A History of Tanning

A History of Tanning

Sun tanning or simply tanning is the process whereby skin color is darkened or tanned. The process is most often a result of exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or from artificial sources, such as a tanning bed, but can also be a result ofwindburn or reflected light. Many people deliberately tan their skin by exposure to the sun, called sun bathing, or by the use of artificial tanning methods. Some people use chemical products which can produce a tanning result without exposure to ultraviolet radiation. Casual exposure to the sun has moderate beneficial impact, including the production of vitamin D by the body; but excessive exposure to ultraviolet rays has detrimental health effects, including possible sunburn and even skin cancer as well as depressed immune system function and increased risk of accelerated aging. To avoid sunburn, most people apply suitablesunscreen to skin exposed to the sun, but others use oils to accelerate the tanning process.

Some people tan or sunburn more easily than others. This may be the result of different skin types and natural skin color, and these may be as a result of genetics.

The term “tanning” has a cultural origin, arising from the color tan. Its origin lays in the Western culture of Europe when it became fashionable for young white ladies to seek a less pale complexion (see Cultural history below).


The tanning process

Melanin is produced by cells called melanocytes in a process called melanogenesis. Melanocytes produce two types of melanin: pheomelanin (red) and eumelanin (very dark brown). Melanin protects the body by absorbing solar radiation. Excessive solar radiation causes direct and indirect DNA damage to the skin and the body naturally combats and seeks to repair the damage and protect the skin by creating and releasing further melanin into the skin’s cells. With the production of the melanin, the skin color darkens, but can also cause sunburn. The tanning process can also be created by artificial UV radiation.

There are two different mechanisms involved. Firstly, the UVA-radiation creates oxidative stress, which in turn oxidises existing melanin and leads to rapid darkening of the melanin. Secondly, there is an increase in production of melanin (melanogenesis),[1] which is the body’s reaction to photodamage from UV radiation.[2]Melanogenesis leads to delayed tanning and first becomes visible about 72 hours after exposure.[1] The tan that is created by an increased melanogenesis lasts much longer than the one that is caused by oxidation of existing melanin.

The ultraviolet frequencies responsible for tanning are often divided into the UVA and UVB ranges:


Ultraviolet A (UVA) radiation is in the wavelength range 320 to 400 nm. It is present more uniformly throughout the day, and throughout the year, than UVB. UVA causes the release of existing melanin from the melanocytes to combine with oxygen (oxidize) to create the actual tan color in the skin. It is blocked less than UVB by many sunscreens but is blocked to some degree by clothing.


Ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation is in the wavelength range 280 to 320 nm. UVB:

  • triggers the formation of CPD-DNA damage (direct DNA damage) which in turn induces an increased melanin production[2]
  • is more likely to cause a sunburn than UVA as a result of overexposure. The mechanism for sunburn and increased melanogenesis is identical.[3] Both are caused by the direct DNA damage (formation of CPDs)
  • produces Vitamin D in human skin
  • reduced by virtually all sunscreens in accordance with their SPF
  • is thought, but not proven, to cause the formation of moles and some types of skin cancer
  • causes skin aging (but at a far slower rate than UVA.)[citation needed]
  • stimulates the production of new melanin, which leads to a big increase in the dark-coloured pigment within a few days.[4]

Tanning behaviour of different skin colors

A person’s natural skin color has an impact on their reaction to exposure to the sun. An individual’s natural skin color can vary from a dark brown to a nearly colorless pigmentation, which may appear reddish due to the blood in the skin. Though subject to variations, ethnic Europeans generally have lighter skin, while ethnic Africans generally have darker skin. In 1975, Harvard dermatologist Thomas B. Fitzpatrick devised the Fitzpatrick scale which described the common tanning behaviour of various skin types, as follows:[5][6] [7][8][9]

Type Also called Sunburning Tanning behavior von Luschan scale
I Very light or white, “Celtic” type[10] Often Occasionally 1–5
II Light or light-skinned European[10] Usually Sometimes 6–10
III Light intermediate or dark-skinned European[10] Rarely Usually 11–15
IV Dark intermediate, also “Mediterranean” or “olive skin[10] Rarely Often 16–21
V Dark or “brown” type No Sometimes darkens 22–28
VI Very dark or “black” type No Naturally black-brown skin 29–36

