I have a confession to make: I am a fake-tan virgin.
In fact, I'm a real-tan virgin, too. Blessed with my father's Irish genes, my hair is naturally red and my skin is naturally ghostly. I wear SPF 50 every day, sit in the shade, and was that child in the pool in Majorca wearing a flap cap and big T-shirt over my swimsuit.
Then came the '00s: a glorious time, when a denim-clad Britney and Justin reigned supreme, eyebrows were plucked into obscurity, and roll-on glitter was the height of school-disco sophistication. I'm pretty sure the only highly questionable trend I didn't try was fake tan. My friends used the since-discontinued Johnson & Johnson's Holiday Skin and Rimmel Sun Shimmer religiously (the classier girls used St. Tropez, of course), and it was enough to put me off for life.
Not that I looked better — god, no. It was the look du jour, and while they worked Girls Aloud and Jessica Simpson levels of bronze, I was heckled and told to put my pasty whites away. It was the process and maintenance that deterred me. The sticky skin, the stained bedsheets, the darker patches around elbows and knees, the smell... don't get me wrong, I'm more dedicated to beauty than most, but my favored treatments involve less fuss and last much longer.
And yet. Every time summer comes around I find myself lured into the Insta-trap, the grid of glowing women with sun-kissed limbs and a sprinkle of freckles across their nose. Sure, I'll never look like them, but coming out of a long, dark winter with legs like milk bottles doesn't exactly make you feel pumped for summer. Tanning beds aren't an option for me as skin cancer runs in my family, but I didn't trust the bottled stuff to give a natural enough hue. Enter: Isle of Paradise.
The just-launched brand was founded by tanning supremo Jules Von Hep, the man behind the radiant skin of countless celebrities and influencers, with a long career at some of the biggest tanning brands around. Having spied Von Hep's latest move on Instagram, I went to him with my tanning concerns. "When you get a fake tan you want it to look like you've been on holiday, not like you got it from a bottle," Von Hep tells me. "In the past, formulas have given you a uniform color across your entire body, which just isn't what happens when you go abroad."
So how does Isle of Paradise differ from the thick, muddy formulas of the '00s? Made up of three products (a tanning water spray, a mousse, and drops) in three shade ranges (dark, medium, and light), Von Hep wanted to focus on hydration, scent, and being fuss-free. Firstly, his products are essentially water and mousse infused with tanning agents, so they add moisture to the skin. Secondly, there isn't a whiff of that "tanning scent" anywhere, thanks to the formula's cucumber and eucalyptus, which is mega refreshing. Finally, there's no guide color, so you could be wearing white jeans and still not get a smudge of tan on your clothes. No excessive bedsheet-washing here.
All of this feels a lot less intimidating than the tan I assumed I'd be getting. I strip down to my underwear, put my hair in a towel, and hop into Von Hep's tanning tent. I apologize to him for my body, for having to see me naked, but he makes me feel immediately comfortable, explaining that every woman who gets into the booth does the same. "Look, I've worked with Victoria's Secret models, but they look like 1% of the women I work with on a daily basis," he says. "I want Isle of Paradise to speak to, not down to, women. You don't tan for anyone else; you tan for yourself, to look in the mirror and feel that much more confident."
Von Hep starts by spraying me all over with the Isle of Paradise Prep It Self-Tan Priming Spray, which works like a makeup primer in that it makes your tan last much longer, but activates at low pH levels, so it doesn't smell bad. Next he tackles the rougher areas like feet, knees, elbows, and around the fingers with an aloe vera-based moisturizer. Then I stand in a variety of yoga-like positions while he sprays my entire body using the Isle of Paradise Self-Tanning Water in Peach, the lightest shade. It smells amazing and is so refreshing I think it would bring me back to life during a terrible hangover. Once Von Hep has gone over every patch of skin, he dries me with a cool-set dryer (a hairdryer on the cold setting would work at home), and I get dressed and go.
When I leave I'm the tiniest bit sticky, but nowhere near as much as I thought I'd be. I'm wearing a loose dress, which helps to continue the "airing out," but Von Hep tells me to avoid getting super sweaty for the day. He encourages me to add a few drops of the Isle of Paradise Self-Tanning Drops to my face moisturizer over the next few days as the color on my face will fade first. I have my tan done at 9 a.m. and by 3 p.m. it's come up; by the time I go home at 6 p.m. it's very, very noticeable. It's actually quite alarming.
However, Von Hep warned me about this, so I try not to panic and go home to shower off the tan. I emerge looking less Tanning Mom and more week-in-Italy glow. I'm hooked — this isn't what I actually look like post-one week in Italy, but my reflection could've fooled me. Why haven't I been doing this my whole life?! I feel more inclined to show off my limbs in summer dresses, and I get a sense of that confidence Von Hep was talking about.
For the next two days, I enjoy this new version of me; I look healthier on the outside than I actually am on the inside, and although my white triangle of a bum means I look ridiculous naked, my balayage looks brighter and my eyes more blue.
On day three, though, the tan goes awry. I look in the mirror post-run and I'm devastated to find a brown cow. My chest is still day-one tanned, but my boobs, underarms, and tummy are as pale as the day I was born. My boyfriend finds the whole debacle hilarious, and no amount of bathing and scrubbing evens out the patchiest areas.
The products used by Von Hep smelled great; I didn't have to change my sheets the morning after, and I enjoyed two full days of an even, features-accentuating, illuminating tan. But as it turns out, I don't think fake tan is for me. While I do believe Isle of Paradise is the coolest and most contemporary out there — not least for the positive representation of women's bodies in the brand campaign, something close to Von Hep's heart — for me, the maintenance is still too much.
I think the line would work perfectly for a special occasion or event — say, the day before your wedding or a big birthday. But as a regular treatment, I couldn't keep up. Of course, I am but one woman with one skin tone, and on darker skin the contrast might not look as obvious by day three. Von Hep certainly made the concept of fake tan feel less alien and intimidating, and he highlighted the fact that a bronzed hue can give someone the boost of confidence they need to face summer, when women's bodies are constantly scrutinized. For that, I highly rate both the brand and the choice to get a tan. But now that the color has faded, I appreciate my vampire-like pale skin even more.