Bronzer for pale skin can be a minefield of muddy finishes and tidelines. Here’s how to get sunkissed skin without the streaks

Any products in this article have been selected editorially however if you buy something we mention, we may earn commission

I love the idea of bronzer. A swoosh of sunshine to transform a pallid complexion is my idea of makeup heaven, but somehow it rarely comes off. More often than not bronzer looks blocky, stark and far too earthy to be anywhere near real. The thing is, as a pale Celt who’s cruelly allergic to many self tan brands , suntanned is rarely a natural-looking status, and even the vaguest of attempts of mimicking Gisele end in Oompa Loompa before I’ve realised I’ve gone too far, again. Just how do you achieve a ‘je ne sais quoi’ kind of healthy glow when your godgiven pallor is ghost, and can you dodge brown powder altogether yet still look summery? I put my burning bronzer conundrums to a few makeup greats and this is what I learned in my quest for a subtle sun fakery…

Base instinct

As a rule, stick to said instinct. If it looks too dark to begin with, it is- don’t switch up your foundation to create a more tanned effect. bareMinerals’ international makeup artist SJ Froom  recommends keeping it real from the get-go:

“Starting with a perfect base matched to your skin tone and adding colour and warm highlights to the high points of the face is the best way to create a believable bronze. It’s tempting to wear a foundation several shades darker than your skin, but naturally bronzed skin has dimension, so a blanket of a darker colour isn’t believable and is ultimately unflattering. Choose something soft and subtle to begin with – you can always build up the bronze.”

If do want to warm up your base ever so slightly, it can be done, but focus on customisation rather than picking up an ‘off-the-shelf’ glow.  Lisa Potter-Dixon , head makeup artist for Benefit Cosmetics, suggests a drip-feed rather than block-colour bronze:

“Bronzer can easily be “too much” or off colour if you’re fair skinned. The key to creating a bronzed glow on a fair complexion starts with the base. Take your usual foundation and try mixing in a drop of liquid bronzer- it’s a great way of warming up your base without adding too much pigment. I love Benefit Dew the Hoola , £24.50, and Nars Laguna Liquid Bronzer , £27, for this. Use maximum a quarter liquid bronzer to three quarters foundation and blend into the complexion and down your neck using a damp beauty blender. This should guarantee an even base, but ensure you’re working in natural light for the best effect.”

Lighten up

This not only somewhat obviously goes for colour, but texture too, as SJ highlights:

“Finely milled pressed or loose powders will help you to gradually build convincing colour. Applying a bronzer that’s designed for paler skins, such as bareMinerals Invisible Bronze Powder Bronzer in Fair to Light , £25, with a tapered fluffy brush will allow you to apply colour to the natural contours of the face in fine layers.”

Colour-wise, SJ advises opting for products with cool rather than warm undertones to avoid the dreaded orange effect. If you want to diffuse colour from the off, try applying bronzer over a light dusting of translucent powder.

Apply strategically

Clearly, where you put it is also key for avoiding mud face, as Lisa explains:

“To sculpt the face, go for a bronzer specifically designed for fairer skin (my absolute favourite is Benefit Hoola Lite , £24.50). Just because it’s lighter toned, don’t go all out and just chuck this onto the face in any old way though. Apply it in a ‘figure of three’ motion on either side of the face, moving from temple to jawline and down the neck for a soft, extremely subtle contour.”

If you’re keen to avoid contouring  and just want to look like you’ve been beached, in a good way, SJ advocates keeping it simple:

“Sweep bronzer gently across nose and cheeks and take it up towards the ears- this is called sun-stripping. With this technique, a swoosh of colour across the t-zone (the forehead and down the bridge of your nose) gives you a bronzed lift, as this is where the sun would naturally hit your face first. For inspo see J-Lo (always)- she often wears bronze down the centre of her nose, as opposed to a traditional highlight or contour. Obviously J-Lo has Latin colouring, so the pale should approach with caution- too much product will look like at best fake, at worst like a mistake. Balance very light bronzer with blusher at the apples of the cheeks for a natural finish and brightening effect.”

Blend in

This goes without saying, but the right tools and a little restraint go a long way according to SJ:

“Don’t use dense, contouring style brushes to apply bronzer. Choose fluffier brushes to evenly distribute colour in gentle sweeps over cheek bones, forehead and nose, then blend it out thoroughly. Just like the perfect eye makeup, the trick with seamless bronzer is to blend until you think you've blended enough, then blend some more. Telltale signs of poorly blended bronzer tend to be heavy lines across or under the cheekbones, a white “swan” neck and pale skin peeking through hairline.”

Speaking of faux-glow giveaways…

“If you are bronzing the face always remember to do the neck and decolleté too- a lot of people forget this area and then the face looks a totally different colour to the rest of the body. Most of us have been there. Take the time to check if you’ve missed any spots in different lighting, going back in with a clean brush to distribute colour more evenly if necessary.”

Go bronzer-free

If all of the above is just too much faff, make a break for it and bring the sunshine in elsewhere- follow Lisa’s lead:

“If you'd prefer to avoid bronzer full-stop but still want a sunkissed vibe, you could go for a rose gold  shimmer on the eye. This will automatically add warmth to your entire look while also brightening your eyes as a tan does. I love to create a bronze eye using Stila Magnificent Metals in Rose Gold Retro , £23.”

SJ also has a few diversionary sunning tricks to create a luminous finish without loading on the tan:

“A healthy glow doesn’t have to be all about a bronzed complexion, especially for pale skins. Draping (creating shape and definition) with warm toned blusher, adding peachy toned highlights to cheekbones, can be just as flattering. Also, bronzer is great as a multitasker- use on eyes instead of cheeks for a swipe of natural colour and an easy, instant sunkissed effect.”

Feeling a bit ‘out there’? Lisa has a summer suggestion for you…

“If you don’t have them already, experiment with drawing on a few fake freckles. I’m serious. Use the end of a kirby grip dipped in a soft brown shadow or bronzer to create the freckles across the nose and the top of the cheeks. You’ll look fresh-faced and like you’ve been in the sun all day.”

Seal the deal with a dusting of  finishing powder - melting freckles could be even more alarming than stripy bronzer come sundowners…

Check out these  bronzers for every skin type and tone

Follow Anna on Instagram  @annyhunter , Lisa  @lisa_benefit  and SJ  @sjbareminerals