Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 July 2019

Deconstructing: the suntan

Given the furore about an overtanned Gigi Hadid posing in Italian Vogue (did she or did she not use ‘black face’?) and a US president who is a shade of orange, perhaps now is the time to discuss the history of suntanning.

Donald Trump is an alarming shade of orange. EPA/CHRIS KLEPONIS / POOL
Donald Trump is an alarming shade of orange. EPA/CHRIS KLEPONIS / POOL

As recently as the turn of the 20th century, skin darkened by the Sun was a sign of low social status almost the world over, and associated with those who laboured outdoors. Paler skin was regarded as a symbol of wealth, and of a life of privilege spent indoors.

By the 1920s, thinking had started to change, and American doctors began prescribing sunbathing for tuberculosis sufferers, prompting wealthy patients to flock to sanatoriums.

In Europe, meanwhile, a French designer, Gabrielle Chanel, was fond of sunkissed skin, declaring in 1929 that “a girl simply has to be tanned”. Soon, film stars were flocking to the beach, with men encouraged to cultivate a masculine, coppery glow.

By the 1950s, a tan had become a sign of wealth, as it suggested prolonged holidaying. In the 1960s and 70s – thanks to affordable airfares – more people were able to travel overseas to enjoy the sunshine.

The first significant jump in skin cancer cases was recorded that decade (numbers have increased four fold since then) and heralded sun awareness campaigns.


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It is now understood that there is no such thing as a safe tan, as a deepening colour is a sign of the body attempting to block out harmful ultraviolet light by producing melanin. Different skin tones have different levels of melanin, and the thinking is that a tan is a sign of DNA damage.

Make-up would appear to be the safest alternative, with self-tanning lotions, bronzers and illuminators to perfect that sunkissed look. Make sure to get advice on the right shade to match your skin type, or you might end up doing a Gigi.

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Updated: June 3, 2018 10:52 AM