How tanning became fashionable

Where did the obsession with a sunkissed skin start?
Where did the obsession with a sunkissed skin start?

The sun is risky business for our skins. Not only can harmful UV rays significantly age the skin, but can also make us more predisposed to skin cancer.

In a society obsessed with preserving youth and good health, why do many of us still associate a "sunkissed" skin with health?

The answer lies in our history. 

In the pre-industrial age, freckles and sun damage were associated with peasants – people who did manual labour in the sun. The wealthy went to great lengths to keep a pale, milky skin by staying indoors and protecting themselves with hats, bonnets, umbrellas and protective clothing when they ventured outside.

When did the tide turn?

With the advent of industrialisation, people started working in mines and moved to smoggy cities where they slaved in factories and seldom saw the sun. In these living conditions, many children developed rickets and bone deformities. Fortunately, in 1890, Theobold Palm discovered that exposure to sunlight is vital for bone development.

In 1855, Arnold Rikli, a Swiss physician, also dubbed “the sun doctor”, started making use of light therapy in to treat consumption. It was also believed that sunlight could successfully treat mental disorders.

John Harvey Kellog also dabbled in light therapy, even inventing a so-called light bath. This device was installed in Buckingham Palace to help treat Kind Edward VII’s gout.

Then Niels Finsen started using phototherapy to treat skin ulcers, ultimately winning the Nobel prize for medicine in 1903.

While the medical aspects of sunlight were well recognised at this stage, it still wasn’t fashionable to sport a sunkissed glow.

A fashion thing

While light therapy definitely played a role, it wasn't the only thing that sparked the fascination with a darker skin. It was only in the 1920s that tanning was made trendy by the fashion pioneer Coco Chanel.

Rumour has it that photographs of her surfaced after she had sunbathed too much on a cruise. Chanel, who was known for her pioneering work in the fashion industry, immediately started a trend: Women unleashed the shackles of the Victorian era and took on a new minimalist style – combined with a “healthy glow”.

coco chanel

                                         Iconic fashion designer Coco Chanel, who made tanning trendy

When colour movies and television became prevalent, actresses wanted a tanned skin to look better on the big screen.

As tanning became popular, so did sunburn, however, which opened up the market for products such as tanning oils.

By the 1960s, tanning was just as much as status symbol as pale skin used to be. A tanned skin suggested summer holidays on tropical islands, an outdoor lifestyle, fitness and overall robust health.

And if you couldn’t afford a life of leisure, what did you do? Tan in your back yard, or get a fake-tan, of course. Tanning beds and indoor tanning took off all over the world.

People already made use of sunlamps in the 1930s, while the first commercial tanning beds made their appearance in the USA by 1978. The first self-tanner, Man-Tan, made its appearance in 1958, and by the 1990s, tanning beds and self-tanning products were widely available.

In our era

While tanning was still very trendy in the early 2000s, greater awareness of the dangers of tanning and the risk of skin cancer started developing. Currently, a tanned skin is no longer all the rage and most people are aware of the dangers of excessive sun exposure.

The following will help you protect your skin:

  • Embrace your natural complexion.
  • Drink enough water and eat a healthy diet. Include plenty of antioxidants to help fight free radicals.
  • Always wear and often reapply SPF50 when you are outside.
  • The built-in SPF in your moisturiser or makeup may not offer enough protection. Use a separate sunscreen.
  • Wear a hat and polarised sunglasses when you are outside.
  • Invest in a simple, yet good skincare routine.

Visit for more information on skin cancer and how to be sunsmart.

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