Avoiding tan lines

The wearing of clothing while tanning results in creation of tan lines, which many people regard as un-aesthetic and embarrassing. Many people desire to avoid creation of tan lines on those parts of the body which will be visible when they are fully clothed. Some people try to achieve an all-over tan or to maximize their tan coverage. To achieve an all-over tan, the tanner needs to dispense with clothing; and to maximize covering, they need to minimize the amount of clothing they wear while tanning. For those women who cannot dispense with a swimsuit, they at times tan with the back strap undone while lying on the front, or removing shoulder straps, besides wearing swimsuits which cover less area than their normal clothing. Any exposure is subject to local community standards and personal choice. Some people tan in the privacy of their backyard where they can at times tan without clothes, and some countries have set aside clothing-optional swimming areas (also known as nude beaches), where people can tan and swim clothes-free. Some people tan topless, and others wear very brief swimwear, such as a microkini. A recent innovation is tan-through swimwear, which uses fabric which is perforated with thousands of micro holes that are nearly invisible to the naked eye, but which let enough sunlight through to produce a line-free tan. Tan-through swimsuits offer SPF protection of about 6, and an application of full-strength sunscreen even to the covered area is recommended.

Because of the potential sunburn which can result from excessive exposure to direct sunlight, many people suntan in moderation and wear some clothing, including a hat, and use suitable sunscreen. From time to time they also sit in the shade or cool off in water.

Sunless tanning

To avoid exposure to UVB and UVA rays, or in sunless seasons, some people darken their skin using sunless tanning (also known as self-tanners). A number of types of sunless tanning options are available, including stainers which are based on dihydroxyacetone (DHA); bronzers, which basically are dyes; tan accelerators, based ontyrosine and psolarens. Some people use make-up to create a tanned appearance. Another option is to tan using a tanning bed or sunlamp.[11] The use of a tanning bed exposes the user to similar UV radiation as that of the sun.

Many sunless tanning products are available in the form of creams, gelslotions, and sprays that are self-applied on the skin. Another option is the use of bronzers which are cosmetics that provide temporary effects. There is also a professional spray-on tanning option or “tanning booths” that is offered by spassalons, and tanning businesses.[12]

Spray tanning does not mean that a color is sprayed on the body. What is used in the spray tanning process is a colorless chemical which burns the dead cells located on the top layer of the skin, resulting in a brown color. The two main active ingredients used in most of the sunless tanners are dihydroxyacetone anderythrulose.[citation needed]

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved the use of DHA spray tanning booths because it has not received safety data to support this specific use. DHA is a permitted color additive for cosmetic use restricted to external application. When used in a commercial spray tanning booth, areas such as the eyeslips or mucous membrane are exposed to the DHA which is a non permitted use of the product.[13]

Tanning controversy

A tanning bed

Overexposure to ultraviolet radiation is known to cause skin cancer,[14] make skin age and wrinkle faster,[15] mutate DNA,[16]and reduce the immune system.[17] Frequent tanning bed use triples the risk of developing melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.[18] The US Public Health Service states that UV radiation, including the use of sun lamps and sun beds are “known to be a human carcinogen.”[14] It further states that the risk of developing cancer in the years after exposure is greatest in people under 30 years old. However, recently released FDA data suggests that indoor tanning beds emit 12x more UVA radiation than the sun and has been categorized in the “highest cancer risk” group along with smoking tobacco.

Some researchers have advised that tanning in moderation may be healthier than is commonly believed. Edward Giovannucci, professor of medicine and nutrition at Harvard, states that according to his research, people who have sufficient vitamin D due to UV exposure, and other intake, may prevent 30 deaths for each one caused by skin cancer.[19] His research also suggests that diet accounts very little for vitamin D3 necessary for curbing cancer. Michael Holick, former Boston professor of dermatology, claimed that moderate exposure to sunlight probably reduces risk to many forms of cancer, diabetes, seasonal affective disorder, and other diseases.[20] These researchers are vigorously opposed by most dermatologists, for example, Dr. Elewski, president of the American Academy of Dermatology, argued that minutes of exposure to sunlight can be dangerous, and that people can get all the vitamin D they need through supplements. Large clinical studies have found vitamin D produced both through exposure to sunlight and through dietary supplements dramatically decreases cancer risk, and helps cancer recovery. See Vitamin D for more details.

