The History of Tanning: From Ancient to Modern Techniques

“From Ancient Methods to Modern Techniques: The Fascinating History of Tanning”

How and when did tanning become such a craze? Did Coco Chanel *really* start the trend? Was tanning popular in ancient history?

We reveal the answers to these questions and so much more!

Plus, we track the history of the tanning trend (and sunscreen & swimwear innovations) across the 20th century up until today.

Just keep reading to learn the fascinating history of the tan!

Ancient Civilizations And The Sun

Sun Worship

Many ancient civilizations worshiped sun gods and believed in the healing powers of the sun.

In Egypt, the Mithra religion worshiped the sun god Re. In Peru, the Inca ruler was treated as the incarnate sun.1

The Ancient Greeks worshiped the god of the sun, Apollo. 1 Both Herodotus and Antyllus advocated sun exposure to cure skin diseases. Romans followed the Greeks. 10

Pale Skin As a Status Symbol

Art work at Prince Rahotep’s tomb (circa 2550 BC) gives an insight into beauty standards during the Ancient Egyptian period. While his skin is depicted as a deep brown, his wife Nofret is presented with a light pale skin color.  2

Nofret is said to have used a combination of ingredients like myrrh and frankincense (tree resins) and yellow ochre to lighten her skin. 3

Pale skin was a symbol of purity and wealth in ancient Greece. Women applied white lead, ceruse, chalk, and plaster materials to paint their faces white.

Interestingly, there’s some evidence the ancient Egyptians and Greeks chemically altered lead in face paint to make it safe.

From the 8th century onwards, Japanese women applied lead and mercury powders to achieve the ‘white mask’ (o-shiroi) face. 4 Similar pressures to whiten your skin were present in China. 3

Fair skin was in vogue for large parts of European history. During Louis XIV’s reign in France (1638 – 1715), skin whitening products were popular to look fairer and to even out the skin tone. 5

Whitening powders contained mercury and lead-based ingredients, with wax, whale blubber, and vegetable oil mixed in. 5

French doctors eventually successfully lobbied the government to outlaw these toxic whitening ingredients by the beginning of the 18th century. 5

The Beginning of The Trend Shift in The Victorian Era

Victorians embraced the more natural look, wearing little-to-no visible makeup. Women kept their skin pale by avoiding contact with the sun, wearing hats, and carrying parasol umbrellas. 6 7

Manual laborers usually developed a suntan due to working all day outside. Meanwhile, the rich stayed pale – spending most of their time indoors. Pale skin was a symbol of the wealthy and powerful. It indicated that you could afford to spend your days indoors. 10

Tanned skin slowly became popular from the end of the Victorian era onwards. However, this was not reverted to sun worship from ancient history.

Instead, it was due to newfound freedoms, some of which involved exposing your body to the sun. 1 For example, spending time swimming at beaches became more popular among all class levels by 1900. 9

Recent History Of Tanning:

When Did The Tanning Craze Begin? Did Coco Chanel Start The Tan?

“From a chic note, sunburn became a trend, then an established fashion, and now the entire feminine world is sunburn conscious!”

 ‘Back to sunburn with the mode’ article in Vogue July 20, 1929 14

There is no clear date for when the tan trend began. It appears to have slowly increased in popularity from the late 1800s onwards.

Research by Segrave indicates the tan was slowly coming into style by the year 1908 and became a huge fad after WW1 and throughout the 1920s. 10

Multiple sources believe the tan first emerged in the 1920s. 10 11 You’ve probably heard that Coco Chanel started the tanning craze after coming back from vacation with a deep tan in 1923. 12

The first claims that Coco Chanel started the tanning trend in 1923 can be traced back to an article in Mademoiselle magazine, dated May 1971. 10

Although no source was cited in the article, and no concrete evidence suggests Coco started the trend, Chanel is still widely credited with the origin of the fashionable tan today.10

Segrave suggests Chanel was just following an existing emerging trend at the time. 10

While it’s certainly true that the tanning trend became huge in the twenties, (and Coco Chanel among others helped it become even more popular) it had been growing for some time decades beforehand.

Check out this video:

Why Did The Tan Become Popular From The 1900s – 1930s?

It did not take a big marketing campaign, or revolutionary product, to spur the tanning fashion trend. Around the time of the rise in suntan popularity, the general public learned about the positive impact of sunlight on treating tuberculosis and rickets. UV light therapy became popular for treating a number of diseases and illnesses in the following years.

When professionals eventually doubted the benefits of UV light therapy (and raised the alarm about the possibility of cancer), the media did not immediately pick up on their criticisms. 14

Important Discoveries in the 1800s

As discussed above, many ancient civilizations believed in the healing powers of the sun. Hippocrates, Galen, Celsus, and Herodotus all advocated sunlight as a treatment. 10

However, it wasn’t until the 1800s that the idea of the sun as a healer really began to spread in the medical community. 10

The belief that sunlight was good for your health grew in popularity in the final years of the 19th century, thanks to the development of phototherapy research in medicine.

