We’ve all seen it: the celebrity whose skin looks beautifully sun-kissed at the big summer blockbuster premiere but orange and streaky all over at the screenings of her holiday season Oscars contender. It’s a classic sign of a sunless tanner experiment gone bad.
But here’s the good news: fake tanning products have come a long way since they first hit the market. It’s now possible to achieve a natural-looking tan that lasts all year long, without the skin damage of extended beach time. Here’s a quick tour de force through the history of the tan, as well as my tips for picking the best sunless tanner.
Coco Chanel turns tan chic
Up until the 1920s, tan skin was a sign of poverty, and a creamy complexion was the epitome of beauty. If you’ve seen Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby or Vogue’s flapper-inspired photo shoot with Carrie Mulligan, you’ll get the picture. Powdery, pale skin that rarely saw the sun was a sign of glamour and luxury.
That is, until Coco Chanel came along. As the story goes, the fashion icon got a little too much sun on one of her yacht trips in the Cannes in 1923, returning to the spotlight with a bronze glow. Her sun-kissed look launched a fad and, eventually, an entire industry revolving around achieving the perfect tan.
Soon, celebrities and socialites were flocking to tropical destinations during the winter, using sunlamps to darken their once-porcelain skin. Sunburns were common. So was lying out in the sun for house to “work on your tan.”
Tanning products flourish
The tan “fad” turned into a long-term trend among women of all socioeconomic levels. During WWII, women used tea bags to mimic a natural-looking tan. Less than a decade later, the first fake tan product, the “Man Tan” had hit the market. Rather than simply stain the skin, the Man Tan used a chemical derived from sugar cane, dihydroxyacetone (DHA), to cause a browning effect among the amino acids on the skin’s surface. The ingredient was approved by the FDA for fake tanners in the 1970s and is still used in most self-tanning products today.
Doctors discover sun damage risks
When public health officials and dermatologists noticed a surge in skin cancer during the later half of the century, it fueled significant research on the effects of UV rays on our skin. Extreme sun exposure was linked to skin cancer and a host of other physical conditions.
Tanning beds and self-tanners soon stepped in to help health-conscious tan-seekers achieve a sun-kissed glow without the sun damage. By the early 1908s, tanning beds were becoming increasingly popular, as were spray tans. Researchers have since discovered that tanning beds and sunlamps are just as harmful as laying out in the sun, prompting the FDA to discourage people from using these avenues for sun-kissed skin. The popularity of tanning beds has been on the decline ever since, even as tanned skin stays firmly en vogue.
So where does that leave tan-seekers?
Fake tanning products lose the smell and orange tint
Unlike extended time in the sun or hours in the tanning bed, fake tanning products and spray tans offer safe avenues for achieving bronzed skin. Another perk — in addition to the lack of skin cancer! — is that these products can help you keep your tan year round.
Early spray tans and rub-on self-tanners got a bad rap for two reasons. First, they often produced an “oompa loompa” effect that left the skin orange and streaky. And then there was the less-than-appetizing smell, caused by the use of DHA in an unnatural form. But luckily for us, this major beauty faux pas has been largely eclipsed in the latest generation of self-tanners.
New fake tan products have gotten rid of the smell and orange tint by going more natural. The products that provide the most natural glow either use a 100 percent natural form of DHA derived from renewable plant sources or mix DHA with keto sugar molecules to provide a natural-looking, longer-lasting glow. To account for natural variations in our skin tones, scientists have also developed specialized tanners for the body and face.
How to pick the best self-tanner
Choose a tanner that uses a natural form of DHA and get separate products for your face and body. It may cost you a few more bucks, but it will save you the embarrassment of an orangey tan and reduce your risk of getting skin cancer.