourished. Think of this as a 2-in-1 moisture-boosting serum with self-tan. A bathroom cabinet space-saver!
Buy now £18.65, Feelunique.com
Dior bronze self tanning jelly gradual glow, 50ml
Best: Gel product
Whether you’re a novice or a seasoned self-tanner, you’ll love how the gel-like texture makes applying evenly completely fool-proof. This is another gradual tanner, so you have to build up the colour for your desired effect, but we loved the convincing sun-kissed look after three days of use that fades naturally if you don’t top up. There’s no typical fake-tan smell even after dry down, instead it has a beautiful luxe perfumed scent.
Buy now £29.00, Johnlewis.com
St. Tropez self-tan purity vitamins bronzing water serum, 50ml
Best: For busy mornings
This vitamin-infused formula not only provides skin with a beautiful natural bronze glow, but it mimics the positive effects of sunshine too providing vitamin C and D boosters. Its tropical scent and water-gel texture adds to the feel-good factor as well.
We found we had to wait a few minutes before applying moisturiser on top, but for mornings short on time a few drops mixed in with day cream works well too. The colour lasts two days before we had to reapply. Another clever formula from the self-tan pros who have a fake tan for every want and need. Truly sunshine bottled!
Buy now £21.35, Feelunique.com
James Read express glow 20 facial tan serum, 50ml
Best: For a time crunch
Looking for a speedy tan? Look no further, as this will have you glowing in only 20 minutes. It creates a bespoke tan, as it recommends time limits for how deep you’d like your colour before you rinse it off. Boasting skin-loving ingredients like moisture-boosting hyaluronic acid, skin-brightening vitamin C and soothing aloe vera, this not only leaves you with a uniform golden glow but we found our skin smooth, comfortably hydrated with a healthy radiance to it too. Expect the colour to last 2-3 days.
Buy now £17.25, Qvcuk.com
Tan-Luxe the face illuminating self-tan drops, 30ml
Best: To add to your skincare
No need to change up your skincare routine with this formula, as you simply add these drops into your favourite serum, moisturiser or face oil. It’s another great option for first-time tanners or those not confident doing it themselves, as you can easily customise your colour. The more drops you add, the deeper your colour, so start sparingly and you can’t get it wrong.
Whether you opt for a gradual approach or a more bronzed look, the colour is beautifully natural-looking and fades well. There’re two shades to opt for, so it works for all skin tones too. A reliable self-tanner that we’ve turned back to time and time again.
Buy now £28.00, Lookfantastic.com
Bondi Sands pure self tanning sleep mask, 75ml
Best: For overnight tan
Designed to work while you sleep, this has the feel of a moisturiser that you massage onto clean skin before bed. After one use you wake up to a natural bronzed finish, with a soft, well-hydrated feel to it – that’ll be the hyaluronic acid and vitamin E working its magic. And don’t worry it doesn’t transfer onto bedding.
It’s also infused with vitamin C for brightening and radiance. Use depending on what effect you’re after. We found after one day we had a natural colour, and after two days in a row we had a deeper, back from holiday tan perfect for the warmer months. Plus, bonus points for the 100 per cent recycling packaging.
Buy now £14.99, Boots.com
Dr Sebagh self-tanning drops, 20ml
Best: For bespoke shade
Reach for this bottle if you’re very fair, as the gradual drops are light in colour. Plus, mixing them with your serum or moisturiser means you’re in charge of the colour intensity so you can create your own bespoke shade. It boasts hero-ingredient HEV melanin that helps shield against the ageing effects of blue light that we’re becoming more aware of thanks to more time spent on our phones, tablets and laptops. We found 2-3 drops mixed in with our night cream every other day provided a beautiful natural glow.
Buy now £35.00, Spacenk.com
The verdict: Face self-tanners
Our best buy goes to Amanda Harrington the face set because her innovative technique provides such a believable tan, and it’s not too pricey when you add up that you get a gradual tan, bronzing mist and a kabuki brush for the money. If you don’t want to commit, the Tan-Luxe the face illuminating self-tan drops are a failsafe way to customise your colour.
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Give skin the hydrating spritz it deserves with one of these best face mists for a dewy and glossy glow