Ultraviolet waves were discovered in the early 1800s, and research in 1888 linked sunlight to treating fungal and bacterial issues in vitro. 9

Want to know the secret to a perfect summer glow all year round? Read about the ‘best time of day to tan‘ and get tips on how to maximize your tanning results while keeping your skin protected.

Niels Finsen And Phototherapy

Niels Finsen was dubbed the father of modern phototherapy after reportedly treating tuberculosis with radiation therapy for the first time. He won the Nobel Prize for this work in 1903. 8

Finsen introduced the two most common methods of phototherapy. One involved a special type of glass that allowed for the transmission of the sun’s UV light to the skin. 9 As an alternative to sunlight, he created a special lamp that transmitted UV light. 9

Kellogg (yes, *that* Kellogg of breakfast cereal fame) invented an early version of a UV bulb sunbed, dubbed the “Incandescent Light Bath” in 1891. 13

The Supposed Benefits of Tanning Spread To The Public

The supposed benefits of sun exposure trickled out from the medical community to the general public via the media in the 1910s and 1920s.

Worry around the globe about the spread of tuberculosis intensified the popularity of phototherapy as a treatment. 10

Sunbaths (buildings designed for the purpose of maximizing exposure to UV sun rays) became popular across Europe, especially for children. 10

Sunbathing became such a fad business opened up their rooftops for customers to sunbathe. 11

This was driven primarily by public health recommendations, but also because tanning as a fashion trend was increasingly becoming popular. 11

 “For once the lords of fashion and learning agree, for doctors hail the present sun-tan fad as healthful. . ..”

The New York Times, Aug 11, 1929 11

A figure described as ‘Doctor Sun’ in Literary Digest (1918) described how the sunlight was used to treat wounded soldiers in the French military. 10

Some doctors were even quoted stating the sun can cure skin cancer!

“We almost dare say sun baths would cure every ill except erythema solar [sunburn]. We even know sunlight has cured skin cancer (epithelioma)”

Dr. William Brady, 1914 10

The media continued to quote medical professionals about the importance of sunlight exposure. The public well and truly received the message by the 1920s.

“That the rays of the sun can be used for curing many skin diseases and that the sun baths are advantages even to those who are in perfect health has long been well known to the general public” 

Scientific America, 1921 10

Scientific Monthly even published a piece warning that the curative powers of the sun need a base tan to work!

It seems that the curative effects [of the sun’s rays] do not come into play until the skin is well pigmented by exposure. No tan, no cure” 

Scientific Monthly, 1923 10

It was not just scientific publications writing about the power of sun tanning. Mainstream outlets like the New York Times also chimed in.

“Sun ray baths save baby” 

The New York Times, 1925 10

The Discovery of Tanning’s Harms

Paul Gerson Unna was one of the first dermatologists to associate exposure to the sun with precancerous changes in the skin.

Dermatologists Nevis Hyde (in 1906) and William Debroughill (in 1907) soon made this same connection. However, these discoveries didn’t get much traction outside the field of dermatology. The public did not receive the warning. 8

In 1930 UV radiation was finally recognized as a carcinogen. 8 The US Public Health Service warned about the dangers of sunbathing by the year 1932. 8

Although the public was alerted to the dangers of suntanning in the 1930s, because people believed tanned skin looks more attractive, the tan continued to increase in popularity. 8 However, demand for sun protection did increase following this revelation. 8

Marketing & The Media’s Influence

Although the dangers of tanning became apparent to the medical community in the early 1900s, medical professionals, the US government, and the media failed to transmit that message to the public until the 1930s.

Businesses Capitalize With Sunlamps

With the widespread belief in the sun’s healing powers and the huge increase in sunbathing, businesses capitalized on the new fad.

“As a substitute [for the sun] there are the ultra-violet ray lamps that have so cleverly decided to muffle their heat rays and give us only the rays that tan. In addition to these pleasantly modish toasting properties, actinic rays are said to stir up a sluggish skin and do all sorts of desirable things to one’s internal functions—reducing colds, stimulating glands, even improving the condition of such totally unexpected things as teeth”

‘The burning question of the summer’, Vogue, July 1, 1928 14

Many companies developed UV lamps for the purpose of tanning from home. 8

The first-ever advertisement for sunlamps was featured in Vogue magazine in the year 1923.1

The medical profession eventually criticized the widespread marketing of these lamps. 8

The American Medical Association later set clear guidelines for when phototherapy should be used: for the treatment of rickets, dermatological disorders, and tuberculosis. 8

Deception At Play? A Public And Private Position

Anecdotal evidence suggests some high-level players in the sun lamp market understood the supposed benefits of UV exposure were exaggerated before the general public did.

