As someone from New Zealand, we are obsessed with the sun. Mainly because we have (or had) a hole in the ozone layer above us, so the sun is pretty strong down there. In the height of summer, you can get a first-degree sunburn from sitting in the sun for twelve minutes. TWELVE.
Skin cancer is also pretty common. New Zealand has the highest rate of skin cancer in the world, and we get 82,000 new cases of skin cancer every year, which for a country with a population of 4 million people, is quite a lot of people. In fact, most of the older kiwis I know have had some form of skin cancer. Luckily these days we’re more sun smart, and no longer lie outside in extreme UV conditions slathered in baby oil (yes Mum, I’m talking about you).
Spending time in the sunshine is important, but so is looking after your skin. Having a tan generally makes you look healthier and happier – it definitely makes me feel more beautiful! But as a blue-eyed, freckled white woman – tanning is not my best friend.
Luckily for all of us, fake tan was invented in the 70’s and we’ve been looking sun kissed ever since. But I’ve spoken to a lot of people lately who have never used fake tan before simply because they don’t know how to use it, and are afraid of looking like Ross Geller from that one episode of Friends. Which is fair, because the one thing with fake tan is that you don’t want it to look fake.
So I decided to write an article detailing all I’ve learnt from my years of pretending to be someone who tans in the sun, (but actually ends up looking like a little red piglet.) I.e. I do not tan, so I had to learn how to fake it the hard way – through trial and error.
One thing you must know about doing fake tan at home, is that it is going to fuck up somewhere. It’s one of the rules of the universe. You just have to accept that it’s going to happen. Maybe your ankles look like they’ve been smothered in a light coating of Nutella, or you have a white streak under your tricep where you missed a spot. Point is, it’s bound to happen, and it’s helpful (and really zen) to accept that something’s going to go wrong before it even happens. Because it will happen. The universe demands it.
A good tip for rookies is to start real slow. And by real slow I mean buying the lightest shade of tan, and seeing what works for you. I have walked out of a tanning salon looking like Michael Jackson’s long-lost cousin (when he was a part of the Jackson 5) and I can tell you from experience you feel like a real dick (and also a little racist.) Start out with the lightest shade. It makes obvious mistakes look less noticeable, and if you’re really not feeling it, and can’t tell whether you’ve gone any darker or not, you can always double up. The more layers you apply, the darker you will be.
For brands, I love Vita Liberata, specifically their Invisi Foaming Tan Water. Isle of Paradise is also great, and I constantly use their Self-Tanning Drops to mix with my face moisturizer to keep my face looking fresh and glowy. My favourite tanning mousse by far is Elle Effect, but beware – it only comes in one colour and it’s not for beginners! It’s quite dark and dries quickly, so once you’ve built up your confidence (and your tan) with Isle of Paradise or Vita Liberata, you can move onto Elle Effect (which also smells like roses! Most fake tans make you smell like biscuits).
My favourite shade sits around medium-dark, but I would never go darker (some Australian companies even have extra-dark… Not keen on blonde Caucasian influencers trying to look Aboriginal, but I digress) as even though fake tan makes you look like you’ve just had an uber-relaxing holiday in Barbados – it’s still fake tan. It’s not going to look perfect around your hands and feet, and going for the extra-dark option looks quite garish when you bring your hands out of your pockets and there’s (hopefully not) a line on your wrists where you look like you were wearing protective gloves the whole time on your Barbadian holiday. Yeah, no thanks.
The secret to getting a realistic looking fake tan, is to moisturize your hands and feet before you apply. Remember, you have to exfoliate the night before (or a few hours before applying) to slough off all that dry excess skin – which if you don’t do, the tan will congregate in those areas and you’ll have funny darker spots. Spend extra time exfoliating those naturally dry areas like ankles, knees, and elbows. Believe me, dark spots on your knees look super weird, and I know because I’ve been there.
After you’re all exfoliated and super smooth, DO NOT MOISTURIZE YOUR SKIN. You want the tan to stick, and if your skin is in any way oily or slippery, the tan is going to move around, not sink in, and if it does it’ll sink in a weird pattern and you may end up looking like a tiger – in the worst way. What you SHOULD moisturize, are the pads of your feet, the pads of your hands, your fingernails and toenails, and very lightly apply the leftover to the tops of your hands and feet. As I said before, hands and feet are the trickiest, so even though you don’t want them looking white white, you do want them to look a little whiter than the rest of your body, because remember, you do not tan the palms of your hands (!!!) – just casually swipe the mitt over the tops of your hands once with the leftover tan on the mitt.
You will want to start rubbing the tan in from the ground up. If you start from the top down, by the time you get to your legs, you’ll have to bend over and rest your tummy on your thigh to reach all the way down to your tootsies, which means you’re going to end up with either a darker thigh, or a whiter tummy where your skin touched. You don’t really want your skin to touch itself while the tan is damp, so starting from the toes up is the best way to do it. Rub in circular motions to avoid streaky tan, and don’t be afraid to go over it just with the mitt, to make sure you didn’t miss any spots.
You can add extra colour to your arms, legs, and torso, but beware of putting too much tan on your face. Similar to the hands and feet, you just want to rub your face with the mitt with the leftover tan solution on – don’t pump anymore solution onto your mitt for your face.
If you’re really nervous about trying fake tan, they do make tan eraser. I started fake tanning before companies blessed us with the miracle cure from our chocolate streaks, so I’ve gone through the whole rubbing your skin raw with exfoliator, even soaking myself in olive oil for god’s sake. Tan eraser is much easier – trust me. It’s also a good backup to know that if things do go terribly wrong, there’s a solution!
A great tipoff to know whether I am absolutely faking my tan (which is 95% of the time. I am freckled after all) is if you can see a nice little white triangle on my back, which is the place I can’t reach with my mitt and my terrible shoulder extension. It’s helpful to get a mate, or your boyfriend, or your mum to help you out with the back area, because unless you’ve got excellent shoulder flexibility (please teach me your ways) then you’ll end up with that little tell-tale-triangle.
Once you’ve got your tan on, don’t wear any tight clothes for the next few hours – ideally you want to leave it on for 4-8 hours, so I usually put it on before I go to bed and sleep in it. Your sheets will look horrific the next morning, but don’t freak out – it comes out in the wash. You can’t get your tan wet, so no doing any dishes, washing your hands, or getting sweaty until your time is up.
In the morning you’ll wake up looking like you’ve been lost on an abandoned island for 6 months, but don’t freak out! Have a shower and wash off the excess product, and you’ll come out looking tanned, streak-free, and like you’ve just had a very relaxing holiday drinking Piña Coladas in Tahiti. You’re welcome.
Image via Elle August 2021