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Kate Moss, brand ambassador for the UK, here in a St. Tropez ad. Photo: St. Tropez

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The Best Self Tanners Are All From the UK

Necessity is the mother of invention.

If someone asked you to free associate the words "UK" and "self tanner," chances are the picture in your head might look a little something like this:


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Emma "Baby Spice" Bunton and Victoria "Posh Spice" Beckham in 2000. Photo: KMazur/Getty Images

The early aughts were not a good time for fake tans, and a lot of orange skin appeared on both sides of the pond. (Looking at you, Paris Hilton.) But in the last five years or so, something happened to the at-home self tanner market: It got tasteful.

Self tanner companies in the UK deserve a lot of the credit for this. They say necessity is the mother of invention, and that region is populated with quite a few pale people who live in a dreary climate a good chunk of the year. As a result, there are a disproportionate amount of excellent self tanning companies based there.

There’s a long history of fake tanning in the UK and Ireland. "I think the Brits’ obsession with tanning products has a lot to do with the weather. We aren't blessed with many days of glorious sunshine in this country, so if you want to look glowing, you pretty much have to fake it," says Jessica Diner, the content and creative director at Birchbox UK and a former Vogue UK beauty editor. Awareness about the dangers of tanning and tanning beds has also never been higher, so people are turning to products instead of the sun.

According to Jacqueline Burchell, the EVP of Global Marketing and Product Development at St. Tropez, the global tanning market is worth about $1.2 billion and is expected to continue to have double digit growth in the next few years. With this kind of demand, it’s not surprising that a lot of innovation is happening in the market.

It arguably all started with St. Tropez. While the original St. Tropez formula was actually invented in LA in the ‘90s, English entrepreneur Judy Naaké struck a licensing deal with the owners and launched it in the UK. Soon afterwards, Victoria Beckham was seen carrying a bottle in a clear plastic bag. The company has changed hands several times and is now owned by PZ Cussons, a "British soap company." St. Tropez is the best selling self tanner internationally.

A new, more gently tanned Victoria Beckham, at Cannes this year. Photo: Tony Burson/Getty Images

Last year St. Tropez launched some new and reformulated products. "In the past five years, the technology around tanning has hugely improved," says Burchell. "Our consumers told us that they wanted tanning products with added benefits, hence why part of our relaunch is based around really taking textures and skincare properties in our range to the next level."

Last year the St.Tropez Gradual Tan In Shower Lotion, which is applied on wet skin in the shower, was one of the buzziest launches of 2015. "[It] was our fastest ever selling product to date, which broke all sales records, shifting a year’s worth of stock in its first three weeks of launch. On the busiest day of sales, over 12,000 individual bottles were purchased in the UK alone," Burchell says.

Alyson Hogg, the Irish founder of Vita Liberata (which produces its products in England), started the trend of multifunctional, skin-enhancing self tanning when she launched her tanning line in 2007. Her products include anti-aging ingredients like antioxidants and moisturizers.

"My impression of tanning when I was first asked to look at [the category] was very negative and I actually said, ‘No, under no circumstances do I want anything to do with that stuff. It’s horrific.’ What I knew of tanning was that it was orange, sticky, streaky, smelly, and that it faded like a snake," Hogg says. "Then my pale friends said, ‘Well, why don’t you make it better?’" The brand got picked up to be used on "X Factor" contestants, which is how it originally made a name for itself in the UK.

In 2013 Vita Liberata launched in the US through Sephora stores, where it’s still sold, to much adulation and excitement. Its formulas feel upscale and luxurious, and the gradual Self Tan Dry Oil with SPF 50 is a great example of how brands are moving away from the mousses and lotions that dominated the category. (St. Tropez also has a dry oil, but without SPF.) It also offers an anti-aging self tanner face serum and a self tanning bronzer powder.

A photo posted by VITA LIBERATA (@vitaliberata) on

Of her innovative formulas, Hogg says, "I had to go in the lab and work for a couple of years. It wasn’t straightforward. We created a fair number of technologies ourselves. We actually had to invent new ways of making tan."

