August 18th 2021
Everything you need to know about fake tan for sensitive skin
April 30th 2019 / 2 comments
Do you react to fake tan? Anna Hunter shares her tanning tales of going from pale to bronzed, with top tips on the best self tanners for sensitive skin
My mum would call me a classic English Rose, but what she means by this is that I’ve inherited my dad’s v Celtic complexion, as opposed to her own God-given year-round golden glow.
When I discovered that fake tan existed I think I was eleven. I went on holiday with my dad and spent a not insignificant part of the trip in a New Zealand branch of The Body Shop, spending my pocket money on loofahs and vast quantities of pungent fake tan that was highly unsuited to my ghostly natural hue, and really more akin to Nutella in shade and consistency than the sophisticated formulas we have come to know and love today. I also got cornrows on that holiday and then burnt my scalp through the gaps . It wasn’t a great time for me. I think my dad figured it was better that I experimented with ill-suited hair and beauty looks than older boys or alcopops at this stage so he let me do my thing.
It wasn't long until I resigned myself to the fact that, for me at least, pasty was in fact probably preferable given the odd sludge colour I achieved with the fake stuff. I left well alone for a while, and with time tanning technology evolved. Shades became more convincing, application more user-friendly and the spray tan of today can be sculpting, subtle and entirely streak-free.
Granted, the reality stars of this world don’t do a lot to polish up the tarnished image of the humble self-tan, but as long as you don’t develop tanning dysmorphia à la TOWIE, a touch of tan can bring neglected skin alive - the leg dandruff effect of a winter spent in opaques without touching the body cream recedes under the soft-focus glow of a good self-tan.
Unfortunately, while tanning became more sophisticated, apparently my SELFISH skin got sensitive. As I am not generally reactive on the dermatological front, I slathered on tan on the first day of “summer” last year with sheer abandon and not a second thought. I came to regret my voraciousness approximately an hour later, when my skin became red, itchy and very… angry. I think it was trying to tell me something along the lines of ‘stop it with the try hard tan thing already, I am lily white and proud’.
I can see where skin is coming from, but nevertheless I will not submit myself to its selfishness for life. Sometimes, you just want to look like you’ve been on holiday when you’ve made the effort to go on holiday.
I will not take no for an answer, so I bring you a selection of the best self tanners for sensitive skin.
The expert's opinion
My quest for a gentler glow-giver started with seeking out tanning expert Michaella Bolder. I felt that I needed someone in the know to hold my hand for my first trip back to tanville; Michaella has tanned everyone from alabaster Emilia Fox to the perma-bronzed ‘The Body’ Elle Macpherson, so I was feeling confident. Michaella was keen to point out that skin sensitivity can arise from a range of different factors:
“All skin types are different and allergies vary - it could be that you are sensitive to perfume, alcohol or in some cases DHA (dihydroxacetone - the skin colouring agent present in fake tan). If it is DHA that you are sensitive to, another option is a wash-off-range, which is perfect as these products contain no DHA ingredients and technology has vastly improved so you shouldn't experience run off or smudging should it rain.”
Taking care of sensitive skin prior, during and after fake tanning should be top priority. Michaella suggests choosing "a gentle body exfoliator, as a smaller grain will be less abrasive to the skin’s surface. An aloe vera based moisturiser will keep your skin soft and supple, with the added benefit that your tan will last longer with regular use".
While I had a great experience with the St Tropez Sensitive range, hinting that it probably was not in fact the DHA that caused me irritation, tanning pro James Harknett highlights that DHA sensitivity affects roughly "one in 50,000 people". As it is found in all wear-off tanning products, James advises conducting a patch test behind the ear 24 hours before applying self-tan if you have never used a product containing DHA previously. If it’s a little too late for that and a red, itchy reaction has already occurred, James advises jumping in the (cool) shower as soon as possible.
Working with your skin type
If you have ruled out DHA but are still suffering skin-wise, James has some invaluable inside knowledge to help you get back on track.
“There are some amazing products available for those who have certain skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema. DHA can be extremely dehydrating in itself, so if you are prone to dryness I recommend Clarins Liquid Bronze, £21 for 125ml, for the face. It has a light textured formula that is kind to sensitive skin and it feels really refreshing on application.”
For an all-over body solution, James recommends avoiding alcohol at all costs as this will further aggravate tan self-induced dryness. Sienna X tanning products are alcohol-free and also contain skin soothing aloe vera and James loves the range for its variety of tanning strengths too:
“There are eight different 'strengths' to choose from, which means that you can choose a lighter colour which also has the benefit of being less dehydrating thanks to the lower quantities of DHA.”
It’s worth bearing in mind that it’s important to treat the initial skin problem for at least two weeks prior to tanning, so if you have an eczema or psoriasis flare-up wait for at least a fortnight before tanning with a gentle tanner that is suitable for sensitive skin.
As well as St Tropez Sensitive and Sienna X, there are other fantastic fake tan options for dry or reactive skin on the market, but again a patch test is advised before use, and if you are pregnant always test before applying a self-tan even if you did not previously suffer a reaction, as changes in hormone levels can make skin more prone to sensitivity.
Here are my best fake tans for sensitive skin...
The Thermal Spring Water One: Vichy Idéal Soleil Bronzing Self-Tanning Milk, £14 for 100ml
Vichy Laboratoires are renowned for their hypoallergenic, soothing thermal spa water based products, and this self-tan qualifies on both counts. Tested on sensitive skin under dermatological control, this hydrating cream is rich in vitamin E and delivers a natural sunkissed glow one hour after application. A great option for hesitant first timers.
The Ultra Moisturising One: Sisley Self Tanning Hydrating Body Skin Care, £82.50
Sisley’s ‘new generation’ self tanner provides exceptional levels of comfort and moisture thanks to circulation boosting ingredients that help the epidermis to retain water. Extracts of stevia leaf, vegetal glycerine, and sunflower oil team up with vitamin E to keep skin supple, and a unique DHA and erythrulose formulation ensures that your tan looks luminous and lasts for days. The lasting effect is a bonus for dryer skin types, as fewer applications are required to maintain an even, expensive looking tan (less exposure to DHA can reduce dryness). If you’re feeling flash, this one is worth the investment.
The Green One: The Organic Pharmacy Self Tan, £38
Developed using a natural Sugar Beet DHA, this tan is environmentally saintly. Naturally derived DHA is also said to be less likely to trigger skin reactions, so this could be a win-win if you’re as dermatologically reactive as you are eco-conscious. The tan contains organic rye alcohol, which is considered to be a gentler alternative to harsher alcohol contained in other tanning products, and a combination of organic Aloe and organic shea butter keeps skin nourished. A sensitive skinned friend reported results akin to a short sojourn in the Mediterranean, although it was a bit tricky to rub in.
Deeply hydrating with raspberry seed oil for both hydration and to take the edge off of any lingering DHA stench, this smoothing, buttery self-tan actually makes quick work of bronzing despite the ‘gradual’ description. This one’s alcohol-free with a naturally derived DHA that should prove less irritating than the purely synthetic sort.
That title may seem like an oxymoron but this wash-off colour adds a subtle tan while also covering up rogue bruises, razor marks or blotches, while added DHA allows a more long-lasting to develop as you wear it (it’ll set in after around four hours). It’s aloe vera and glycerin based for a soothing moisture hit too.
A final word - while these self-tanners may be more sympathetic to sensitive skins, everyone reacts in different ways and for different reasons. If you get into a spot of bother with any of the above, shower, then make a dash for Judy Johnson’s Sense and Sensitivity column for advice on what to do. Happy bronzing!
Follow me on Instagram @annyhunter.