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A Short History of Tanning From Then to Now

Posted by Kendal Rudolph on
A Short History of Tanning From Then to Now

The year was…sometime in the early 2000s…let’s not age myself in the first sentence! Prom was right around the corner. As a first-time prom attendee, looking my best was top of mind. Secondly was having fun, of course! My date was a smoke show! Literally could’ve been voted the hottest guy of my graduating class. I wanted to make sure I looked my best beside him in all those pictures that would be printed in our yearbooks and imprinted in my memory for years to come. Every girl I knew was heading to the tanning beds every day after school. It was hard to get an appointment at a time that worked between when school got out, before whatever practice I had that day or even after practice before I had to get home for dinner. And heaven forbid if someone was late to their appointment, thus either screwing up everyone else’s schedule or causing a fuss because someone else jumped in and took their time slot! Does anyone else have memories like this? Obviously, I do, but I also remember when I realized how badly I screwed up going to those sunless tanning beds and when I discovered sunless tanning. Here’s a short history of tanning, from the sun to sunless, and how it has changed the course of what is popular over the years.

Pale WAS In

Throughout history, paler skin was linked to higher social status, signifying that a person didn't have to be outside, thus they didn’t succumb to the effects of the sun's rays from working or living outside. Those big hats (think Rose from Titanic, just not that year) and parasol umbrellas weren't only for show and style, but they were quite functional. Women also wore very modest clothing, mainly dresses, that covered a lot of their skin. If the dresses had short sleeves, gloves could accompany the ensemble. They probably had more to do with germs or something else but guess what! The gloves protected their skin whether they realized it or not. And let’s be honest, they probably didn’t realize it, nor was the sun as powerful then as it is today.

Sunless Tanning Then to Now

Tan Became Popular

When doing a history study of tanning, it seems that tan skin became popular by accident. The story is that Coco Chanel, a renowned French fashion designer, inadvertently popularized tanning. In the 1920s, Chanel's sunburn from her time on a yacht in the French Riviera turned into a tan which became a popular trend. Tanned skin became the symbol of wealth, leisure, and travel instead of pale skin! So long to those hats, big dresses and fancy gloves and hello to the flapper girl era with more skin showing than ever before!

Tanning Beds Linked to Skin Cancer

  • Sure, I was naive to think that I could just lay under some fake UV lights and not be absorbing harmful rays. I grew up in the era of my mom slathering sunscreen on me at the beach, but I didn’t link the actual sun’s harmful UV rays and “fake” UV rays. I had a lot to learn. We all did!
  • Believe it or not, indoor tanning wasn’t officially classified as a human carcinogen until 2009 by the International Agency for Research on Cancer of the World Health Organization (WHO). That wasn’t even 15 years ago! So there really was no warning for my friends and I hitting up the tanning bed, but we knew what the real sun was doing to us.

Sunless Tanning Is All The Rage

In the last 30 years, overall skin cancer incidences in the United States increased 300 percent. So, my mom was right about wearing sunscreen and the importance behind it. But if I couldn’t go to the tanning bed and I couldn’t be outside without sunscreen or dressing in clothes and hats from head to toe, how was I supposed to have a “glow” to my skin? Being pale was NOT in at this time.

You’ll be shocked to learn that sunless tanning products were available in the 1960s. They weren’t like what we use today though. This is where the stigma of having orange skin from these products came to life. And of course, with time, sunless products have come to be much better and even safer! Bye-bye orange skin, hello bronzed skin!

Now we can have a perfectly tan look without those harmful real or fake UV rays. We are better educated and the science behind all the products we use is better than ever before. And although we think a beautiful bronzed sunless tan is in right now, that is not to say that the skin you are in isn’t beautiful. We would never be the preacher, but one thing we will always encourage is skin protection no matter what! So no matter the color of your skin, always wear sunscreen and appropriate clothing when outdoors to protect from sunburn.

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