The engineer and director of General Electric’s sun lamp division, Matthew Luckiesh, took a private and public position on UV light. 11

He dismissed the hype surrounding the power of UV in private:

“. . .by charlatans or others who profit blandly or blindly in the twilight zone of knowledge.”

The New York Times, Jan 28, 1930 11

In public, he was extremely enthusiastic about the benefits of UV exposure:

“In the future. . .we shall sleep in beds shaped as covered wagons, and instead of pajamas we shall have ultra-violet light rays pouring down on us as we sleep, producing the effect of reposing on a sunlit meadow in a tropical land. The benefit to our health should be incalculable.”

The New York Times, Feb 11, 1931 11

Wondering if you can still get a tan with a lower UV index? Find out by reading ‘can you get tan with a UV index of 4‘ and get the tips you need for a safe and successful tanning experience.

Cosmetic Companies and Tanning

Cosmetics designed to mimic a tan came onto the scene in the late 1920s. 

“In the twentieth century, tanning became a cosmetic: even when caused by the sun, it generally involved any amount of ointments, and it can in practice be achieved through artificial rays as well as creams and pills”

Quote from academic Richard Dyer 15

In order to achieve a ‘natural tan’ look, women were encouraged to fake a glow with makeup. This messaging was reminiscent of the culture around white face powder centuries prior. In order to look “natural”, you needed to pile on the makeup. 15

Brands sold face powders designed to mimic a natural suntan (similar to a modern-day bronzer). 11 Unsurprising for such new and novel products, reviews were not impressed.

 “Even the new sunburn and sun-tan, the tints now sought at beauty counters, cannot compete with the healthy skin burnished by wind, salt air, and sun.”

The New York Times, Aug 19, 1928 11

The ‘Glory Of The Sun’ makeup powder promised the perfect tan. 15

Do you tan evenly – or do you burn, peel, freckle and curse? Do you lose your tan between outings and look moth-eaten? … Don’t be old fashioned – just rub on the marvellous new Glory of the Sun Powder – smooth it in – and have a perfect tan in two minutes. So natural – nobody guesses it came out of a box. 

Glory Of The Sun powder advertisement, Vogue 1929 15

Cosmetic companies also began to advertise products promising to accentuate an existing suntan.

“Now everyone, everywhere, by lake and sea, in mountains and in country, is seeking her place in the sun, toasting her skin to a delightful brown.”

 Pond’s advertisement, featured in Ladies’ Home Journal, 1929 11

The first commercial tanning oil was introduced in 1927. Jean Patou’s ‘Huile de Chaldee’ was marketed as a way to soften and tan without burning your skin. 19

Before L’Oreal was born, founder Eugene Schueller’s team developed a tanning product to provide a tan without burning in the 1920s.

This lotion became known as Ambre Solaire. It contained benzyl salicylate, which made it the first-ever tanning oil to filter UV. It was released onto the market in 1935. 18 19 

Tanning Imagery Even In Food Advertising!

A suntan was so heavily associated with health in the late 1920s, even food brands began to use tanning imagery in their advertisement copy!

“Beautiful sunbrowned bodies! Delicious sun-browned Wheatena! What pictures of health! The same natural rays of the sun that brown your skin—that pour health into your body—also give Wheatena its color and its wholesomeness.”

Advertisement for Wheatena cereal, Ladies’ Home Journal, 1929) 11

“Modern science has given new significance to a good coat of tan. For sunshine means health and vigor. . .Cocomalt contains Vitamin D. . .the sunlight vitamin.”

Advertisement for Cocomalt (chocolate drink), Ladies’ Home Journal 1929 11

Magazines Switch From Bleach To Tan

Popular women’s magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar waited until the tan became an established fashion (in the late 1920s) to promote tanning to their readers. 14

“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.”

Shall We Gild the Lily? There Is a Technique to a Good Tan—Whether by Fair Means or Fake!, Harper’s Bazaar article, 1929 14

Just a few years prior (in the early 1920s) these same publications encouraged skin lightening and even bleaching! Endorsements for skin bleaching significantly dropped right as the flapper era fell out of fashion. 14

Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar drastically increased the number of advertisements and articles encouraging sun-seeking in the late 1920s. The products reviewed and promoted included tanning lotions, tan-colored stockings, and bronzing powders. 14

They also published tips for preventing skin burns and advised on what to wear both while tanning and for flaunting your tan after sunbathing. 14

Attempts To Make The Tan A High-Class Symbol

As a high-end fashion magazine, Vogue (issue published 20th July 1929) attempted to differentiate between a higher class cosmopolitan tan and the tan of the everyday woman. 15 Vogue presented a set of expensive and time-consuming tanning rules in order to separate the high-class tan from the lower classes.

