From fears that it caused insanity to celebrity perma-tans—here's the history of how our attitudes towards being in the sun have changed over time.

When skin showed status 

pale skin fashion
In the early 20th century, high-class ladies went to great efforts to protect their complexions from the sun

In ancient times, pale skin indicated high status and was much-admired. Ancient Egyptian men and women lightened their skin with yellow ochre powder. From the eighth century, Japanese women created a white mask using poisonous lead or mercury based powders. The Chinese choice was rice powder, while ancient Greeks and Romans used chalk or white lead to create that whiter shade of pale.

During the reign of Elizabeth I, high-class women took care to keep the sun off their faces and wore heavy layers of “ceruse”— a horrific concoction of white lead and vinegar or powdered borax that could lead to gout, anaemia, renal failure and scarring. To add to the ghostly, porcelain effect, some drew a thin blue line across their foreheads, while others topped off their painted faces with egg white.

 

 

"It was all about status.
White skin distinguished rich from poor"

 

 

In the 19th century, well-born women used parasols and face-whitening lotion to protect their skin. Flamboyant dandies followed women’s beauty routines and took to whitening the backs of their hands as well.

It was all about status, of course. White skin distinguished rich from poor. The upper classes stayed pallid to demonstrate their genteel indoor lives of leisure, while tanned skin was beyond the pale—associated with the lower orders who toiled outside in the fields.

This attitude held fast for centuries until the Industrial Revolution saw millions of the rural poor move to towns to find work in mills and factories.

 

The healing power of the sun

“incandescent light bath”
Kellogg's “incandescent light bath”

The second big change was when doctors started to see the light about the medical benefits of sunshine. In 1855, the natural healer Arnold Rikli opened a sanatorium in Austria to treat TB patients with light therapy.

In 1890, medical missionary Dr Theobald Palm made the breakthrough observation that huge numbers of urban kids, kept indoors from the industrial soot and smog, were getting rickets through lack of sunshine.

A year later, physician and health-food promoter John Harvey Kellogg invented the “incandescent light bath”, which he claimed had cured Edward VII’s gout. His contemporary Niels Finsen won a Nobel Prize for his work on phototherapy to treat diseases such as lupus.

Nevertheless, as the 20th century began, the British establishment still feared that the bright sun in the far reaches of the Empire was giving pasty Brits tropical neurasthenia—causing fatigue, irritability, and even death.

At home, a tan was still not fashionable in polite society. Well-born ladies bought beauty products that promised to remove accidental tans and pesky freckles.

 

The tan becomes high fashion

beach models
Models advertising 'beach fashions' in 1950. Image via LIFE

Then, in 1923, style icon Coco Chanel caught the sun on a yacht trip from Cannes—and inadvertently launched a fashion for tans. For the first time, a tan hinted at leisure time, money to travel to sunnier climes and good health. It represented glamour, not peasantry.

Soon celebrities and socialites were flocking to hot destinations to work on their tans. In 1927, perfumer Jean Patou introduced a tanning oil. After the First World War, British workers surged to the coast on their days off and lidos became hugely popular. But the Depression and Second World War meant that the closest most women got to sun-bathing was staining their legs with Bovril or tea. 

It was the Fifties when the new Bronze Age really began: swimming costumes became less modest and a 1953 Coppertone ad admonished “Don’t be a pale face”. 

 

 

"The Depression and Second World War meant that the closest most women got to sun-bathing was staining their legs with Bovril"

 

 

Man-Tan also exploded onto the market. This macho-sounding product marked the start of the huge tan-without-sun craze. It contained dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a chemical derived from sugar cane that reacts with amino acids on the surface of the skin. There was a rumour that its tanning properties were discovered when a nurse treating a diabetic patient with DHA accidentally spilled it on his chest.

In the Sixties, affordable air travel, colour film and the allure of sun-bathing attracted increasing numbers of Brits to “The Med”. The Beach Boys’ music made us all want to hit the sand. 

By the Seventies, our magazines and movies were full of tanned stars, all epitomising the good life. A Malibu Barbie even emerged. However, there was a twist in thetale of tanning when dermatologists noticed a surge in cases of skin cancer. Research into the effects of UV rays on our skin made the link between extreme sun exposure and skin cancer. Sunlamps and tanning beds became more and more popular in the 1980s—until we were told that they too were dangerous. 

 

The danger of sunbathing unprotected

sunbathing

Nevertheless, many of us still love being in the sun. It makes us feel and look good—in the short term, at least. And, of course, our media is ablaze with perma-tanned male and female celebrities. Fifty per cent of Brits said that getting a tan was their number-one reason for going abroad, according to a 2000 survey. 

Mind you, we have a distinctly love-hate relationship with the Tango’d celebrities around us—and the attitude now is that too much of a tan is frankly rather common. In 2004, The Sun mockingly matched deeply tanned celebrities, such as pop star Peter Andre and model Katie Price, to colours on a Dulux paint chart.   

The discussion about tans heated up when the word “tanorexia” (meaning a physical or psychological dependence on sunbathing) was introduced into the English language, and organisations including The Skin Cancer Foundation reported that UVR exposure releases mood-lifting endorphins that can build up a “tanning addiction”.  

A prominent BBC News feature went on to ask, “Fake tan: How did it become the new normal?” and then, in 2012, Cancer Research UK announced that skin-cancer rates are soaring in the UK—and those aged over 50 are worst affected by malignant melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer.

Although most of our high streets still have tanning shops, tanning seems to be fading in popularity. Thankfully, in 21st-century Britain, our definition of beauty ranges across all skin tones, from the perma-tanned to the gothically pallid. A host of celebrities are very proud to be pale, including British actor Damian Lewis and Australian A-lister Nicole Kidman.

In our cosmopolitan and globalised society, we happily have icons for every skin tone. Perhaps in the future, the early twenty-first century will be remembered for another cultural shift—the time when we all learned to look and feel good in our skin. A sunny day or two wouldn't go amiss, though. 

Read more: How to stay savvy in the sun 

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