The change in attitude towards sunbathing and tanning is closely related to a sartorial shift towards shorter hemlines and less restrictive corsets, as well as the embrace of pleasurable activities such as smoking, drinking, and dancing. Like the rebellious nature of flappers, suntans were another way for people to flaunt newfound freedoms. Here’s our fashionista Shameena’s in-depth analysis, in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.
Along with tweed suits and little black dresses, the practice of tanning is one of many things that have commonly been attributed to Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel. The widely accepted tale goes something like this: Chanel was photographed in the French Riviera sporting a suntan in 1923, and voila! Bronzed skin became the desired look from then on. But can one woman really be responsible for how billions of people continue to alter their complexions each year?
Of course, the colour of ‘tanned skin’ is completely relative, and it’s certainly not a universally accepted beauty ideal. While many light-skinned people living in Europe, North America and parts of South America may strive for a deep golden glow, some people in other parts of the world including Asia, India and the Middle East desire paler or pinker skin tones, sometimes using products to lighten their natural hue. There are also plenty of people who are happy to embrace their natural skin pigmentation, regardless of what’s deemed attractive in their respective culture.
Though it’s not universally desired, it’s impossible to deny that tanning has become a huge part of Western ideas of beauty — and sunless tanning a hugely profitable industry.
The History of Tanning
Tanning has gone in and out of fashion. In the United States and Western Europe before about the 1920s, tanned skin was associated with the lower classes, because they worked outdoors and were exposed to the sun. Women went to great lengths to preserve pallid skin, as a sign of their ‘refinement’.
Women’s outdoor clothing styles were tailored to protect against sun exposure, with full-length sleeves, and sunbonnets and other large hats, headscarves, and parasols shielding the head. Pallor was popular within the upper classes, hinting at a noble life of leisure spent indoors. Dark skin was associated with serfdom and toiling in fields all day. Light-skinned appearance was achieved in other ways, including the use of arsenic to whiten skin, and lightening powders. Using poisonous whiteners to create pale skin has been popular throughout history – particularly during the ancient Greek, Roman, and Elizabethan eras.
The trend for whiteness halted after the industrial revolution. Any leisure time available was taken indoors, to avoid the smog and soot of the streets.
In 1903, a physician named Niels Finsen was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his invention of ‘light therapy’, which utilised sunlight to combat diseases such as rickets and tuberculosis. A year later, John Harvey Kellogg invented the ‘incandescent light bath’, which was used by King Edward VII, installing units in Buckingham Palace to help cure his gout.
Soon, more people were willing to subject their skin to the sun’s rays for health purposes, although the visibly tanned skin was still in opposition to the beauty standards promoted by Western media into the early 1920s. When covers and creams were not enough to avoid the adverse effects of sunlight, women turned to products like Elizabeth Arden’s Après L’Été, a skin bleacher intended to ‘banish tan, freckles, and other summer blemishes’, as they were often referred to at the time.
The change in attitude towards sunbathing is closely related to a sartorial shift towards shorter hemlines and less restrictive corsets, as well as the embrace of pleasurable activities such as smoking, drinking, and dancing. Like the rebellious nature of flappers, suntans were another way for people to flaunt newfound freedoms after shedding the conservative ways of the Victorian era.
It’s said that French beachside resorts first started to remain open throughout the summer (typically their off-season) in 1923, which led to the advent of sunbathing as a pastime for the rich and stylish. Tanning was only made chic 20 years later when Coco Chanel caught too much sun on a Mediterranean cruise. The photographs of her disembarking in Cannes set a new precedent of beauty.
Women with toffee-coloured skin (Jessica Alba, Beyonce, Halle Berry, Kim Kardashian) are at the forefront of definitions of 21st-century beauty. An argument runs that white women try to achieve similar complexions, ignoring that these celebrities’ skin tones are the result of being mixed race or non-Caucasian. However, those obsessed with tanning also have Katie Price, Victoria Beckham and even the whole cast of Geordie Shore as tanning role models. The desire to tan runs deeper than race.
Fears surrounding the risks of tanning were confirmed in 2009 when it was found that rates of malignant melanoma in the UK have more than quadrupled in the past 30 years and that it is the most common form of cancer among those aged 15-34. The World Health Organisation has found that people who have been using tanning devices before age 30 are 75% more likely to develop melanoma.
The Sunbed (Regulation) Act, introduced in 2010 with much help from Girls Aloud singer and ex-tanner Nicola Roberts, made it illegal for tanning salons to allow under-18s to use sunbeds. However, there is no regulation on how often an adult can use a sunbed.
Melanin is a natural pigment produced by cells called melanocytes in a process called melanogenesis. Melanocytes produce two types of melanin: pheomelanin (red) and eumelanin (very dark brown). Melanin protects the body by absorbing ultraviolet radiation. Excessive UV radiation causes sunburn along with other direct and indirect DNA damage to the skin, and the body naturally combats and seeks to repair the damage and protect the skin by creating and releasing further melanin into the skin’s cells. With the production of the melanin, the skin colour darkens. The tanning process can be triggered by natural sunlight or by artificial UV radiation, which can be delivered in frequencies of UVA, UVB, or a combination of both. The intensity is commonly measured by the UV Index.