These rules included: avoiding tan lines (they indicated you did not have time to get a proper tan), not wearing pearls to the beach (the white marks on the chest looked cheap), and also maintaining a tan even in the wintertime (possibly by taking expensive vacations abroad). 15 

The Media’s Influence

One study tracked data on the tanning levels of models in Australian magazines between 1987 and 2002. The researchers then analyzed survey data (related to the area of tanning) conducted on women during the same time period. 16

Among young women, a higher rate of exposure to tanned models in magazines correlated with an increased likelihood to endorse tanning.

Results were slightly different when considering women of all ages. Exposure to magazines with tanned models increased women of all ages’ likelihood of trying to get a tan but did not increase their likelihood to endorse pro-tanning beliefs. 16

Given these results, it should not come as a shock that the popularity of the tan continued to grow after Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar‘s endorsements in the late 1920s.

Timeline 1900s – 2010s

1900s: The Tan Slowly Creeps Into Fashion

As explained above, the tan slowly came into fashion from the late 1800s onwards and was quite popular by 1908. However, pale skin was still highly desirable for a huge chunk of people this decade. A lot of people were baffled by the emerging tanning trend. 9

“[N]owadays the average summer girl, in order to acquire a coat of tan,
makes efforts that horrify those persons who still
think that a young lady’s complexion should differ
from that of a member of the varsity crew.”

Hygiene for the sea-side’. Harper’s Bazaar. 1900 9

Staying Fair Took Work

In addition to wearing clothes and accessories to shield their skin from the sun, women also used an early form of sunscreen in the early 1900s. Homemade sun protection lotions were made from a combination of white petrolatum (or almond oil), mixed with zinc oxide, bismuth, and chalky magnesia. 8

Brands began to create their own sun protection creams. Pond’s Vanishing Cream advertising campaign in 1912 stressed the importance of this cream to keep your complexion looking healthy. 9

When skin did become tan, people used treatment to reduce sunburn and even used bleach to try to lighten their skin.

One sunburn healing formula listed in Harper’s Bazaar (1910) included ingredients like cucumber, strawberries, lanolin, almond oil, white wax, and speraceti. 9

Some of the harmful ingredients used to bleach the skin included mercury bichloride, arsenic, and caustic potash. Others used lactic acid and glycerine with rose water, iodine, lemon (or cucumber) juice, hydrogen peroxide, and buttermilk baths. 9

“I like a tomato for tan [removal]… Whenever I can I get a big ripe tomato and I rub it on my face. It takes off the tan…”

Los Angeles Times, January 27, 1907 10

The Medical Community and Media Inspire The Tan

As the rhetoric from the late 1800s medical establishment made its way into the media, the general public increasingly believed in the healing power of the sun. This triggered the shift in trend from fair skin to tanned skin. 10

Some of the first observations linking sunlight exposure to cancer happened in 1906 and 1907. However, these discoveries received very little attention outside of the medical profession. Sun tan became more and more popular in the years leading up to 1910.

“Women of both the older and younger sets are already having some marvellous creations in bathing suits made for the season at Bailey’s Beach. They are to be more beautiful than ever in view of the newest fad of sun baths on the beach, which are to be indulged in more generally next Summer than ever before in Newport. These beach baths in the sun are supposed to be wonderful reliefs for rheumatism and such afflictions.”

Article in The New York Times discusses the coming summer in Rhode Island, May 1908 10

1910s: Entrepreneurs Jump On The Tanning Trend

The lead-based powders that hail from ancient Rome were still somewhat common up until the twenties.1 However, the popularity of sun tan continued to grow and grow during this decade.

Entrepreneurs began to notice the gap in the market. The Los Angeles Times (1912) discussed multiple patents filed for products that could create a permanent tan.  10

From 1915 onwards, film director and producer Mack Sennett featured groups of women in scantily clad swimwear in his productions. This group later became known as ‘The Bathing Beauties’.38

They immediately captured the public’s attention because their bathing suits reached above the knee.  In response, bathing beauty competitions took place across the US.

The first one took place in Venice in the year 1915, and audiences reached 200,000 people within just a few years. 3

1920s: Media & Celebrities Boost The Tan’s Popularity

The fair skin look was still somewhat popular at the beginning of this decade, especially in the flapper community. Beauty products designed to conceal or lighten a tan were still making sales in the early 1920s.

However, they were increasingly going out of style this decade. One of the most popular was Bleachine Cream by Elizabeth Arden. 1 14

As previously explored, in the 1920s, fashion magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar slowly phased out their content encouraging skin lightening, in favor of tanning.

