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From Sunlight to Sunless Tanners: the History of Our Obsession With Getting Tan

How women traded their parasols and gloves for bikinis and baby oil.
Photo: Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

Photo: Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

Welcome to Fashion History Lesson, in which we dive deep into the origin and evolution of the fashion industry's most influential and omnipresent businesses, icons, trends and more. 

Along with tweed suits and little black dresses, the practice of tanning is one of many things that have commonly been attributed to Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel. The widely accepted tale goes something like this: Chanel was photographed in the French Riviera sporting a suntan in 1923, and voila! Bronzed skin became the desired look from then on. But can one woman really be responsible for how billions of people continue to alter their complexions each year?

Of course, the color of "tanned skin" is completely relative, and it's certainly not a universally accepted beauty ideal. While many light-skinned people living in Europe, North America and parts of South America may strive for a deep golden glow, some people in other parts of the world including Asia, India and the Middle East desire paler or pinker skin tones, sometimes using products to lighten their natural hue. There are also plenty of people who are happy to embrace their natural skin pigmentation, regardless of what's deemed attractive in their respective culture.

Though it's not universally desired, it's impossible to deny that tanning has become a huge part of Western ideas of beauty — and sunless tanning a hugely profitable industry. But before you head out for your next tanning session, consider the historical, social and psychological factors that may have influenced your decision to reach for the sunscreen, or not.


Throughout history, paler skin was linked to higher social status, signifying that a person didn't have to endure the effects of the sun's rays from labor or outdoor living. Until the early 1900s, it was standard practice for wealthy European and American women to shield themselves with parasols, hats and gloves.

In 1903, a physician named Niels Finsen was awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine for his invention of "light therapy," which utilized sunlight to combat diseases such as rickets and tuberculosis. Soon, more people were willing to subject their skin to the sun's rays for health purposes, although visibly tanned skin was still in opposition to the beauty standards promoted by Western media into the early 1920s. When covers and creams were not enough to avoid the adverse effects of sunlight, women turned to products like Elizabeth Arden’s Après L'Été, a skin bleacher intended to "banish tan, freckles, and other summer blemishes," as they were often referred to at the time. [1]




The change in attitude towards sunbathing is closely related to a sartorial shift towards shorter hemlines and less restrictive corsets, as well as the embrace of pleasurable activities such as smoking, drinking and dancing. Like the rebellious nature of flappers, suntans were another way for people to flaunt newfound freedoms after shedding the conservative ways of the Victorian era.

It's said that French beachside resorts first started to remain open throughout the summer (typically their off-season) in 1923, which led to the advent of sunbathing as a pastime for the rich and stylish. Chanel is one of many who began flaunting sun-kissed skin around this time. [4]

Tanning as an industry

In 1929, Vogue declared that the "sunburn movement" had led to the rise of a whole new industry, including swimsuits, cosmetics and clothing made entirely for the purpose of acquiring or showing off one's hard-earned honey hue. [3]

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Fashion designer Jean Patou introduced Huile de Chaldée, the first tanning oil, in 1928. This was followed by the first UV-filtering tanning oil, L'Oréal's Ambre Solaire, in 1935. [5] Coppertone sunblock was invented in the 1940s, but the product truly took off in 1956 thanks to the popularity of the bun-baring Coppertone Girl ad campaign. People were certainly aware of the benefits of UV-blocking products, but that didn't stop millions of people from slathering on baby oil or olive oil to attract maximum rays.

Obtaining an all-over tan was made easier after the bikini was introduced in July of 1946 (happy 70th anniversary!). A deep cinnamon hue became even more desirable when Ursula Andress sported a tan-enhancing white bikini in the 1962 Bond film "Dr. No." Barbie received her "Malibu" makeover in 1971, complete with bleach-blond hair and a significantly darker skin tone, introducing younger girls to the allure of a tan. The first modern indoor tanning bed was introduced in the U.S. in 1978. While paler skin had once been the mark of privilege, tanned skin now signified that you had the time and money to leisurely darken your complexion.




The first sunless tanning products were essentially all-over makeup, such as Glory of the Sun, which promised to give the consumer a perfect tan "out of the box" in 1929. [2] In the 1950s, a medical researcher named Eva Wittgenstein noticed that a medicine she had been testing stained patients' skin, but not their clothes. She discovered that one of the ingredients, dihydroxyacetone (DHA), could safely brown the outer layers of the epidermis. That compound would be used in most sunless tanning products, including Man-Tan, Sudden Tan and Coppertone's Quick Tan (aka QT). Since their inception, manufacturers have continuously tried to reformulate their sunless tanning products to create more natural-looking colors, as well as limiting the dreaded splotches and unpleasant odors.

Then came spray tans. Mystic Tan, the first mainstream version, was introduced in 1998 and provided a glow simply by standing in an automated machine that sprayed users from all angles. This method improved in 2003, when Jimmy Coco created the world's first mobile spray tanning kit, ushering in the era of celebrity spray tans that continue to be seen on red carpets today.

A Guilty Pleasure

Photo: Rick Diamond/Getty Images

Photo: Rick Diamond/Getty Images

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, 90 percent of all skin cancers are associated with exposure to the sun's UV radiation, which is also linked to up to 90 percent of aging indicators, such as wrinkles and brown spots. And the crazy thing is, we've known this for decades. Almost as soon as the media first mentioned that tanning was in style, it was warning readers of the permanent skin damage that could result.

On a less serious note, there are also aesthetic dangers to tanning. People are quick to ridicule celebrities who overdo it, perhaps best represented by the Oompa Loompa complexions of the cast of "The Jersey Shore" or the infamous Tan Mom. The leathery-skin epidemic gave birth to the term "Tanorexic" to describe people who are obsessed with tanning to a level that is deemed repulsive by others. [See also: Donald Trump.]


Why do so many people continue to damage their skin intentionally when they know how dangerous sun exposure is? As numerous research studies have found, people often unconsciously respond to warnings about the danger of a practice by seeking comfort in the behavior that has the potential to harm them. Sounds crazy, but if you've ever smoked a cigarette or had a night of heavy binge drinking, you probably know how easy it is to indulge in something that could have detrimental affects on your health, especially if it's something that is deemed socially acceptable (and desirable/fun).

Although fashion magazines often try to encourage better sun protection, the desire for a dark tan shows no signs of diminishing. We're not here to preach, but if you need some sunscreen recommendations, we're here to help.

Sources not linked:
[1] "Advertisement: Elizabeth Arden." Vogue. October 1, 1922.
[2] "Advertisement: Glory of the Sun." Vogue. June 22, 1929.
[3] "Back to Sunburn with the Mode." Vogue. July 20, 1929.
[4] Chaney, Lisa. Coco Chanel: An Intimate Life. New York: Penguin, 2011.
[5] Jones, Geoffrey. Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

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