The Tantalizing History Of Tanning

Over the last century, tanned skin has transformed into a major fashion trend. With golden-skinned celebrities plastering magazine covers and millions of co-eds opting for a year-round tan, it’s hard not to notice the popularity of a sun-kissed glow.

Though most of us feel healthy and attractive with a tan, we don’t necessarily know why. In fact, 50% of British people agreed that returning with a tan was the most important factor in choosing to go on vacation. It’s now so ingrained in our culture that we don’t question the power of the tan; we merely succumb to it.

But despite its acceptance nowadays, the tan is a relatively recent trend. Over the past thousand years, in Western culture at least, pale skin was considered the epitome of beauty. Throughout the Elizabethan era and even as far back as the Roman Empire, tanned skin was associated with laborers who worked outdoors. Pale skin was a sign of affluence, and ladies who lunched would often carry parasols to avoid any exposure to the sun.

This desire for pale skin mirrored today’s obsession with a “healthy-looking tan”. Women bought harmful and usually toxic skin creams which had a bleaching effect on the skin.

When mining and indoor work became commonplace during the Industrial Revolution, laborers were no longer working in the sun. The pale skin trend faded away because it became too attainable and therefore no longer exclusive to the upper classes.

This didn’t result in the overnight acceptance of tanned skin, though. The tan didn’t become fashionable until 1923, when Coco Chanel accidentally got too much sun while on a cruise. Sun exposure had just recently been proven healthful, when Niels Finsen won a Nobel Prize for proving that vitamin D and – more specifically – UV exposure aided in the cure of several common diseases of the time. With the world’s largest fashion icon sparking the trend and science proving its benefits, the sun tan became associated with healthfulness and glamour.

Initially, this fashionable look was relatively unattainable. With most people bound by the seasons and working with few holidays, tanned skin was impossible to maintain. The trend of tanned skin had become associated with the well-to-dos, those people who could afford vacationing in tropical climates on a regular basis.

Being a Canadian girl, I can understand the unattainability of perpetually tanned skin. However, as tanning became more and more popular over the years, more accessible vacations, tanning lotions, and tanning beds changed all of that.

Today, most of us take a few weeks off throughout the year, often vacationing to warmer, dryer destinations like Mexico or Turkey. Not only that, but tanning creams are available in every drug store and tanning salons dot every neighbourhood. If we want a tan, we know where to find it.

How does tanned skin compare to the pale skin trend? First of all, it’s much healthier. The only way to attain the deathly pale look was to use bleaching creams and stay out of the sun. This resulted in Vitamin D deficiency, toxic exposure and an overall decay of the skin. There were no positive side-effects.

Tanning, however, does have its benefits. After all, we need Vitamin D in order to build strong bones and healthy muscles. And, while tanning beds have come under scrutiny in recent years, there is a healthy way to go about soaking in some rays.

The most obvious way to get a nice glow is to sunbathe. Sitting in the sun with a good layer of SPF30, avoiding prolonged exposure between 10am and 4pm, moving often and staying hydrated is a great way to get the benefits of sunbathing without risking over-exposure.

If sunbathing is new to you, keep your exposure limited. Lie out for 15 minutes at a time and assess how your skin reacts to the sun. Your skin will have a natural glow and you’ll avoid the risk of harmful sunburns. This method is relaxing and rejuvenating. Lying on the beach with a good book, it’s hard to deny the therapeutic natural of sunbathing. But, relaxing and beautifying as it may be, natural tanning isn’t accessible year-round for many of us.

That’s why the tanning bed was introduced. If you live in a climate like mine, that has long winters, you might consider taking to the bed once a week or so. Going to the bed once a week or once every two weeks will give you a gentle glow and maintain good vitamin D levels. Staying in the bed for less than 8 minutes will decrease your risk of over-exposure. But, if you’re a teenager, you should consider holding off entirely. When skin is still developing, this type of tanning might be too intense and cause complications down the road. While it’s important to get vitamin D and it’s nice to feel a healthy glow, you should consider things like family history and predisposition to cancers, whether your skin is too pale or freckly to tan and make sure to check for moles often. Ask your doctor if limited tanning bed use is a good option for you.

If you want to get a nice glow without UV exposure, try a self-tanning lotion. While these lotions don’t deliver the benefits of vitamin D, they’re also less likely to result in cancer. They contain traces of toxic chemicals, but so do perfumes, shampoos, and almost everything else we apply cosmetically. Keep in mind that if you have sensitive skin, sunless tanner may result in an allergic reaction.

Like tanning beds, sunless tanner can be used year-round and will give the illusion of a healthy glow. In my books, sunless tanner is always the best option. I opt for vitamin D drops every morning, and a little sunless tanner whenever the mood strikes. This compensates for my cold climate wonderfully.

If you’re new to sunless tanner, pay attention to the shade you’re selecting. They’re usually marked for fair skin, medium skin and dark skin. If you want something on the inexpensive side, Jergens Natural Glow is a popular option with low chance of streaking, since it’s a gradual tanner. If you’re willing to go for a high-end option, try Collstar’s Self-Tan Magic Drops. You can also opt for a natural sunless tanner, many of which contain little or no toxic ingredients.

Keep in mind that, no matter whether you’re tanned or not, over-exposure to UV rays can result in health complications and skin diseases, so be careful how you’re attaining golden skin.

So, the choice is yours to make. With so many ways to get a year-round glow, follow your instincts and make the choice that is convenient and safe for your skin type and family history. 


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