A 1927 commercial for Jantzen swimwear depicted models shielded from the sun with hats, parasols, and shawls. By 1929, a similar advertisement featured women with their skin exposed to the sun, no longer guarded by those shields to prevent tanning. 14

Celebrities Influenced The Growing Popularity of The Tan

As explained above, there is little concrete evidence that proves Chanel started the tanning trend. However, she and other celebrities certainly helped it grow throughout the 1920s.

Coco Chanel, Betty Grable, and Rita Hayworth all had a hand in increasing the popularity of tanning thanks to the spread of photographs taken of these women in bikinis with deep tans. 17 

Women across America and Europe were inspired by Josephine Baker’s caramel skin, the famous African American flapper girl. 20

“The 1929 girl must be tanned. A golden tan is the index of chic.”

Coco Chanel, quoted in Vogue, Jun 22, 1929

However, not all celebrities were on board with the tan. In 1929, world-famous makeup artist Helena Rubinstein was quoted saying “Sunburn [suntan] menaces your beauty.” 17

The Sunbathing Trend Influences Fashion

Recreational sunbathing was all the rage in the late 1920s, so much so that one magazine (Collier’s 1933) described it as “ultra-violet insanity.” 11

The belief in the healing powers of the sun influenced fashion in the 1920s. Public health advocates recommend thin, loose, porous clothes to better expose the skin to UV light. A director at the English National Institute for Medical Research stated that people wore too much clothing, and recommended low-neck dresses and silk stockings.  11

Fashion and makeup brands responded to the suntan and sunbathing trend with new products. Swimming costume trends shifted from a covered, more conservative look in the 1910s, to the more revealing one-piece in the 1920s, making it easier to get a tan. 12

Cosmetic Tanning Products

As discussed above, cosmetic companies capitalized on the growing tanning market with products to both fake a tan or enhance a tan introduced during this decade. These included bronzing face powders, tanning oils, and tanning lotions.

Ready to ramp up your outdoor tanning game? Read ‘how to tan faster and darker outside at home‘ and discover tips and tricks for a faster and deeper tan without leaving your backyard.

1930s: Awareness Of The Dangers & A Demand For Sun Protection

As explained above, the public learned about the dangers of sun tanning in the 1930s. UV radiation was recognized as a carcinogen for the first time in 1930, and the US Public Health Service encouraged people to refrain from tanning. 23 8

“Dermatologists are frankly concerned about the possible after-effects of all this ill-regulated sun exposure. They point out that not only is excessive sun very drying and aging to the skin but that it may bring on serious skin conditions later in life.”

Woman’s Home Companion magazine, 1937 23

Once the public learned about the potential dangers of sun exposure, demand for sun protection increased. 8

While the first chemical sunscreen was made from titanium oxide or zinc oxide, the first commercial chemical sunscreen used benzyl salicylate and benzyl cinnamate instead. 8

One of the earliest versions of sunscreen was introduced in 1938 by Franz Greiter, inspired by sunburn while climbing ‘Piz Buin’. 24

The FDA decided to recommend labeling because, with so many new sunscreens on the market, the difference in efficiency was hugely in doubt. 8

Despite The Risks, Tanning Grew In Popularity

Although the public was alerted to the dangers of suntanning in the 1930s, because people believed tanned skin looks more attractive, tanning did not go out of fashion. 8

Tanning grew in popularity in the 1930s, and across the Western world in general. 24

A suntan was a fashion accessory, and the desired color was hotly debated. An individual quoted in Collier’s magazine 1933 said: “it’s handsome to be very brown with a light evening gown,” while another advised, “that dark tan is simply ghastly—the thing to do is to turn a gleaming gold.” 11

Innovations In Swimwear To Reflect The Desire For A Tan

Swimwear adapted to the new fad. Bathing suits became smaller and smaller.

Men now just wore shorts at the beach. 

While swimsuits in the 1910s and 20s had ‘portholes’, designs became slightly more waist-revealing in the 1930s with the two-piece set. 21

Clothing necklines became square to accommodate tanning. This square neck was known as the “suntan neckline”. 11

For some great tan-through swimwear, check out this video:

1940s: ‘Tanning’ With Gravy & Tea Bags During The War!

“Extensive sunning also produces scaly, wrinkled skin and a predisposition to skin cancer.”

Life magazine, 1941 23

Warnings about the dangers of tanning increased in the media, but it did not impact the trend heavily.

The present vogue of excessive sunbathing is not so healthy a practice as its devotees are want to think. For some years, [Consumers’ Research Bulletin] has warned that too much ultraviolet from the sun may be a predisposing cause of cancer. Even popular magazines and newspapers are beginning to discuss the dangers of too much sunshine. Women are discovering too, from sad experience, that acquiring a heavy coat of tan, year in and year out, robs the skin of its natural oils and leaves the tissues dry, roughened, coarsened, and a fertile field, as it were, for lines and wrinkles.”

