At some point in our lives, we’ve all wanted to be that California girl you hear rhapsodised in 1960s song lyrics: golden hair flying free in the wind, endless limbs, suntanned skin. It’s that bronze hue – an “eternal summer beauty” signifier if ever there was one – that resonates, especially on Britain’s rainy and damp isle. Ever since Coco Chanel instituted the fashionability of the suntan back in the 1920s, women (in the west, anyway) have been hooked. For proof that the allure of a deep, healthy glow transcends age, we need look no further than Christine Lagarde, the quintessentially chic managing director of the International Monetary Fund, who always seems to sport a healthy-looking tan along with her sharply cut tailoring.
But given adverse weather conditions and what we now know to be the inherent risks of excessive sun exposure, the question isn’t why, but how to achieve a convincing facsimile of a tan. We’ve all known for a good 15 years that “faking it” is the way forward; according to market research group NPD, the prestige sunless-tan market is worth nearly £5m in the UK alone, and high-end self-tanning products saw a not-inconsiderable near 10 per cent uptick in 2015. The majority of British sales are in the northwest and Ulster, where Britain’s perennially sun-deprived women are apparently the most dedicated to getting their glow.
And the range of self-tanning products continues to expand, with offerings that work ever faster, are easier to apply and available in a growing variety of application formats and shades. In many cases, the undesirable side-effects of home tanning (ie, all those stained towels and bedlinens, victims of the rubbed-off guide colour) can be avoided. Since the big breakthrough of the gradual tanner in the late Noughties, the category has evolved, through fast-drying and -acting gels to in-shower wash-offs and mask iterations, many still based on the basic ingredient, dihydroxyacetone (DHA), often derived from sugar beets, which reacts with amino acids in the outer layer of the skin to form the brown pigment that mimics a suntan. “The future is products that slot easily into your everyday beauty regime and that you aren’t scared of misusing,” says James Read, creative director of his eponymous tanning product company.
The keyword in current developments is speed, and most of the products to debut recently have been focused on making self-tanning quicker – witness the flying-off-the-shelves success of St Tropez’s 2015 Gradual Tan In Shower (£14.50 for 200ml), which works within three minutes of application. Earlier this year, Vita Liberata launched the Ten Minute Tan (£30 for 150ml), which develops over several hours but can be rinsed off after just 10 minutes – meaning, among other things, that your whites, sheets and towels are all kept pristine. Cocoa Brown 1 Hour Tan Mousse (£8 for 150ml), which originally launched in 2013 and pioneered delayed-colour technology, allows you to rinse it off just an hour after application. Cocoa Brown’s breakthrough was the use of dimethyl isosorbide (DMI) in DHA solutions. Historically, DMI was used in the pharmaceutical industry to act as a carrier for anti-acne ingredients such as benzoyl peroxide, which, in order to be effective, needed to penetrate through pores without oxidising the surface of the skin. “It was discovered that DMI worked very effectively with DHA,” says Marissa Carter, Cocoa Brown founder and CEO. “The results were twofold; first, there was less oxidisation on the skin’s surface – meaning less DHA was needed to achieve genuine colour and the product could be rinsed off sooner; and second, the occurrence of skin irritation was reduced.”
While these fast-acting, rinse-off sunless tanners are the innovative heroes, there have been further evolutions in product texture and modes of application. “In what was once just a lotion or cream category, there are now full shade ranges of aerosols, quick-dry gels, masks, mousses, balms and even a coconut oil-based serum,” says James Harknett, Fake Bake global creative consultant, another brand at the forefront of self-tanning innovation. Easy-application textures also continue to impress. The latest include James Read Tan’s Coconut Melting Tanning Balm (£30 for 150ml), a gradually acting tanner stabilised in an organic virgin coconut oil balm, which smoothes onto limbs for maximum moisturising and softening with, over time, a subtle golden glow as a bonus. For the face, there is St Tropez’s ultra-comfortable Express Bronzing Face Sheet Mask (£15 for two sheets), which you drape on as you would a conventional sheet mask for between five and 15 minutes, massaging in the residual serum afterwards.
The incorporation of serious skincare technology is another area where prestige brands are breaking new ground, with a raft of new multitasking products. Sensai Self Tanning for Body (£63 for 150ml) is formulated with a host of luxury skincare benefits: Koishimaru Silk EX, claimed to boost the skin’s hyaluronic acid production; and CPX Vital Extract, an intensive hydrator designed to firm, minimise fine lines and help prevent wrinkles from forming. Fake Bake was the first tanning brand to utilise the anti-ageing peptide Matrixyl 3000 in its sunless tanners, including The Face Anti-Ageing Self Tan Lotion (£22 for 60ml). Now, Vita Liberata founder and CEO Alyson Hogg is doing so too. “We’ve incorporated this peptide complex into our Self Tanning Anti Age Serum [£29 for 15ml] and new Ten Minute Tan to stimulate collagen production,” she says, along with a host of high‑quality natural and organic ingredients to treat the skin while the self-tanner does its work. “We use aloe vera for skin soothing, ginkgo biloba for its antioxidant and anti-ageing properties and rosehip oil to provide omega-3 support for collagen production.”
For those who hew strictly to natural products in their beauty regime, a new generation of high-end organic sunless tanners has made achieving convincing colour a gratifying reality. Green People’s Self Tan Lotion (£18 for 150ml) is 89 per cent organic, non-streaky and sweet-smelling (not burnt-sour). It imparts gradual, rather than immediate, colour (developing in two to three hours after application), but it dries in 10-15 minutes. Likewise, The Organic Pharmacy’s 2016 Self Tan (£37 for 100ml), which took founder Margo Marrone over two years to formulate. She points out that DHA itself, in its natural form, is approved by Ecocert, the Europe-based organic certification entity that’s active in more than 80 countries worldwide. “The issue is how it’s extracted,” she says. “The non-organic versions use formaldehyde, which is carcinogenic; the organic ones use organic alcohol, which is very gentle.”
So whether the priority is saving time, no-brainer application, skincare multitasking benefits or protecting the environment (or a combination of all four), this season, there’s a version of sunshine in a bottle – or spray, tube, pot or sheet mask – that’s right for you.