With their less is more approach, gradual tan is a great option for anyone who hasn't faked it before or for those who want a low-maintenance glow option. The newest mousses, milks and lotions are foolproof and a joy to use

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Gradual tans are wondrous products indeed. They slowly build up to the colour you’re after with minimal effort and fuss. They contain a lower percentage of DHA (dihydroxyacetone is the chemical in fake tan that changes the colour of the skin) than other fake tanning products, typically around two to four percent compared with self-tanning drops which contain around ten percent. Gradual tans also contain more hydrating ingredients like those you would find in regular body lotions or body serums.

“Gradual tans are a great product to use at home but also when you’re away, I call it ‘glow on the go’,” says tanning expert James Read. “We all know it’s really important to stay safe in the sun and that means spending as much time in the shade as possible, but you want to come home from holiday looking like you have actually been somewhere, so I always recommend packing a gradual tan and applying it either every night you’re away (scroll down for James’s advice on how to do that) or every third day. That way your skin is getting drenched in hydrating ingredients, which it will need after a day of being in the heat, swimming pool and sea, but also you can build up a really gorgeous glow. A lot of self-tans can be used with SPF if you want to use them during the day, water mists and tanning drops in particular.”

The other huge benefit of gradual tans compared with their more intense fake tanning counterparts is that they come with less prep and far less user error. 

James Read’s tips for perfect application of gradual tan

  • Don't remove hair on the same day. “It’s always best to do any hair removal at least 24 hours before applying any self-tanning product, this is because the hair follicles need time to shrink back so tan doesn’t settle in the follicle and look obvious.”
  • Lightly scrub it. “As with all tanning products, the smoother your skin, the better it will look so lightly exfoliate the skin before applying.”
  • Wash those hands. “Even though gradual tan contains a low level of DHA you still need to wash your hands after application as it could still stain them.”
  • Get face specific. “I always recommend buying a face specific tanning product as gradual tans in particular have quite a creamy consistency so will be too heavy for the face. A tanning mist, spray or drops that you can add to your regular moisturiser are a great option.”
  • Boost your aftersun. “By adding gradual tan to your holiday after sun and applying it every night you will get a gorgeous glow that builds up really naturally but that will also fade more evenly.”

Here's our edit of the best gradual tans out there.

There is something quite comforting about a mousse texture; it’s very easy to manipulate as it doesn’t slip and slide like a lotion or a milk making this a great option for any first-time gradual tanners. This one dispenses as quite a dense mousse, almost like a shaving foam consistency, and a small blob (table tennis ball size) easily covers both arms. It has quite a strong fruity smell but absolutely no whiff of tanning agents and it leaves the skin feeling silky soft, just as though you’ve applied regular body lotion.

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The cult one: Bondi Sands Everyday Gradual Tanning Milk, was £16 now £11.15 

All of Bondi Sands’ products fly off the shelves but this is one of their best-sellers thanks to the gorgeous colour it creates and how easy it is to use. Bondi Sands are known for creating a slightly deeper colour. It has a very silky consistency, which makes it really easy to glide over and it sinks in in seconds. It also comes with a very handy pump applicator.

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The one for legs: This Works Perfect Legs Gradual Tan, £40 

This can be used all over but its gel-like formula lends itself particularly well to dehydrated legs which we tend to ignore all year and need extra hydrating TLC compared to the rest of the body. It is also tinted which makes it foolproof to apply and avoid any streaks and means it leaves you with an instant glow-up but the real magic happens when you apply every day for three days straight. By day four your legs will look like they’ve been on a mini break.

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The colour-correcting one: Isle of Paradise Self-Tanning Butter, £16.95 

With its rich buttery texture, it contains avocado and cocoa butter, this is a great option for anyone with dry skin who wants to boost their glow at the same time. However, its real USP is that it contains clever green pigments that counterbalance any redness in the skin (don't worry, they don't make your skin look green). Not only do they improve the overall tone of your skin, but by reducing any redness creates your truest tanned hue. 

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The face one: Bali Body Gradual Face Tan, was £28.95 now £23.15 

If self-tanning drops are too much tan too quickly for you (they can be very high in DHA percentages so watch out) this gradual tan face moisturiser will build up your glow over four to five days. It has a handy push-down applicator top, which dispenses the right amount each time. It also helps keep the formula airtight, ensuring its longevity. It has a fairly rich consistency so oilier skin may want to use this at night to give it time to sink in.

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The supersized one: Gatineau Golden Glow Gradual Tan, £52

While this does come with a hefty price tag, it is enormous (400ml) so if you are a gradual tanning addict, it makes economic sense to buy this. It has a really light silky texture and a lovely, light refreshing scent that makes putting it on in the morning a little moment of joy.

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The face and body one: Institut Esthederm Reflets De Soleil, was £48 now £38.40 

With its caramel tinted hue that has very subtle shimmer, not only does this instantly give your skin a touch of glow but it acts as a handy guide colour. It has a very light texture - not dissimilar to a gel-cream moisturiser -that feels light on the skin and can be used from head-to-toe.

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With its distinctive apricot scent (which you either love or don’t) this gradual tan has a lighter consistency than most but still feels ultra hydrating. It comes in two shades, light and  dark.

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The one for when you’re in a hurry: Tan Luxe The Gradual, £25

Packed full of moisture-trapping humectants such as glycerin and hyaluronic acid, this sinks in quickly, making it a great option for when you’re in a hurry in the morning but don’t want to forgo some glow. The handy pump applicator makes getting it on much easier. It has a very light scent and a serum consistency.

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This gorgeous hydrating lotion uses extract from red berries to achieve a subtle glow. As with all Evolve products, it is made as sustainably as possible. The brand is certified B Corp, carbon neutral and use renewable energy to make all the products. The bottle has been made from recycled plastic and is fully recyclable, except the pump.

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The hydrating one: St Tropez Gradual Tan Daily Firming Lotion, £18 

Containing hyaluronic acid, marine algae extract and natural oils, this creamy gradual tanner really does feel like you’re applying a regular body lotion. However, take a more care than you would do with a regular body cream as it’s not tinted so you do need to make sure you apply an even coating.

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The holiday one: Skinny Tan Gradual Tanner, was £14.99 now £11.20 

This has a lightweight consistency that feels refreshing on the skin, making it a great choice for applying at the end of long balmy days in the sun. It has a fresh scent and is really easy to buff in. Plus, we love the packaging and would quite like bathroom tiles in the same design!

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