The Tanning Craze

Thursday, June 09, 2011

It's unofficially summer, which means the reminders to use sunscreen have begun - but as you probably already know, this wasn't the case during the mid-to-late part of the 20th century. It was ALL about getting a sexy tan! 

But let's backtrack a bit. Believe it or not, at one time pale skin was in fashion. Way back at the turn of the 20th century, tanned skin was looked down upon because it was associated with farmers and anyone else doing outdoor labor work--in other words, the lower class. Impressionist paintings often show people carrying umbrellas and wearing long sleeves to shield themselves from the sun. It wasn't until the fashion designer and icon Coco Chanel returned from a cruise in the 1920s sporting darker toned skin that the public suddenly considered the look to be chic. We've been paying the price for that ever since, as melanoma cases continue to rise. 

From the 50s through roughly the 80s, having a tan was associated with being healthy and sexy. There are literally tons of advertisements from these decades that attest to that belief. Many products touted healthy skin and promised a fast tan. There really wasn't any public awareness of the increase of wrinkles, discoloration and skin cancer that sun exposure would later be associated with. The introduction of the bikini, which exposed more of the female body, no doubt contributed to the popularity of tanning as well.

Indeed, I'm a bit ashamed to admit that as an 80s teenager I was taken in by the St. Tropez ads for Bain du Soleil that featured a sexy model with beautifully glowing, shimmery skin. I shudder to think that as a result I baked my pale Polish skin in my backyard a few times while listening to Sade on my Sony Walkman (it's not Sade that makes me shudder, but of course the thought of purposely lying in the sun's rays.) 

What do you know...I found the commercial on YouTube. Interesting how minimal the SPF levels were back then...SPF 2 for the face???

Indeed, sunscreens from a few eras ago didn't have as high a SPF rating as what's available today. The first sunscreen to have a SPF rating of 15 hit the market in 1978. I don't really remember paying attention to SPF ratings until the 80s, however...and I knew a few people who used baby oil and/or UV reflectors while out in the sun!

Yes, these folks were getting their share of vitamin D along with a dose of wrinkles. Today, of course, we're more aware of how the sun can damage the dermis. But in many ways, I don't think the tan has ever truly fallen out of fashion. It amazes me how many people play Russian Routlette with our shrinking ozone layer. They also visit tanning salons, and products that claim to give you a realistic looking "fake" tan are everywhere. I think Western society in general is way too hung up on looking tan instead of just embracing their natural, healthy skin tone. Today, I'm pretty proud of my ivory skin and prefer to keep it that way, with the help of hats, sunglasses, and sunblock. Will we ever learn?


  1. When I was a young kid my family and I went a few times to Wildwood and, well, suntan lotion wasn't even part of the vocabulary back then. I got a few sunburns and found it quite amusing to pull on patches of dried-up skin.

    Fast forward 35 years when I had to get two skin lesions urgently removed in my back. Luckily they were removed in time but since then I have to get checked up once a year by a dermatologist. It gave me quite a scare, especially when thinking bakc of all the time in my childhood spent outside under the raw sun with no protection. I won't even mention friends who, in the early eighties, smeared themselves with motor oil to accelerate the tanning process.

  2. I'll tell you something... I'm quite proud of my ivory skin...because it has kept me essentially wrinkle free! (Combined with good genes, I expect...but some of my friends who worship the sun are leathery looking!)

    I once worked in a Cancer Center. NO melanoma for me.

  3. Oh, man... this reminds me of how as a child I would go to the beach in the hot baking Florida sun, and not use any sunblock . . . or not use enough of it. I was careless like that. I would return from the visit to the beach with sunburns all over. Painful, but at the time I just accepted it as part of "going to the beach." Now, looking back, it honestly scares me how I played "Russian roulette" with my skin. As a kid, I just didnt think of the dangers.

    1. I'm actually mad at my parents for letting me get sunburned as a child. They knew better because my dad had melanoma and we still got sunburned from the AZ sun.

  4. Being half-Mexican, I tan quite well (and being part Italian and Irish, I can also get quite pale). As a child in the summers of Vegas, I got so dark that I remember having a photo taken in the shade where all that could be made out was my white bathing suit. We just didn't know better. Then I went through my late 80s "goth" period and from 14 - 34 I didn't see one ray of sunlight! OK, maybe one, I did hike a bit... Then at 35 I got addicted to tanning booths, which I know are unhealthy, but at the time I just didn't care. I did that for about a year before I decided to just be smarter about my body and health, so I gave it up.

    I agree, some of us have a love affair with tanning. I admit I am one. Is it smart of me? Certainly not, but there you go. I am so excited to be moving to house with a little gardening area. I think I know enough to protect myself, but I can still enjoy a little sun-kissed glow as well! I hope it becomes the happy medium!

    Btw, it's interesting to look at the Ban du Soliel ads through the years because in the 70s she would get about as tan as possible and then as time passed and awareness grew, she became more and more pale in each ad.

  5. I have always found pale skin or unbaked skin more attractive in regards to those with melanin impoverishment (I guess like the Victorians did!) - that fake orange baked appearance and the ensuing reptilian, dried out Mount Rushmore look are far from appealing. I know of someone who died of skin cancer at age 21 from excessive tanning - it was haeartbreaking as she had a future worth living for but was deprived of it.

  6. My mom was one of those '80s teenagers who smeared baby oil over their skin for a faster tan. Yikes. I personally don't try to be either paler or tanner, but being German/Irish/Polish means I'm usually the former.
    I saw somewhere (I can't exactly support this) about the British Invasion bringing back "that pale, British look" and I know if I'd been around back then, I'd try for that!
    Fabulous vintage ads, by the way. As always ;)

  7. Thankfully I cannot tan. I burn instead and get really pink, plus I love being pale! It complements my style better that way.

  8. Man, I need to go back to the early 20th century with all the other pale people! Pass the 110 SPF please..

  9. I'd prefer to be pale also. Last year I got badly burned at the US Open because I wasn't too bright and didn't reapply the suntan lotion every so often throughout the day. I use the same lotion on my face and not a special one though. There is SPF 30 in my facial moisturizer so I guess that helps too.


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