Consumers’ Research Bulletin in 1949 23

Innovations in Suncream and Rations Lead To Creative Solutions

Consumers demanded better sun protection following the heavy warnings about sun exposure in the press.

Coppertone, a red jelly-like sunblock, was invented by Benjamin Green in the US in the 1940s. 25 It was quite sticky and hard to use initially, but Coppertone later updated its formula to make it user-friendly. 25

PABA was introduced as an ingredient in sunscreen in 1943. 27

To save money during the war, some women used tea bags or gravy granules on their legs to achieve a tanned appearance. 26

The Bikini Is Invented in 1946

The bikini was invented in 1946 by Jacques Heim and Louis Reard, making it easier to tan all over. 21 1

The bikini was deemed scandalous because of all the flesh it leaves on display, especially because it exposes the navel. 21 Not only was it too revealing for the general public, a lot of models also refused to wear it!

Dancer Micheline Bernardini was happy to model the bikini, and this helped slowly increase its acceptance. 21

1950s: More Health Warnings & DHA Self Tanners

From the 1950s onwards, more and more disclaimers and warnings about the potential risks of tanning (mostly cancer and photoaging) were cited in articles. 23

Again, this prompted an even greater demand for effective sun protection.

“There are sunscreen preparations that can cut the intensity of the sun’s rays by 75 percent.”

Harper’s Bazaar, 1954 27

The First DHA Lotion Released On The Market

Compared to the first releases in the 1920s, artificial tanning products improved greatly in the 1950s.

Man-Tan, the first known self-tanner with DHA, was brought to market in 1959. 10 It was not perfect – it, unfortunately, generated orange, as well as beige and brown, results.  27

The dihydroxyacetone (DHA) made it possible for a tan to develop on the skin over time, rather than producing a mere makeup stain. 10

1960s: Creative Methods & Tan-Through Fabric Swimwear

A darker tan came into vogue in the 1960s. 27 Women tried new and creative methods to get the perfect, even, dark tan.

In 1964, Mademoiselle magazine described how to get the perfect tan with the ‘rotisserie method’. This involved changing your sunbathing position regularly to get an even tan all over your body.

Other strategies at the time included mixing baby oil and iodine all over your skin or rubbing salt all over your skin. 29

The SPF concept to rate the effectiveness of sunscreens originated in the 1960s by Franz Greiter. 25

Tan-Through Fabric Swimwear and Increased Bikini Acceptance

 It took until the 1960s for the bikini to gain a noticeable level of social acceptance, thanks to the change in social attitudes within the society at the time. 21

Tan-though fabric swimwear was invented in 1969. This fabric contained 1000s of tiny holes that allowed one-third of UV sun rays to transmit through the fabric (about SPF 3). 28

1970s: Tanning Beds Emerge & ‘Malibu’ Barbie Is Released

In the 1970s, it was popular to lather up with Johnson’s Baby Oil to tan in the sun. 27

The indoor tanning industry emerged in the US for the first time in 1978 – making it possible to get a real tan, even if you lived in a colder climate. 27 10

Sunscreen Regulations

There was a lot of uncertainty amongst the FDA when it came to the safety of sunscreens in the 1970s. Initially, they were treated as over-the-counter-only drugs. The FDA required more labeling for reassurance.

In 1978, they reassured that sunscreens are safe and effective to protect the skin from burning, prevent cancer, and prevent premature aging of the skin. 27

Malibu Barbie: A Symbol Of The Tanning Era

Barbie’s makeover in 1971 into ‘Malibu Barbie’ further solidified the cultural obsession with tanned skin. Malibu Barbie even had tan lines!

Another doll company, ‘The Ideal Toy Company’, developed the ‘Suntan Tuesday Taylor’, a doll that developed a tanned color in the sun. 29

The Tanga Bikini Cut Emerges In Brazil

Both bikini and one-piece bathing suits were popular in the 1970s. The ‘Tanga’ emerged in Brazil in 1974, inspiring the thong, leading to smaller and smaller bathing clothing. 27

1980s: Public Safety Campaigns & Greater SPF In Tanning Products

The highest rate of skin cancer in the world occurs in Australia. In the 1980s, a public health campaign in both advertising and public schools was launched to encourage safety in the sun. 30

“Slip on a shirt! Slop on a sunscreen! Slap on a hat!”

Australian Public Health Campaign, 1980s 30

 Researchers later analyzed the effectiveness of these campaigns, with a particular focus on six popular fashion magazines in Australia. They found models in fashion magazines increasingly sported a light tan over time. Fewer darker-tanned models were featured in the magazines compared to 10 years prior. More models also wore hats following the public health campaigns. 31

SPF Levels Greatly Increased

The American Academy of Dermatology pushed the importance of sun protection during this decade.

