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The History of the Suntan

Enjoying the sun has been a favorite pastime for people of all ages for many years. Today, it is still one of life’s free, most fun of relaxing pleasure. Frolicking on sandy beaches, playing in the ocean/lake or just lounging around and enjoying the sunshine has brought smiles to many sun-worshippers, young and old.


Throughout history, man has been entranced with the rising and setting of the Sun. From the Mayans at Chichen itza to the pyramids in Egypt, the Sun has proven to be the driving force of all civilizations.


Even though acquiring a suntan has been popular for many years, it was also regarded as social status. The darker skinned people were always considered lower working class because they were the ones who did the gardening and hard construction work, while the upper class kept out of the sun.


In ancient Rome and Greece, women used make-up containing lead poisoning. Unfortunately, this led to their untimely deaths. Early in the 10th century, arsenic was used to whiten a woman’s skin.  Later on during Queen Elizabeth’s era, women used heavy white powder to brighten their faces. Then they applied a very thin blue line on their foreheads to give a translucent appearance. In these days, women never went outside without hats and/or parasols and wore floor length dresses with long sleeves.


We have come a long way baby!


The original trend setters started in the 1920’s amid the “flapper age”. A woman noted for being a “style icon,” Coco Chanel got sunburned while taking a holiday in the South of France and the French Riviera and returned home with a – TAN! A much loved popular singer by the name of Josephine Baker from Paris had a caramel-skin coloring.  This became a very fashionable accessory. Hats became fashion statements instead of protective clothing. “Sun therapy” became very popular and was prescribed as a cure for everything from simple fatigue to tuberculosis.


In the 1930’s Hollywood movies began to use color film and soon rosy cheeks and healthy pallor’s became the absolute necessity. Swimming pools with starlets basking around in the sun became the new California image. In the 1940’s swimming costumes were becoming skimpier and by the 50’s the bikini was the fashion accessory. A suntan became a symbol of having money and extra leisure time.


The 1950’s brought about the use of the silver metallic UV reflectors. This was a trend that lasted many years. All of us remember or have heard of the cute little pig-tailed blonde girl at the beach with her brown cocker spaniel in back of her tugging at her bathing suit bottoms and showing the difference between the areas of her tanned body. That was the Coppertone advertisement in 1953 and the headlines read “Don’t be a Pale Face” and “Tan Don’t Burn”. Ten years later, at the young age of 3, actress Jodie Foster will help popularize the image and make it a tanning icon.  In 1959 American fell for “Gidget”, a movie about the pert ‘n perky Sandra Dee. She was a California tomboy who spent the summer at Malibu learning how to surf... and learning about love from a cool surfer and beach bum.


In the early 1960’s cocoa butter, richer and more moisturizing than baby oil, became the tanning lotion of choice across America, while surf movies and the surfer lifestyle became all the rage. In 1962 the Beach Boys hit the charts with some of their earliest tunes such as, “Surfin’,” “Surfin’ Safari,” and “Surfer Girl.” These famous surfing songs helped raise the profile of the state of California and the sport of surfing. In 1964 a 28 year old Dana Point filmmaker, Bruce Brown released the surfing documentary, “The Endless Summer.” This movie reached out to social worlds beyond surfing and generated a positive image and publicity windfall for the sport that is still remembered and felt some thirty years later. From Duluth to Paris, the surfer was no longer perceived as the archetypical beach bum or social laze about, but rather he became the symbol of a healthy and glamorous lifestyle, that during the later 60’s, 70’s and 80’s would greatly influence the look and tone of fashion, language and leisure time activities throughout the wet and dry world.


In 1970 the first tan-through bathing suits were introduced. Soon the care-free youth culture demanded a year-round tan so they could appear to have just returned from vacation. This spawned the development of the indoor tanning beds in 1975. Mattel, who was the company that came out with Barbie and Ken developed a Malibu Barbie. But it wasn’t until 1978 when the tanning bed businesses started growing. George Hamilton was the first-ever tan Dracula in the movie “Love At First Bite.”  Then sunscreen with SPF 15 came out in the marketplace. Today there are thousands of brands of all SPF levels for adults and children and whether you are lying on the beach, swimming or playing volleyball there is a sunscreen for you. By the 1970’s, a whole generation began to enjoy themselves in the sun. In 1979 Bo Derek set the precedent of the perfect women in the movie “10”, showing off her tanned and toned body and became an overnight sex symbol for the following decade.  This brought about many advertising campaigns featuring bronzed and beautiful bodies, which of course willed many more people out in the sun.


In the 1980’s, BMW advertised its convertible as “The Ultimate Tanning Machine.” Indoor tanning salons had become widespread. In the late 1980’s, California Tan is founded with the launch of its first product, Maxgel,  which dramatically helped increase tanning results while supplying the skin with essential moisture-rich ingredients. California Tan discovered the tanning benefits of Tissue Respiratory Factors (TRF) which was a breakthrough tanning technology that allowed the skin to functions more effectively to support greater results and improved skincare.  In 1991 the company announced Heliotherapy, the positive effects of the sun, based on the belief that, in moderation, sun exposure enhances physical and psychological health. A year later, California Tan introduced the first premium indoor tanning lotion, Sizzle for “serious tanners,” revolutionizing the indoor tanning salon industry and teaching the importance of using a tanning lotion to maintain a healthy-looking tan.  The company launched a national consumer magazine advertising campaign with ads running in Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Self and Shape magazines, becoming the first indoor tanning manufacturer to general mass consumer awareness about indoor tanning.  In 1996, this same company founded the Heliotherapy Light & Skin Research Center at Boston University School of Medicine to earnestly study the positive and negative effects of the sun and UV light.


Starting the year 2000 the fashion world got inspired and turned upside down with the influx of exotic, bronzed Brazilian and South American models traversing the runway and taking over designer print ads. Actresses, actors and singers were leading the way with their beautiful bronzed swept skins. Sunless tanning took off like never before with better quality self-tanning products as well as the new craze, “self tanning spray booths” barrier cream, exfoliating scrubs and sunless tan-extenders – covering all the bases for the perfect sunless tan. 


Today, the suntan business is a multi-billion dollar business! College students flock to beaches for their Spring Breaks. Families plan their vacations in the warm parts of the countries to be in the sunshine. Everywhere you look people are enjoying the sun and acquiring their own tans!


Now you know the history of the suntan,  so get out there in the beautiful sunshine, protect yourself with whatever suntan treatment you decide upon….  have a blast!!


-Ms. Suntan

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