Tanning agents

Several tanning activators are different forms of psoralen. These substances are known to be photocarcinogenic[21][22][23]. Health authorities banned psoralen only in July 1996.[24]

Cultural history

La promenade (1875) byClaude Monet. End of 19th century in the upper social class, people used umbrellas, long sleeves and hats to avoid sun tanning effects.
Sunbathing on the beach at Pentwater, Michigan, USA-23July2009.ogv
Time lapse photography of several people sunbathing and relaxing on the beach atPentwaterPentwater Township,Oceana CountyMichiganUSA.

Throughout history, tanning has gone in and out of fashion. In Western countries before about the 1920s, tanned skin was associated with the lower classes, and lower class work, which would have commonly been outdoors.[25]

Women even went as far as to put lead-based cosmetics on their skin to artificially whiten their skin tone.[14] However, when not strictly monitored these cosmetics caused lead poisoning. Achieving a light-skinned appearance was achieved in other ways, including the use of arsenic to whiten skin, and lightening powders. Other methods included the wearing of full length clothing when outdoors, and the use of parasols. The preference for fair-skin continued until the end of the Victorian era.

In 1903, Niels Finsen was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine for his “Finsen Light Therapy”.[26] The therapy was a cure for infectious diseases such as lupus vulgaris andricketsVitamin D deficiency was found to be a cause of rickets disease, and exposure to the sun would allow vitamin D to be produced in a person. Therefore, sun exposure was a remedy to curing several diseases, especially rickets.

Shortly thereafter, in the 1920s, Coco Chanel accidentally got sunburnt while visiting theFrench Riviera. Her fans apparently liked the look and started to adopt darker skin tones themselves. Tanned skin became a trend partly because of Coco’s status and the longing for her lifestyle by other members of society. In addition, Parisians fell in love with Josephine Baker, a “caramel-skinned” singer in Paris. Those who liked and idolised her idolised her dark skin also . These two French women were leading figures of the transformation tanned skin underwent, in which it became fashionable, healthy, and luxurious.[27][28][29]

In the 1940s, advertisements started appearing in women’s magazines which encouraged sun bathing. At this time, swimsuits’ skin coverage began decreasing, with thebikini making its appearance in 1946. In the 1950s, many people used baby oil as a method to increase tanning. The first self-tanner came about in the same decade and was known as “Man-Tan,” although it often led to undesirable orange skin.[14] Coppertone, in 1953, brought out the little blond girl and her cocker spaniel tugging on her bathing suit bottoms on the cover of their sunscreen bottles; this is still the same advertisement they use today on their bottles of sunscreen. In the latter part of the 1950s, silver metallic UV reflectors were common to enhance one’s tan.

In 1962, sunscreen commenced to be SPF rated, although in the US SPF labeling was not standardised by the FDA until 1978. In 1971, Mattel introduced Malibu Barbie, which had tanned skin, sunglasses, and her very own bottle of sun tanning lotion. In 1978, tanning beds appeared. Today there are an estimated 50,000 outlets for tanning, whereas in the 1990s there were only around 10,000.[30] The tanning business is a five-billion dollar industry.[30]

In a sunny Brussels park, people sit in the shadow of trees or nearby building to avoid heat.

Also in 1978, sunscreen with a SPF 15 first appeared.


Beyond the Pale
Considered an omnipotent deity by more primitive cultures, the sun was shunned by the gentry of ancient Rome, who used chalk to whiten their faces. Women of the Renaissance and Elizabethan eras turned to lead-based white paints, on which they drew blue veins to evoke the Spanish concept of blue blood. Sangre azul refers to the translucent porcelain skin of Castilian princesses (now you know).

