A history of the tan
These days, being bronzed is associated with beauty, health and vibrancy but it wasn’t always that way. Prior to the twentieth century, women went to great lengths to protect their skin from sun exposure, as a sign of their refinement. Fair skin was an outward sign of wealth and being able to lead a life of leisure indoors, whilst labourers and farmers were tanned because of the long hours spent working outside in the sun. Full-length sleeves, bonnets and parasols were the must-have accessories, and some even went as far as to whiten their skin with arsenic or lead-based cosmetics, a practice that lead to a number of poisoning cases and health implications.
In 1903, Icelandic scientist Niels Finsen was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine for his ‘Finsen Light Therapy’ which highlighted the therapeutic benefits of sunlight, especially as a cure for rickets and other diseases. In 1910 a scientific expedition went to the island of Tenerife in Spain to further examine the health benefits of ‘heliotherapy’, and within a couple of years, ‘sunbathing’ was touted as a pleasurable and beneficial past time for the middle and upper classes. This also coincided with the industrial revolution, which saw a large majority of the working class move indoors to factories, where exposure to sunlight was minimal.
Coco Chanel confirmed the desirability of a tan when she accidentally overdosed on sun while holidaying on a yacht in the French Riviera in 1929. Returning to Paris ruddy and bronzed she proclaimed, “a girl simply has to be tanned”, and her legions of fans listened. In addition, Parisian singer Josephine Baker was revered for her darker skin tone, and together the two fashion icons made a bronzed complexion the ultimate beauty accessory.
A 1929 Vogue article titled ‘Back to Sunburn With the Mode’ promoted tanning in a four-page spread that described fashion, make-up, and accessories intended to optimally show off tanned skin: “From a chic note, sunburn became a trend, then an established fashion, and now the entire feminine world is sunburn conscious!”
Similarly, in the June 1929 Harper’s Bazaar issue, ‘Shall We Gild the Lily?’ begins a discussion on tanning trends with the statement, “There is no doubt about it. If you haven’t a tanned look about you, you aren’t part of the rage of the moment.”
With tanning suddenly a must have for both fashion and health reasons, it wasn’t long before specialised products and advertisements began to appear in women’s magazines, encouraging sunbathing. During World War Two, women used tea bags and Bovril gravy to fake a ‘natural’ tan by staining the skin. The appearance of the bikini in 1946 also influenced the acceptable amount of a woman’s skin on display, and baby oil was used to increase tanning, as were silver metallic UV reflectors.
The 1950s saw ‘Man-Tan’, the first self-tanner hit the market. It contained dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a chemical derived from sugar cane that it still in use today. Rather than staining the skin, the ‘tan’ effect comes from a reaction with the amino acids on the skin’s surface. The success of ‘Man-Tan’ was limited by its tendency to result in an unsightly orange skin tone, and Coppertone soon stormed the market with Quick Tan Lotion, which gave a more desirable bronze result but still stained clothes and was often patchy.
Early links were made between skin cancer and tanning in the 1960s, when doctors and scientists noticed a surge in the rates of skin cancer. The system of SPF rating for sunscreen was introduced in 1962, but tanning remained very much in favour and even Barbie joined the bronzed and beautiful brigade with the launch of Malibu Barbie in the early 1970s, complete
with her own bottle of tanning lotion and a head to toe bronzed glow.
The first tanning beds hit the market in 1978, which meant that even those who didn’t have the means to go on luxurious summer vacations could achieve and maintain a bronzed skin tone. Because extreme sun exposure had recently been linked to skin cancer by doctors and health professionals, and a host of other physical conditions, tanning beds were promoted as a health-conscious way to achieve a sun-kissed glow without the sun damage. Of course, we now know that UV exposure through the use of tanning beds is just as harmful as laying out in the sun, but ignorance was bliss and the tanning bed
In 2009, after previously classifying them as ‘probably carcinogenic’ the World Health Organisation changed tack and declared that sun beds were as great a cancer threat as asbestos and cigarettes. As a result of this, stronger regulation of tanning beds and a general shift away sun exposure has lead to the market for sunless tanners, but studies have shown that it is not necessarily the threat of cancer that discourages women from tanning, especially teenagers. Researchers at the University of Colorado Cancer Centre asked fifty high school students to complete a survey demonstrating their knowledge about UV light and use of sun-protective behaviours. The students were then randomised into two groups, one of which viewed the health-based video that emphasised skin cancer risk and the other viewed video that emphasised cosmetic changes due to UV exposure. Six weeks later, all subjects again completed questionnaires that showed the knowledge they retained and changes in sun-protective behaviours. Despite knowing the skin cancer risk from UV exposure, the group that had watched the health-based video showed no significant increase in their sun-protective behaviours. On the other hand, the group that had been shown the video emphasising cosmetic changes reported a dramatic increase in the use of sunscreen.
“You can tell that when we talk about the skin cancer risk, it doesn’t faze youth. But when you talk about premature wrinkling and ageing, they listen a little more closely,” said researcher Dr April W. Armstrong. “For teenagers, telling them UV exposure would lead to skin cancer is not as effective as we would hope,” said Dr Armstrong. “We need to tailor our message in the right way and in this case the right way is by highlighting consequences to appearance rather than health,” she contended.