Hogg has since launched a lower priced line called NKD SKN that is just self tanner without added skincare ingredients, available at Ulta in the US. The line features a standard tanner, as well as a gradual tanner, and a pre-shower lotion, which you apply, leave on for ten minutes, then shower off.

The key tanning word these days is "golden," according to Sarah Jossel, beauty editor at the Sunday Times Style. "Over the last couple of years it’s hugely changed. Now, the more natural it is, the more expensive [it looks]," she says. "All the tanning brands have sort of reformulated the way they pitch to us. Instead of saying, ‘Just came back from the Mediterranean’ it’s more like ‘Did she or didn’t she?’"

The more subtle formulas and overall aesthetic reflect a new tastefulness in self tanning, particularly in Hollywood. "I think nowadays people want to look as natural as possible. People are hoping for an LA tan that's realistic and not at all orange," says Lisa Oxenham, the beauty and style director of Marie Claire UK.

"Many trends here in the UK are influenced by trends in LA," says Nicole Dash Jones, the founder of Madame LaLa, a two-year-old brand that launched at Fenwick of Bond Street and which is currently available widely at Superdrug in the UK. Dash Jones was born in the UK but lived in LA for several years. "Everyone is spray tanning on the red carpet now, but they all tend to have a very light spray tan applied. They’re aspirational. It’s not so much about having heavy DHA [the active ingredient in self tanners] in the product."

Gigi Hadid, cited as tanning inspo by some of the UK-based editors Racked spoke to, has used Madame LaLa, which was recently picked up here in the States by Don’t Ask Why NY, a new concept store by American Eagle. The formulas contain coconut water, aloe vera and vitamins which supposedly help to prevent skin from drying out, a notorious side effect of DHA.

The Kate Moss effect also helped raise tanning’s profile above the streaky orange soccer WAGs (wives and girlfriends) of yore. "When St. Tropez secured Kate Moss as a brand ambassador, that was a big deal because it lent fashionable, credible, and chic kudos to the art of tanning and she became the tanning poster girl," says Birchbox UK’s Diner.

James Read has been a spray tanner for over 15 years in London (he formerly worked for St. Tropez before opening his own salon) and launched a luxury eponymous tanning line in 2013. It is currently the jewel in the crown of UK tanning brands. He’s the first tanner to ever launch his own line, was a pioneer in using fake tan backstage at fashion shows during London Fashion Week, and is responsible for the golden glow emanating from Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, who was unanimously named by the editors in this story as the most inspirational/aspirational tan person in the UK.

"We didn’t have tanning experts who were the same sort of thing as makeup artists or hair dressers. That was my goal, to be on that same level and to make tanning quite cool," Read says. "So it was all about making it really natural looking, coming up with names for different seasons and different looks, so rather than just getting a spray tan, you could go to a salon and get different types of looks."

Read says he has turned down requests from celebrities who ask for a very deep tan. "I want someone to walk down the red carpet and for the tan to work with your outfit and hair and background color rather than overpowering your whole look to the point that the first thing someone sees is your tan," he explains.

Read’s innovative formulas, particularly his Overnight Sleep Mask Tan, spark lots of copycats. He snagged headlines last year when he launched Tantour, a powder duo that contours like traditional makeup, but also contains DHA to help you develop your own fake tan contour after using it for three to five days. His latest mind-blowing product this season is a rose water face mist that contains DHA for very gradual face self tanning while you cool off.

Other buzzy UK tanning brands include He-Shi, Sienna X, Green People, and Tan-Luxe. He-Shi, founded in 2004 by a Belfast-based mother-daughter duo, has won multiple awards through the years and is a perennial celeb favorite and include products like shimmer gel and an overnight tanning balm.

Sienna X provides spray tans at the W Hotel in London, then customers stock up on at-home self tanners for maintenance. "Everyone goes there," says Jossel. Tan-Luxe is getting attention for its concentrated facial self tanner drops that you mix into your own moisturizer. (It’s sold at HSN in the US.) Green People is a popular so-called "natural" brand available in regular and gradual formulas.

In short, the UK is truly in a golden age (sorry) of self tanning right now.

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