Photo: The Bridgeman Art Library / Getty Images

Sun Strokes
As the Industrial Revolution gained steam toward the end of the nineteenth century, the working class moved from the farm to the factory and the rich developed a love of sport. Pallid complexions increasingly belonged to the poor, while more affluent types enjoyed a bit of color from a leisurely life spent outdoors. Life’s not fair, indeed.

Royal Flush
In 1891, John Harvey Kellogg (he of Corn Flakes fame) created the Incandescent Light Bath, a prototype sun bed marketed to cure gout and certain skin conditions, like eczema, using infrared and visible light. The revolutionary contraption was popularized when he shipped a couple to Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle at the behest of Edward VII (pictured, with his queen consort, Alexandra). No word on whether it cured His Highness’ ailments, but presumably it left him looking less pasty-faced than his subjects.

Photo: Rex USA

Warming Trend
By the turn of the century, when industrial pollution and lack of sufficient sunlight were linked to diseases like rickets and tuberculosis, artificial sun lamps were becoming the rage. Neils R. Finsen won the Nobel Prize in 1903 for his work with curative light therapy, and Dr. Auguste Rollier followed his lead, opening the world’s first dedicated sun clinic in the Swiss Alps. The term “a healthy tan” was born.

Photo: Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Another Chanel First
Coco Chanel is famous for many things—bouclé tweed suits, quilted bags, and camellias, among them—but she also popularized suntans. In 1923, after a Riviera vacation on the Duke of Westminster’s yacht, she returned to Paris with golden brown skin (Audrey Tautou, left, captures the look in Coco Before Chanel). Four years later, the first tanned face appeared in the pages of British Vogue.

Photo: Cine / The Kobal Collection

Body Bling
By the middle of the twentieth century, beige- to brown-tinted powders and creams were flooding the market, courtesy of companies like Max Factor, which had perfected the cosmetic bronzer on the MGM film lot. 20th Century Fox would borrow the honey-hued liquid makeup technique on the set of its 1963 hit Cleopatra, to make Elizabeth Taylor a believably bronzed Queen of the Nile.

Photo: 20th Century Fox / The Kobal Collection

Orange Crush
Coppertone revolutionized the bronzing business with the launch of its Quick Tan, commonly known as QT, in 1960. Formulated with dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a compound found in sugar beets that was first used as a treatment for people who had lost their skin pigment, QT reacted with the amino acids on the top layer of the skin, turning it a lovely shade of orangey brown in three to five hours.

Photo: Advertising Archive / Everett Collection

Faking It
Sunless tanning got its other big boost in 1978. An entire generation was turning to vegetable shortening, baby oil, and kitchen foil to achieve the darkest tan possible in the summer months, but getting that coveted Bo Derek in 10 glow in the dead of winter still eluded anyone without access to a tropical retreat. Enter German scientist Friedrich Wolff—a.k.a. the “father of indoor tanning”—who stumbled upon the invention of the modern-day sun bed while testing the effects of ultraviolet light on athletes. His subjects’ endurance and ability didn’t improve drastically after fake baking sessions; the sportsmen did, however, come away with suspiciously uniform tans.

Photo: Warner Bros. / The Kobal Collection

The ABCs of SPF
Bronzed glamazons persisted into the eighties, with the beach-ready bodies of Elle Macpherson, Kathy Ireland, and Christie Brinkley (left) gracing the covers of many a glossy. But decades of careless sun worship by an unknowing public had taken their toll: Increased rates of skin cancer were being linked back to tanning. Under the Carter administration, the FDA developed the first regulations on SPF ratings, a system that indicates a sunscreen’s effectiveness at blocking out UVB rays. A rebuff to those who claim Carter didn’t achieve anything during his presidency, those rules remain in place today.

Photo: Warner Bros. / Getty Images

30 Something
The first SPF 15 was introduced in 1986, a year after the American Academy of Dermatology became the first medical society to warn the public about the dangers of overexposure to the sun. SPF 30 didn’t come around until the nineties, when the issue of photoaging and photo damage—that is, wrinkles caused by deep-penetrating UVA rays—began receiving attention. In other words, it was hip to be pale once again, as demonstrated by this Arthur Elgort shot of a alabaster-skinned Karen Elson.