There are two different mechanisms involved in the production of a tan by UV exposure: Firstly, UVA radiation creates oxidative stress, which in turn oxidises existing melanin and leads to rapid darkening of the melanin. UVA may also cause melanin to be redistributed (released from melanocytes where it is already stored), but its total quantity is unchanged. Skin darkening from UVA exposure does not lead to a significantly increased production of melanin or protection against sunburn. 
In the second process, triggered primarily by UVB, there is an increase in production of melanin (melanogenesis), which is the body’s reaction to direct DNA photodamage (formation of pyrimidine dimers) from UV radiation. Melanogenesis leads to delayed tanning and typically becomes visible two or three days after exposure. The tan that is created by increased melanogenesis typically lasts for a few weeks or months, much longer than the tan that is caused by oxidation of existing melanin and is also actually protective against UV skin damage and sunburn, rather than simply cosmetic. Typically, it can provide a modest Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 3, meaning that tanned skin would tolerate up to 3 times the UV exposure as pale skin.  However, in order to cause true melanogenesis-tanning by means of UV exposure, some direct DNA photodamage must first be produced, and this requires UVB exposure (as present in natural sunlight, or sunlamps that produce UVB).
The ultraviolet frequencies responsible for tanning are often divided into the UVA and UVB ranges.
Health Risks related to tanning
People who tan under the sun or use tanning beds and lamps are at risk of sunburn. This inflamed redness of the skin is caused by too much exposure to UV radiation, particularly UVB radiation. Sunburn may show up right away in severe cases or may develop up to 24 hours later.
If you do not protect your eyes while tanning, overexposure to UV radiation can also cause temporary but painful eye conditions known as photokeratitis and photo-conjunctivitis. In particular, overexposure to UVB radiation may be linked to the development of cataracts, a clouding over of the lens of the eye, which can cause blindness, as well as Pterygium (Surfer’s eye), photokeratitis (snow blindness) and photo-conjunctivitis.
Tanning can also cause longer-term health effects. Being exposed to UV radiation can cause your skin to age more quickly and can increase your risk of developing skin cancer. Your risk of developing skin cancer increases the more you are exposed to UV radiation. There is also scientific evidence that exposure to UV radiation weakens the immune system. This could affect your body’s ability to defend itself against serious illnesses, including malignant melanoma, a serious form of skin cancer. Cumulative exposure to UV radiation is known to increase the risk of developing skin cancer and other negative health risks. Studies indicate that people who have suffered severe and frequent sunburns during childhood are at greater risk of developing skin cancer.
The International Agency for Cancer Research (IACR) reports that the frequent use of tanning equipment (for example, once per week from 20 years of age) will result in an estimated doubling of the risk of non-melanocytic skin cancer by age 45. The World Health Organization Working Group recently changed the classification of the use of UV-emitting tanning devices from a probable carcinogen to Group 1, ‘carcinogenic to humans’, the same group as smoking.
Reduce your risk
The health risks of being exposed to UV radiation, from the sun or from tanning equipment, far outweigh the benefits.
When you are exposed to the sun’s UV rays, find shade, wear protective clothing and use sunscreen, especially between the hours of 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. when the sun’s rays are strongest. Encourage children to practice sun safe behaviour and avoid tanning by being a role model yourself.
There are many things to consider before choosing to use tanning beds and lamps. For example, people with fair skin or a history of sunburn are at greater risk for health problems. Also, some medications and cosmetics can make your skin more sensitive to UV radiation. Talk to your health care professional about your personal risk factors before you decide whether to use tanning beds and lamps. Health Canada does not recommend the use of tanning equipment – especially under the age of 18.
If you decide to go ahead and use tanning equipment, the following steps will help reduce your risk:
- Read the warning labels on the tanning bed or lamp you are using and follow the directions carefully.
- If you go to a tanning salon, talk to the salon operator about your skin’s sensitivity and how quickly your skin tans. This should help the operator recommend the amount of time for your tanning session and how often you should tan.
- Do not go over the recommended time each tanning session for your skin type.
- Allow at least 48 hours between each tanning session. This will give your skin a chance to repair damage from the UV radiation.
- Always wear the safety eyewear that is recommended for the type of lamp you are using.
- Be sure there is a physical barrier (like a clear sheet of acrylic) between you and the tanning lamp. This will help prevent heat burns from the lamp.
- Report any side effects (like sunburn or itchiness) to the salon operator. In cases of severe sunburn, see your health care professional.
- Get a copy of Health Canada’s Guidelines for Tanning Salon Owners, Operators and Users and read it carefully. It contains more information to help you protect and maintain your health.
- Remember, the less ultraviolet radiation you get, the better it is for your health.
Photos sourced by the author from the Net.
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