Sunblock corporations upped their SPF levels in the mid-1980s. 27

However, a lot of the damage was already done. The US faced a 500% increase in malignant melanoma cases in 1985 compared with the 1950s. Research at the time revealed 96% of Americans were aware of the sun exposure to skin cancer risk. One-third of the 96% told the researchers they still deliberately tan despite knowing the risks. 27

Tanning with Sunscreen: The Healthy Deep Tan

Tanning lotions pre-1980s produced a deep dark tan. They contained only small amounts of sunscreen and many featured ingredients like cocoa butter and baby oil. 29

In response to greater concern from Government bodies and the public in general, marketing tactics needed to change.

Tanning lotion brands began to emphasize sun protection in their products. The focus was now on a healthy deep tan.  Sunscreen purchases ballooned in the mid-80s compared to the early 70s: by 70%! 29

A ‘Safe’ UVA-Only Tan?

In the late 1980s, the tanning industry pushed the idea of a ‘UVA only tan’ as a safe alternative to the damage of the UVA and UVB ray combination. Indoor tanning salons developed UVA-only beds. However, little research supported the assertion that UVA-only beds were safe. 29

1990s: Some Backlash Against The Trend, The Start Of Spray Tans

The worries about tanning safety escalated in the 1990s. The American Academy of Dermatology came out strong – stating there was “no safe way to tan”. 27

Sunbed use was increasingly criticized by the medical community in the late 1980s and early 1990s. 29

Lighter Tans and Deviation From The Trend?

It’s possible that this panic trickled into the fashion industry. Between 1983 and 1993 models in magazines increasingly sported lighter tans and more and more wore hats. 29

Some top fashion designers even came out against the tanning phenomenon!

“The tanned look is dead”

Fashion Designer Eileen Ford 27

Better SPF Protection and The Beginning Of The Spray Tan

UVB and UVA sunscreen protection greatly improved in the 1990s as a result of this new panic. 27

Fantasy tan released the first-ever spray tan machine in 1997. 32

The 1980s and 1990s fermented artificial tanning products and tanning beds in the US market. 10

tanning bed

Take a look at this video commercial:

2000s: Tanning Still More Attractive, But ‘Twilight’ Boosts The Pale Look

Tanning was, of course, still a dominant part of western culture in the 2000s. However, there are some signs that the tanning mania of the recent past has slowed to some extent in the past 20 years.

Suddenly the pale look was all over the silver screen this decade, with vampire series like Twilight and period dramas such as Downton Abbey influencing trends. 33

Lighter Tans and Sun Safety in Magazines

One study examined the tan levels of models in a sample of In Style and Seventeen magazine published in the year 2009. Most of the models posing in both publications in the sample did not have any tan at all, or just had a light tan. 35

Cosmopolitan released a ‘practice SafeSun’ campaign in 2006, heavily emphasizing the importance of checking your skin for any potential cancer risks. 33

A Tan Is Still Perceived As Attractive

In spite of the changes above, the preference for a tan increased in the noughties. The obsession with pasty vampire Edward Cullen aside, people still seemed to prefer the tanned look.

In 1988, 58% percent of survey respondents said they thought people looked better tanned. In 2007 81% of the same age and sex profile from 1988 said people are more attractive with a tan. 36

2010s: An Increase In Self Tanning & A Reduction In Sunbed Use

The popularity of self-tanning products is increasing year on year, in part because of innovations (in ingredients, and with new products like tanning waters, and anti-aging tan drops) and also a fusion between tanning and skincare. 39

The self-tanner market grew by 26.6% between 2011 and 2016 in the US, in part thanks to taxes and regulations on tanning salons.39

tanned girl posing

St. Tropez’s in-shower tanning lotion sold out a year’s worth of stock in just one day in 2015. 39

Survey data indicates indoor tanning by adults reduced from 5.5% in 2010 to 3.5% in the year 2015.

For women, the rates reduced from 8.6% to 5.2%, and for men 2.2% to 1.6% during the same period. Rates among white women (18 – 21) indoor tanning rates fell from 31.8% to 20.4%. 34

Loving The Skin You’re In

The now famous Dove “Campaign for Real Beauty” advertising campaign was launched in 2004. 37 Women of all shapes, sizes, and colors were featured in the campaign, and many of the Caucasian women had fair untanned skin.

While it was quite revolutionary at the time, many other brands soon followed suit.