The case against sunbeds
Despite all the negative press, people are still using sun beds both for vanity reasons, and in the (false) belief that it will prevent burns when they tan outdoors. However, indoor tanning raises the risk of developing melanoma even if a person has never had burns from either indoor or outdoor tanning, according to a study published May 29 in the JNCI: Journal of the National Cancer Institute.
To test the hypothesis that indoor tanning without burns prevents sunburn and subsequent skin cancer, researchers at the University of Minnesota used data from a case-control study on indoor tanning and the risk of melanoma. The researchers had detailed information on indoor tanning and sun exposure for the study participants and excluded those who experienced a burn while tanning indoors.
A total of 1,167 melanoma patients were matched to 1,101 control subjects by sex and age. In analyses adjusted for sociodemographic factors including age, sex, income, education; eye, hair and skin color; number of freckles and moles; family history of melanoma; and lifetime sun exposure and sunscreen use, they found that melanoma patients reporting zero lifetime burns were nearly four times more likely to be indoor tanners than control subjects. In addition, melanoma patients with zero sun burns reported having started tanning indoors at younger ages and used indoor tanning over more years than other patients who had experienced sunburn, suggesting that greater total exposure contributed to the findings.
The researchers write that their results demonstrate “ that indoor tanning, even when used in a way that does not produce burns, is a risk factor for melanoma.”
Clearly, there is still a battle to be won in the quest for healthy tanning habits, especially when competing with vanity, but that’s good news for beauty salons because here is where the ‘fake’ tan comes in. A recent study revealed that 99 percent of women surveyed had tried a ‘sunless tanner’ in the past, with 92 percent having used one in the previous six months and 59 percent having purchased one in the past three months. Clearly the desire for a ‘healthy’ tan is there.
Despite the rise in popularity of the tan taking place almost a century ago, our love affair with tanning has never really gone out of fashion. Magazines and celebrities may celebrate pale skin as the new beauty ideal, but when the same magazines also feature headlines such as ‘If you can’t tone it, tan it’ and ‘Everyone looks better with a tan’, it is clear that bronzed is
In a survey done by the Duke University School of Medicine 72 percent of respondents agreed that people look more attractive with a tan. In addition, more men than women (76 percent vs. 68 percent, respectively) agreed with that statement. Similarly, 66 percent of all respondents agreed that people look healthier with a tan. However, the majority of respondents also expressed strong opinions on protecting themselves from skin cancer. For example, 75 percent of all respondents said they will do anything possible to prevent skin cancer.
A similar survey by Olay Total Effects had an even stronger response in support of the tan. Ten women were photographed first without and then with a (fake) tan, and then a panel of more than eighty women and men were asked to rate these faces in terms of attractiveness and age. After looking at them side by side, and one after the other, 90 percent of the women photographed were judged to be more attractive with a tan and 80 percent were rated as younger than their pale ‘befores’.
What has changed in recent years though, is the depth and tone of colour that consumers seek. Gone are the days of the browner the better, the big news in tanning is the paler, fashion tan known as the ‘au-tan’ or autumn tan. Rather than looking like you have jetted back from two weeks in the tropics, the new tan is gently olive. “We call it furtive tanning. More like a good night’s sleep so that you are glowing from within,” says Grazia beauty director, Annabel Jones.
Ruth Holliday, professor of gender and culture at the University of Leeds, suggests that the move towards a more ‘natural, olive’ tan suggests a significant cultural change – the modification of models of beauty. “Whiteness has always been valued,” she says, “but now we’re moving towards a globalised model. It’s not about pushing whiteness any more, it’s actually about mixedness…olive skin signifies cosmopolitanism and values of globalisation.” This can be seen in the popularity of naturally olive beauty icons such as Jessica Alba, Kim Kardashian and Gisele Bundchen.
Celebrity spray-tanner James Read agrees, and sees fine-tuning a tan as an art-form. “It’s all about skin-finishing,” he says. “You want people to look great, but for everyone to notice their clothes and face, not the colour of their skin.”
Tanning is slimming
“(A tan) makes me feel more confident,” says Kate Moss, who appeared, nude and perfectly bronzed in a recent St Tropez campaign. “You just feel better when
you look in the mirror and you look
The Weightwatchers website calls a fake tan ‘a wonderful slimming trick’ that instantly creates a flattering, slimming and concealing finish for all skin colours and body shapes. “The contouring effects of a self tanner create shape, shade and added definition, especially around the abdomen, neckline, buttocks, thighs and arms. The yellow pigment in the self tanner may also tone down areas of redness such as sensitive skin, cellulite and stretch marks. Use a lotion with shimmer to highlight your shoulders or blend it over your shins, which will make the rest of the leg appear thinner.”
Melanie Mills, head make-up artist on Dancing with the Stars uses fake tan on contestants to strategically create contours for maximum visual slimming. “Start with a freshly self-tanned base, then go over areas, like the triceps line from elbow to shoulder, with a second coat to fake muscle tone.” She also suggests applying fake tan to the vertical contours on either side of the belly button to fake a toned tummy, or faking perfectly toned legs by layering self-tanner under the calf muscles, along the quadriceps’ indentations, and along the crescent below each butt cheek.
With its ability to wave the magic wand of youth, health, beauty and a more lithe figure, spray-tanning and self-tanning lets you have it both ways: you take care of both your health and your skin by avoiding actual sun exposure, but you still reap the cosmetic benefits such as looking slimmer, younger and healthier. The perfectly (fake) bronzed complexion is here to stay.