Sun 101: A history of tanning

·7-min read
From Coco Chanel to tanning beds to self-tanning mists, tanning dramatically evolved over the past century. (Photo: Getty Creative stock image)
From Coco Chanel to tanning beds to self-tanning mists, tanning dramatically evolved over the past century. (Photo: Getty Creative stock image)

Plug the word "tan" into Sephora's search engine and the beauty retail giant will spit out more than 200 results. Mists, mousses, mitts. Tanning drops, lotions, butters, serums, gels. Bronzing powders and tinted foundations, concealers and moisturizers.

We've come a long way from the layers of Coppertone — or a motley mixture of baby oil and iodine — the Boomer generation swathed themselves with as they soaked up the sun with reflective foil panels propped up on their chests. Tanaholics later turned to UV-blasting sun beds — adding accelerator lotions and cutesy heart stickers to create a tan line tattoo — before growing concern about the risk of skin cancer sent them chasing after sunless options. Today, the sunkissed look is largely achieved through spray tans, airbrush tans and at-home self-tanner potions that have steadily become more fool-proof and less prone to tell-tale streakiness.

But according to beauty historian Rachel Weingarten, the clamor for a tawnier complexion only dates back to the 20th century. Prior to that, "having the whitest skin possible was the ideal in many cultures," she tells Yahoo Life, noting that for centuries the elite — among them, Queen Elizabeth I and the French monarchy in their powdered wigs — would "aggressively" whiten their skin using ingredients ranging from nightingale droppings to toxic brews featuring arsenic or lead.

"The expression 'blue blood' [originated] because the implication was the upper classes were so pale because they didn't work in the sun, and you could see their veins through their skin," Weingarten notes, adding that tans were typically associated with poorer classes who did toil outdoors and were therefore exposed to the sun.

With industrialization and the rise of cities came a reimagining of working-class life as jobs moved indoors. Tastes in fashion also changed, moving away from the corseted, conservative norm to something freer and more natural. That's in a large part, Weingarten says, thanks to the post-World War I trailblazing of fashion designer Coco Chanel, who ushered in a sporty, sun-kissed aesthetic that equated being tan with being chic. It was Chanel's influence that led to the 1925 creation of a dark tanning gel that came to be known as Bain de Soléil (which translates to "sunbathing").

"She was the first one who said, 'to heck with this — let's be on the French Riviera. Let's take off our long sleeves. Let me get a tan. Let me look beautiful and healthy and bronzed,'" says the beauty historian.

Coco Chanel (right), on the beach in Saint Jean de Luz in 1917, made sunkissed skin fashionable. (Photo: Apic/Getty Images)
Coco Chanel (right), on the beach in Saint Jean de Luz in 1917, made sunkissed skin fashionable. (Photo: Apic/Getty Images)

World War II marked its own turning point because of the privation it entailed. Hemlines had been raised, but women no longer had access to silk for stockings; it was being used to make parachutes for the military. A creative workaround to create the illusion of stockings — and get color on the legs — was to dye them using the tannins from tea or the meat extract Bovril. A faux seam running down the leg could be added in a pinch with paint or a marker.

"That was a time when women started to look at their legs and said, 'Ooh, this looks good. I like how my leg looks with a little bit of color on it,'" Weingarten says.

It was around this time that Coppertone cropped up. Though the suncare brand is now more commonly associated with sunscreens, it originated in 1944 as pharmacist Benjamin Green's innovation to deepen tans. In 1953 the brand unveiled its most famous marketing campaign, in which a pigtailed little girl — aka Little Miss Coppertone — bares her tan lines as a puppy tugs at her bathing suit bottoms; in recent years the ad has been updated to be less revealing and to eliminate the tan lines in a nod to modern sun safety culture.

Coppertone was created in 1944 as a tanning lotion. (Photo: Robert Landau/Corbis via Getty Images)
Coppertone was created in 1944 as a tanning lotion. (Photo: Robert Landau/Corbis via Getty Images)

By the '50s and '60s, beach culture — think Gidget, the Beach Boys and Endless Summer — was in full swing, and sunbathing had become a national pastime. As screens shifted from black and white to color, movie stars showed off their own St. Tropez-worthy tans, making a glow all the more aspirational. So what if it meant coating yourself in baby oil and roasting in the backyard with a foil reflector?

Advancements during the late '70s and '80s — a period when the tanning trend "was on steroids," Weingarten says — made it even easier to get a glow, with or without the sun. Indoor tanning beds, the brainchild of German scientist Friedrich Wolff, were introduced to the United States in 1979 and were originally thought to be a safer alternative to traditional sunbathing because they emitted mostly UVA, rather than UVB, rays. In addition to sliding into the coffin-like chambers in pursuit of a "base tan," people sought out newly mainstream self-tanners, while a heavy-handed application of bronzing powders fit neatly into the '80s "more is more" beauty aesthetic.

As the '90s rolled into the '00s, indoor tanning beds — deemed "carcinogenic" by the World Health Organization in 2009, and now banned for minors by many U.S. states — were overtaken by the spray tan, delivered either as a bronzy blast in a Mystic Tan salon or a more intimate (and expensive) experience with an attendant armed with an airbrushing wand. While growing concerns about skin cancer and sun damage made sunless tanning the only prudent way forward, the appetite for a deep, dramatic tan didn't die down for perpetually bronzed Y2K celebrities like Paris Hilton and Jersey Shore's Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi. By the time the Kardashians — who, in fact, still maintain a stronghold on modern pop culture — popularized what Weingarten calls "aggressive" bronzing, contouring and highlighting, "looking fake was sort of the ideal," the beauty historian says.

Beauty tastes have changed over the years, with the "tanaholic" look giving way to a Twilight-approved pallor, and so on. One constant, however, has been a greater appreciation for skin health. For some, that means coating on the highest SPF cream possible and staying out of the sun. For others, it's meant leaning on new innovations — makeup and moisturizers with built-in SPF protection, tinted BB creams and countless sunless sprays, wipes and mists — to attain a golden glow without risking sun damage and compromising one's health.

For Jules Von Hep, having a (sunless) tan has been a boon for his self-confidence and mental health. After spending more than 15 years as a spray tanner for celebrity clients, the U.K.-based body-positivity advocate launched his own inclusive line of self-tanning products, Isle of Paradise. Von Hep hopes the brand's celebration of body acceptance and diversity will help customers experience their own "rush of confidence" and glow inside and out.

"Self-tanning is such an intimate experience, as you have to stare at yourself naked in the mirror in order to apply," he tells Yahoo Life. "For years I’d pick my appearance apart, criticizing how I looked as I applied my self-tan. Now, I dance naked in the bathroom with fun music while massaging Isle of Paradise into my skin, body wobbling like it’s my last day on earth. If I’m going to stare at myself naked in the mirror I want to feel like I'm having fun!"

As Gen Z turns to TikTok — where one recent beauty trend includes a faux sunburn achieved with blush — rather than the once-almighty print fashion magazines for style inspiration, Weingarten predicts that there's room for more variety in terms of what's considered fashionable in any given moment.

"I think we're going to see a lot of everything," she says. "With the globalization of beauty, with being able to see the different looks immediately, the trends no longer have staying power the way that they once did."

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