The 2010s ushered in the era of ‘love your body’ advertising. Brands emphasize body positivity and self-acceptance more than ever in their advertising campaigns. 40

The impact this marketing strategy has on the tanning industry remains (if any) to be seen. 40 Hopefully, quantitative research can shed a light on this topic soon.

pretty tanned lady at the beach


1. Randle HW. Suntanning: Differences in Perceptions Throughout History. Mayo Clinic Proceedings. 1997;72:461–6.

2. Eaverly MA. Tan Men/Pale Women: Color and Gender in Archaic Greece and Egypt, a Comparative Approach [Internet]. Google Books. University of Michigan Press; 2013 [cited 2023 Jan 27]. Available from:

3. Tanning [Internet]. The Skin Cancer Foundation. [cited 2023 Jan 27]. Available from:

4. Vigarello G, Azoulay E. 100 000 Years of Beauty: Classical age – confrontations [Internet]. Google Books. Gallimard; 2009 [cited 2023 Jan 27]. Available from:

5.  ‘The colour of rank’ by Lanoe, in ‘100,000 Years of Beauty’ by Azoulay et al.

6.  ‘The love of artifice’ by Hyde, in ‘100,000 Years of Beauty’ by Azoulay et al. 

7. ’The Victorian ideal’ by Holt, in ‘100,000 Years of Beauty’ by Azoulay et al. 

8. Bolanca Z, Bolanca I, Buljan M, Blajić I, Penavić Zeljko J, Situm M. Trends, habits and attitudes towards suntanning. Collegium Antropologicum [Internet]. 2008 [cited 2023 Jan 27];32 Suppl 2:143–6. Available from:

9 Albert MR, Ostheimer KG. The evolution of current medical and popular attitudes toward ultraviolet light exposure: Part 1. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 2002;47:930–7.

10. Segrave K. Suntanning in 20th Century America [Internet]. Google Books. McFarland; 2005 [cited 2023 Jan 27]. Available from:

11. Albert MR, Ostheimer KG. The evolution of current medical and popular attitudes toward ultraviolet light exposure: Part 2. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 2003;48:909–18.

12.  ‘Bright Young Things: Life in the Roaring Twenties‘ By Alison Maloney

13. ‘The True History of Sunbathing’ by Mighall

14. ‘Changes In Skin Tanning Attitudes: Fashion Articles and Advertisements in the Early 20th Century‘ by J. M. Martin et. al 

15. ‘The Riviera’s Golden Boy: Fitzgerald, Cosmopolitan Tanning, and Racial Commodities in Tender Is the Night’ by Keller

16. ‘Does the portrayal of tanning in Australian women’s magazines relate to real women’s tanning beliefs and behavior?’ by Dixon et al.

17. ‘The Blue Man and Other Stories of the Skin’ by Norman

18. ‘Branded Beauty: How Marketing Changed the Way We Look‘ By Mark Tungate

19. ‘Universal exposure to the sun’ by Andrieu, in ‘100,000 Years of Beauty’ by Azoulay et al. 

20. ‘Art Deco of the Palm Beaches’ by Koskoff

21. ‘The Swimsuit: Fashion from Poolside to Catwalk’ by Schmidt

22. ‘Suntanning: differences in perceptions throughout history’ by Randle

23. ‘The evolution of current medical and popular attitudes toward ultraviolet light exposure: part 3’ by Albert et al. 

24. ‘Melanoma’ by Abraham and Sharfman

25.’Introduction to Cosmetic Formulation and Technology’ by Baki and Alexander

26. ‘Face Paint: The Story of Makeup’ by Eldridge 

27. ‘The Blue Man and Other Stories of the Skin’ by Norman

28. ‘Tan-Through Fabric Lets Sun Shine In’ by Taylor (New York Times, 1969)

29. ‘Shedding Light on Indoor Tanning’ by Heckman and Manne

30. ‘Slip! Slop! Slap! Health education in skin cancer’ by Rassaby et al.

31. ‘Trends in tans and skin protection in Australian fashion magazines’ by Chapman et al.

32. ‘Fantasy Tan About Us’

33. ‘From Elizabeth Bennet to Barbie’ by Fitzpatrick 

34. ‘Trends in indoor tanning and its association with sunburn among US adults’ by Guy Jr. et al. 

35. ‘Tanning and Sun-Protection Portrayal in Magazine Images’ by Gamble et al. 

36. ‘Indoor tanning knowledge, attitudes, and behavior among young adults from 1988-2007’ by Robinson et al.

37. ‘Are Portrayals of Female Beauty In Advertising Finally Changing?’ by Pounders

38. ‘Seal Beach: A Brief History’ by Strawther

39. ‘Self Tanning Goes Upscale’ by Berezhna

40. ‘Awaken your incredible’: Love your body discourses and postfeminist contradictions.’ Gill and Elias

About Martina Todorovska

Martina is a graduated Doctor of Dental Medicine with a huge obsession for anything beauty-related. Her freelance writing started out as a creative outlet and turned out to be a full-time job. If you have any beauty questions, the chances are Martina has the answers. READ HER LATEST ARTICLES . Follow her on LINKEDIN , INSTAGRAM. Learn more about her HERE.

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