Photo: Arthur Elgort / Condé Nast Archive

Ray Bans
If the runways were awash in porcelain-skinned beauties in the aughts (Gisele excluded, that is), indoor tanning remained a carefree pastime until 2009, when the World Health Organization placed UV tanning beds on its list of the most cancer-causing substances and habits, alongside arsenic, asbestos, and mustard gas. A series of “teen tan bans” and this year’s 10 percent nationwide tax on tanning salons followed, leaving tanaholics with much to think about. Whether to tan or not to tan is still a matter of personal taste, though, as evidenced by the front row at Dior’s Fall couture shows. That’s French starlet Roxane Mesquida, left, alongside the significantly bronzer Nora Arnezeder.

Photo: Eric Ryan / Getty Images

Solar Eclipse?
American pop culture has offered up its own ambassadors for the great bronzing debate. On one side, there are the sun- and tanning bed-loving reality stars of Jersey Shore, Snooki and The Situation; on the other, Twilight‘s pasty icon Robert Pattinson (the rare Brit who has managed to resist L.A.’s rays).

Photo: Sara De Boer / Startraks Photo; Kimberley French / Courtesy of Summit Entertainment

Here Comes the Sun
Does Snooki know something we don’t? New research suggests that sunbathing without SPF protection may in fact be good for you after all. Low vitamin D levels are epidemic (even Gwyneth Paltrow has publicly admitted to low bone density caused by a D deficiency), and some experts—including Dr. Michael F. Holick, who penned The Vitamin D Solution: A 3-Step Strategy to Cure Our Most Common Health Problem (Hudson Street Press; 2010)—suggest that purposeful, controlled sun exposure in the summer months can boost overall health.

Photo: Allstar Picture Library / Alamy

Four Play
When it comes to tanning face powder, Guerlain’s Terracotta Bronzers are the gold standard, and the latest addition to the collection will serve you well long after the summer sun has set. Terracotta 4 Seasons has four shades of graduated caramelized tones so you can adjust your bronzing contours as your skin changes through the year. All four powders in the quad have a matte finish, too, so there are no glittery aftereffects—just a beautiful, warm glow.

Guerlain Terracotta 4 Seasons Tailor-Made Bronzing Powder, $74, www.sephora.com.

