Tanning refers to the natural or artificial process of darkening one’s skin color. Typically, tanned skin is achieved via sun exposure but, in recent years, tanning beds delivering ultraviolet rays or booths that cover users with a topical spray that mimics a natural tan have become increasingly popular.
The debate about altering one’s skin color has been going on for centuries; in some cultures, darkened skin color and cosmetic use were seen as markers of wealth and attractiveness, while in others, darkened skin was seen as primitive and uncivilized. In 18th-century Europe and America, cosmetic skin whiteners and home remedies to cure accidental tans were popular. As the Industrial Revolution took hold, however, Western notions about skin color began to change. In Europe, as the working class headed indoors to do factory work, the wealthy started associating darkened skin with leisure time and wealth. This new association did not take hold in America until the early 20th century because Victorian propriety forbade skimpy bathing costumes and daywear and looked down upon any alteration of one’s skin color.
America In The 20th Century
By the turn of the 20th century, however, new ideas surfaced about leisure time, skin color, and appropriate dress and behavior for women. In particular, women of the 1910s and 1920s began challenging female stereotypes and limitations by putting off marriage and childbearing, donning skimpier clothing (including bathing costumes and dresses that showed off arms, legs, and chests), and wearing cosmetics, which had previously been associated with oversexualized women. These changes, coupled with the accidental tan of European fashion icon Coco Chanel in the early 1920s, paved the way for the rising popularity of tanning in America. Advertisers and other social conduits began associating tanning with health, personal and national strength, female beauty, and female liberation. Advertisements for skin products began focusing on how the products enhanced a tan; this was a departure from ads prior to the 1920s that promoted products that preserved white skin. As tanning’s popularity grew, advertisers from the 1930s to the 1960s promoted obvious products, like tinted face powder and nylons, as well as unobvious products like silverware, by drawing connections between a tan and patriotism, anticommunism, and an acceptance of civil rights activity and the feminist movement. During the 20th century, most products and advertisements related to tanning targeted women, though advertisements for alcohol and car makers, vacation spots, and even a few cosmetic preparations like Man Tan, a 1950s tinted cosmetic, encouraged tanning for men. Despite a discussion of the health risks of tanning, which began in the 1960s, Americans continued associating tans with leisure time, wealth, beauty, and health through the end of the 20th century; accordingly, advertisers and producers continued promoting tans.
Because of tanning’s reputation for giving good health, Americans started looking for easier and faster ways to get sun exposure. Tanning beds (machines using artificially produced ultraviolet rays to tan users’ skin) were introduced in the 1930s. These beds were originally advertised to tubercular Americans, for whom sun
exposure was considered healing, and even as a home appliance for adventurous sorts, but by the 1970s, tanning beds were available to the general public in commercial tanning salons. Through the 1980s and 1990s, tanning salons sprung up across the nation, offering Americans quick and intense tans. When scientists made connections between skin cancer and outdoor sun exposure, tanning bed manufacturers promoted beds as safe alternatives. But through the 1990s, studies consistently demonstrated higher risks of skin cancer among tanning bed users because of the intensity of ultraviolet exposure in tanning beds. Despite the risk, there is currently still a large culture of Americans, particularly young women, who use tanning beds.
Skin Cancer Risks
In the 1960s, many Americans became aware of the strong links between sun tanning and skin cancer, among other less serious maladies like wrinkles. Though literature connecting tanning with skin cancer began showing up in popular magazines as early as 1941, it was not until the early 1960s that a serious challenge to tanning’s popularity emerged. And though advertisers continued to encourage tanning to sell products, the late 1960s and early 1970s saw the emergence of increasing studies and reports about the dangers of tanning, as well as the introduction of alternative products, such as leg creams and other cosmetic substitutes that gave the appearance of a tan. Similarly, sunscreen became widely popular, particularly after the sun protection factor (SPF ) rating system was implemented in the 1970s. And yet, Americans continued to ignore the warnings of physicians and prescriptive literature and tan, often with low SPF sunscreen or no sunscreen at all; the association of a tan with good health and beauty was too strong to reverse overnight. It took a concerted effort by scientists, doctors, and others from the 1980s to the present day, armed with frightening statistics about skin cancer mortality rates, to get the word out and convince more Americans to either use stronger sunscreen or avoid sun exposure altogether.
America In The 21st Century
In the 21st century, Americans seem more informed about the risks associated with sun tanning. There is copious literature about the risks of sun exposure and the problems associated with darkening one’s skin. The positive associations tied to tanning, however, continue to hold strong in the national psyche. As a result, new products have emerged to alter one’s skin color safely; most notably, self-tanning lotions and booths that spray a topical tanning product have become popular and safe alternatives. Additionally, there is much greater attention to sunscreen and sun safety in popular literature and culture, signaling a slowly developing awareness of the dangers of sun tanning and attention to preventative measures.