Tan lines: Ulster firm taking us beyond the pale

He-Shi co-founders Hilary McMurray and Shelley Martin
He-Shi co-founders Hilary McMurray and Shelley Martin

Fake tanning has become a national pastime, as growing numbers of us seek to achieve the sort of olive-skinned glow that bespeaks lengthy summer holidays in Martinque. Pastey is out, the quintessential complexion du jour is honey-hued.

And here in Northern Ireland, where spotting a ray of tan-worthy sunshine is almost as rare as hen’s teeth, fake tan is increasingly spreading itself across the nation’s epidermis, with users claiming it makes them feel younger, covers flaws and imperfections, and even makes them look slimmer.

There is a staggering array of lotions on offer: anti-ageing tans, moisturising tans or tans that promise almost everything apart from getting up in the morning and driving the kids to school. But one product which is gaining cult status has been developed right here in Northern Ireland, and that is He-Shi.

Stars such as Christine Bleakley and Caroline Flack have both spoken of their love for the brand, as have soap stars such as Gemma Oaten from Emmerdale. Personalities such as Milly Mackintosh and Binky Felstead from Made in Chelsea have also given the products glowing reviews. And they are also a real favourite with beauty editors.

The tan’s creators, Hilary McMurray and Shelley Martin, are probably the best advertisements for the products; both look beautifully sun-kissed, yet natural and healthy.

Shelley says: ‘‘The greatest compliment comes from people asking, ‘Where have you been on holiday?’ as opposed to, ‘What fake tan are you wearing?’’’

And can they tell by looking if someone else is wearing the product?

‘‘Sometimes I can, but not always,’’ says Hilary.

‘‘I would be more likely to recognise the ones that are definitely not He-Shi.’’

So how did the ladies enter the bronze age?

‘‘My original working life was spent in the insurance sector, but with a lifelong interest in beauty, in 1997 I decided to set up a distribution company, focusing on the tanning market,’’ says Hilary.

‘‘Originally operating from my home, the business evolved from being a part time home hire sunbed business to supplying commercial sunbeds and related products to salons – I even owned my own salon for a time. The business soon grew, diversifying into other sectors such as cosmetics, health, waxing and manicure and pedicure, and in 2004 I was joined by my daughter Shelley as business development manager.

‘‘Soon after, we launched He-Shi onto its domestic market and in this our tenth year, we’re proud to say that it is now sold internationally in 15 countries.’’

As popular as fake tanning is, users do often cite issues such as the chemically enhanced biscuity smell, strange tea stain patches around the knees and elbows and clothing necklines that look they have been worn by hordes of unwashed schoolboys.

It was these issues, says Shelley, which He-Shi sought to address.

‘‘We created He-Shi in response to what we felt was a gap in the tanning market - we simply couldn’t find a quick and easy-to-use tan that didn’t smell and avoided streaking.

‘‘Our original product - the Express Liquid Tan remains our hero product to this day, and has gone on to sell enough units to tan the equivalent of almost five million bodies. Not only that, but we’re absolutely delighted to be celebrating our 10th birthday this year.’’

Hilary adds: ‘‘He-Shi has a number of unique selling points, but the most important of these is how easy it is to use. Without wanting to sound too much like an advertisement, it’s incredibly quick and easy to apply, with what we call a ‘see where it goes formula’ – that’s essentially a guide colour that helps avoid mistakes when applying. It also dries very quickly and avoids that all-too-common‘fake tan’ smell.

The name ‘He-Shi’, adds Hilary, represents the unisex nature of the brand.

‘‘Our products are very much aimed at both the male and female markets. We took the ‘H’ from my name and the ‘Sh’ from Shelley’s and swapped the ‘e’ for ‘i’ in ‘She’ to form ‘He-Shi’, so in a very real way, it’s a name we’re proud to stand behind.’’

Developing the formula was, admits Shelley, challenging, but worth the effort.

‘‘We worked with a number of chemists to create a product of the highest quality and we are continually working to improve our formulations. It’s a continual process.’’

For many of us fake tan application can be a daunting process, for fear of ending up looking like a glamour model dipped in Ronseal, but here are Shelley’s top tips for getting it right:

‘‘Giving due consideration to three simple steps - preparation, application and aftercare exfoliation prior to tanning is very important - it removes dead skin cells and prepares the skin for tanning.

‘‘Don’t moisturise the whole body - just pay attention to the dry areas such as the hands, elbows, knees.

‘‘Apply tan using a tanning mitt to help ensure a streak-free finish, using circular, sweeping motions for best results. Your tan will develop over the next 6-8 hours, so it’s best to avoid showering until after then. Moisturising after each shower will help to prolong your tan.’’

Hilary believes the products appeal to people because of the ‘‘natural look and the speedy, no fuss application.’’

‘‘There are also a couple of products which are particularly appealing to men - the Express Liquid Tan and the Day to Day Gradual Tan. A big draw is also the fact that they’re multi-functional – our formulations provide additional skincare benefits, helping to fight the signs of ageing whilst tanning.’’

And whilst He-Shi is doing incredibly well, new product developments are always a key focus for the business.

‘‘Earlier this year, we launched our He-Shi Rapid 1 Hour Liquid Tan which it is fast becoming a best seller,’’ says Shelley.

‘‘We have also launched our new Sublime Dry Oil which, again, has been received phenomenally well. Our Christmas packs will also be launching soon, which we’re very excited about.

‘‘The latest addition to our portfolio of brands is a new skincare range – Skinician. Skinician has been launched following years of research and development with skincare experts to provide real, measurable results, and we’ve been delighted to see how far it has come in a relatively short space of time.’’