Whether you're looking to outsmart British summertime, which skews cloudy at the best of times, or you just prefer to faux your glow year-round, gradual tan is an essential step for a dewy, next-to-natural finish.
Sun-kissed skin is an immediate mood-booster, too, not to mention a safer option than regular self tan if you're not so hot on the application.
Gradual tan is essentially a hint of tint, says tanning expert Jimmy Coco, who is responsible for Kim Kardashian's honey glow. "A gradual tan is a great option for someone dipping their toes into self-tanning for the first time or those nervous about the process,” he notes.
Put simply, imagine if a body or face lotion and a fake tan got together – gradual tan would be the result. With its sheered-out formula and light wash of bronze, it delivers just enough colour to take the edge off of milk bottle legs or impart a warm glow to dark skin, without going overboard.
What is gradual tan exactly and how does it differ from normal self-tan?
Gradual tanners are perfect for beginners. “The formulas work with a lower percentage DHA, so you can apply regularly, in place of your existing moisturiser, for a hydrated glow that builds over time,” says Marc Elrick, Tan-Luxe founder. “It's also a great way to maintain your existing tan and keep your skin hydrated.”
How to apply gradual tan like a pro
Application-wise, the same rules apply as with regular tan for the most natural-looking finish. It’s best if you buff away any dry patches with an exfoliator the day before to make sure you have a smooth canvas. “Don't however use any moisturiser beforehand or products in the shower with oil in them,” says Jimmy.
A velvet mitt will help make everything look much more seamless. However, since gradual tans are subtler, you can get away with applying with your hands (just make sure you rinse them afterwards to avoid orange palms).
"Always start above the ankles (not the feet as these come last) and work your way up to the heart and chest," recommends pro tanner and Isle of Paradise founder, Jules Von Hep. "Apply your tan in sweeping motions over the body – never circular – this ensures that product is distributed evenly for the most natural, even looking tan."
As for hard to reach spots like your back, "tape your applicator mitt to a wooden spoon – it works trust me," he adds.
Another good tip is to avoid applying gradual tan directly to ankles, feet and elbows. “These tend to be drier areas that pick up self-tan quickly, so they need far less product,” says Jimmy. “Sweep over these areas with the mitt after you’ve covered most of your body. And remember to clean between your fingers and across your knuckles with a damp cloth.”
When it comes to the face, Jimmy says that he prefers to use a large make-up brush or shaving style brush "for a natural application.”
Are gradual self-tanners better?
There are pros and cons to gradual tans. On the plus side, building up your colour slowly over several days means you can have more control over the end colour. If, for instance, on day three you're happily bronzed, stop there and revert back to your favourite regular body moisturiser. If you fancy going a little deeper, carry on until you hit your sweet spot.
Jimmy says, “You can control your glow with a gradual tan by reapplying it as light layers for two or three days in a row until you reach the depth of tan that you want. Day one, the first layer looks like you’ve spent the day at the beach; the second layer on day 2 will leave your skin looking like you’ve been at the beach all weekend while the final third layer will give you a glow that will look like you’ve been away somewhere fancy and hot for a week."
The good news is that since lots of gradual tans are built-into moisturisers it helps to counteract the drying effect some regular tans can have, leaving skin looking doubly glowy, healthy and hydrated.
Finally, there’s your bed linen and bathroom to think of. The staining that goes into fake tanning can be enough to put lots of us off, but since there’s plenty of clear gradual moisturisers on the market, you won’t have to worry about waking up to the guide colour on your fresh sheets.
The key to avoiding streaks when using gradual tan with no guide colour, notes Marc, is to apply a liberal amount “that completely saturates the skin.”
Another benefit? It’s easier to avoid stripes. So, if you’re slapdash at applying fake tan and regularly miss bits, a gradual tanner is much more forgiving. If you miss a spot one day, the likelihood is, you’ll catch it the next, which means you can keep streaks to a minimum.
“It’s suitable for both the face and body due to its weightless, lotion-oil hybrid formulation glides on wherever it’s desired – steering well clear of the 'tangoed’ territory,” says Marc
When it comes to cons, the clue is in the name, says Jimmy. “It’s gradual, so if you’re after immediate impact, this isn’t the tan for you."
Want faster results? Check out our list of the best fake tan and spray tans. Feeling extra pale this year? We've also done our research and found the best fake tan for pale skin. Want something for your sensitive visage? Here are the best fake tans for your face.