Photo: Kimberly Sentner


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  2. a b Nita Agar; Antony R. Young (2005). “Review: Melanogenesis: a photoprotective response to DNA damage?”. Mutation Research/Fundamental and Molecular Mechanisms of Mutagenesis 571 (1-2): 121–132. doi:10.1016/j.mrfmmm.2004.11.016PMID 15748643.
  3. ^ John A. Parrish, Kurt F. Jaenicke, R. Rox Anderson (1982). “Erythema And Melanogenesis Action Spectra Of Normal Human Skin”.Photochemistry and Photobiology 36 (2): 187–191. doi:10.1111/j.1751-1097.1982.tb04362.xPMID 7122713.
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  7. ^ SunSmart Homepage : Cancer Research UK. Info.cancerresearchuk.org. Retrieved on 2011-02-27.
  8. ^ Sample images
  9. ^ Tanning scale
  10. a b c d these are commonly encountered names for the types, e.g. US Army “Healthy Skin Campaign”[dead link] goldnbrown.co.uk,hautzone.ch etc.
  11. ^ “Dihydroxyacetone”. Retrieved 2010-07-06.
  12. ^ “Sunless tanning: A safe alternative to sunbathing”. Retrieved 2010-07-06.
  13. ^ “Sunless Tanners and Bronzers”. Retrieved 2010-07-06.
  14. a b c d “NTP: Report on Carcinogens (RoC)”. Ntp.niehs.nih.gov. 2009-02-13. Retrieved 2009-07-29.
  15. ^ Fisher GJ, Wang ZQ, Datta SC, Varani J, Kang S, Voorhees JJ (November 1997). “Pathophysiology of premature skin aging induced by ultraviolet light”N. Engl. J. Med. 337 (20): 1419–28.doi:10.1056/NEJM199711133372003PMID 9358139.
  16. ^ Sinha RP, Häder DP (April 2002). “UV-induced DNA damage and repair: a review”Photochem. Photobiol. Sci. 1 (4): 225–36.doi:10.1039/B201230HPMID 12661961.
  17. ^ Baadsgaard O (January 1991). “In vivo ultraviolet irradiation of human skin results in profound perturbation of the immune system. Relevance to ultraviolet-induced skin cancer” (PDF). Arch Dermatol 127 (1): 99–109.doi:10.1001/archderm.1991.01680010109019PMID 1824747.
  18. ^ Peeples, Lynne. Study: Frequent tanning-bed use triples melanoma risk.CNN. 27 May 2010.
  19. ^ Health Effects of Tanning and Vitamin D
  20. ^ Vitamin D, Skin Cancer, and the Dermatologists
  21. ^ Ashwood-Smith MJ. (1979). “Possible cancer hazard associated with 5-methoxypsoralen in suntan preparations”. BMJ 2 (6198): 1144.doi:10.1136/bmj.2.6198.1144-b.
  22. ^ M. J. Ashwood-Smith; G. A. Poulton; M. Barker; M. Mildenberger E (1980).“5-Methoxypsoralen, an ingredient in several suntan preparations, has lethal, mutagenic and clastogenic properties”Nature 285 (5): 407–409.doi:10.1038/285407a0PMID 6991953.
  23. ^ Zajdela F, Bisagni E. (1981). “5-Methoxypsoralen, the melanogenic additive in sun-tan preparations, is tumorigenic in mice exposed to 365 nm UV radiation”Carcinogenesis 1981 (2): 121–7.doi:10.1093/carcin/2.2.121PMID 7273295.
  24. ^ AUTIER P.  ; DORE J.-F.  ; CESARINI J.-P. (1997). “Should subjects who used psoralen suntan activators be screened for melanoma?”Annals of oncology 8 (5): 435–437. doi:10.1023/A:1008205513771.PMID 9233521.
  25. ^ Singer, Merrill; Hans Baer (28 July 2008). Killer Commodities: Public Health and the Corporate Production of HarmAltaMira Press. p. 151.ISBN 0759109796. Retrieved 11 September 2009. “Harris investigated the history of the parasol… everywhere ordinary people were forbidden to protect themselves with such devices “pallid skin became a marker of upper-class status”. At the beginning of the 20th Century, in the United States, lighter-skinned people avoided the sun. … Tanned skin was considered lower class.”
  26. ^ [1]
  27. ^ [|Hanson, M.D., Peter G.]. “About Face”The Effects of Aging, Health and Stress on Your FaceFaceMaster. Retrieved 11 September 2009.
  28. ^ “Sun and Clouds: The Sun in History”Magic Bullets – Chemistry vs. CancerThe Chemical Heritage Foundation . 2001. Retrieved 11 September 2009. “By the 1920s, the therapeutic effect of the sun was widely promoted, and two well-publicized French personalities gave “tanning” a fashion boost. Coco Chanel, of designer fame, returned to Paris after a cruise on the Duke of Westminster’s yacht with a tan that became all the rage. And the natural caramel skin color of singer Josephine Baker made women all over the world try to emulate her skin tone.”
  29. ^ [|Koskoff, Sharon] (28 May 2007). Art Deco of the Palm Beaches.Arcadia Publishing. p. 2. ISBN 0738544159. Retrieved 11 September 2009. “In 1920s France, the caramel-skinned entertainer Josephine Baker became a Parisian idol. Concurrently, fashion designer Coco Chanel was “bronzed” while cruising on a yacht. A winter tan became a symbol of the leisure class and showed you could afford to travel to exotic climates.”
  30. a b [|Wright, Dan] (11 September 2009). “Working The Tan – Tanning Salons Grow”The Daily News Record Online. The Daily News Record (Harrisonburg, Virginia). Retrieved 11 September 2009. “The tanning industry has grown about 25 percent over the past six years, according to the Indoor Tanning Association. Nationwide, about 25,000 free-standing tanning salons employ 160,000 people and generate more than $5 billion in annual revenue, the association said.”

Further reading

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