From Coco Chanel To Cocoa Brown: A Short History Of Our Obsession With Tanning

When did having bronzed skin become such a thing, and why? Let's find out.

In news that probably won’t shock you, Irish women are the biggest consumers of fake tan per capita in the world. That’s right, there’s no one better at covering up freckles with gallons of the stuff and we’re not against booking a week-long holibob to sizzle under the Spanish sun in an attempt to achieve that naturally bronzed look (but who are we kidding, our skin is deffo more prone to turning lobster red).

But have you ever stopped to ask why we’re so addicted to tanning? And is it time for pale skin to become fashionable again?

See, back in the day a glowing white complexion was all the rage. Prior to the 18th century, pale skin told people you likely had big money since the upper class enjoyed a life of leisure indoors. The ancient Greeks, Romans and Elizabethans were so bonkers for the ghostly lewk that they even used poisonous whiteners to achieve it. On the other hand, if you had a wee tan it probably meant you were a working-class lass who spent her days toiling away in the fields. Things changed a little with the industrial revolution when the working class moved into factories and mines (where catching a tan was less likely than your granny not offering you a cuppa) but it wasn’t until the mid-1920s that we really went gaga for the sunkissed look.

Our nearly 100 year obsession with tanning began when Coco Chanel, the biggest trendsetter of the era, was photographed in Cannes after catching a tad too much sun on a Mediterranean cruise. Women were eager to replicate her look but with the Great Depression and Second World War dominating the following decades, imitating Coco only became achievable in the 1960s when commercial airfare was introduced and people finally had some dolla-dolla bills to enjoy it.

The first self-tanning product, Man-Tan, hit the market in the 1950s, and fake tan and sunbeds grew in popularity in the 1970s. Our addiction to tanning was finally confirmed in 2000 when a survey showed that 50% of our neighbours across the Irish Sea said getting bronzed was the main reason they went on holidays. Righto.

Coco Chanel

Weirdly enough, a vampiric complexion made a comeback in the late noughties with the release of the movie Twilight. Not only did the Team Edward vs Team Jacob debate captivate the world, but a desire to look like a Cullen did too. When the second film in the franchise, New Moon, hit cinemas in late 2009, sales of ivory-hued foundation skyrocketed with some cosmetic companies claiming they saw a 200% rise in customers buying pale makeup. It was probably helped by research that emerged around the time confirming our fears about the risk of tanning, with the World Health Organisation finding that people who used tanning devices before the age of 30 were 75% more likely to develop melanoma.

“A sun bed’s UV radiation is about 15 times stronger than the Mediterranean sun,” said Kevin O’Hagan, Cancer Prevention Manager at the Irish Cancer Society. “While some of the skin will recover, some of the DNA will be permanently damaged so it begins the process in the risk of skin cancer.”

He stressed that “even one” sun bed session can increase the risk of developing certain cancers by up to 67%.

Nicola (second from right) during her tanning days

In 2010, Girls Aloud singer Nicola Roberts campaigned for the introduction of the Sunbed Regulation Act which made it illegal for tanning salons to allow under-18s to use sunbeds after realising her fake tan addiction was contributing to low self esteem.

“Being brown is something that people find attractive so I thought at least I could make that piece of the jigsaw fit,” Nicola said.

Sometimes, it would be 12 at night, we’d get in from a gig and we’d have to do GMTV next morning. I would get into the shower, scrub off the old fake tan, moisturise, then put new fake tan on, then get into bed at 1.30 knowing I had to be up at 4.30 and I’d say to myself, “No pain, no gain. You’ve got to do this in order for people to think you look nice.”

And it seems her worries weren’t unfounded. Research has shown we believe those with a bit of visible sun exposure are healthier than their pale friends, while a 2006 study of Australian teenagers showed that respondents found tanned models more attractive.

However, it’s worth remembering that tanning is not a worldwide craze – in many parts of the globe, people attempt to lighten their skin because of the privileges that come with being white.

After years of trying to achieve a tan darker than even our fave TOWIE stars, we now have some (more natural) celebs to mimic. Emma Stone, Elle Fanning, Kirsten Dunst and our very own Saorise Ronan are just some of the famous faces who consistently refuse to bronze up.

So if you’re ready to embrace the natural look, you’re in luck; the new SPF products on our shelves are much better than the mayo-like concoctions your mam used to smear on your face before a day out at the beach – so there’s no excuse for sunburn now.

“The SPF products are much lighter now and have a less cakey feel.” said French Cosmetics Managing Director Oonagh Clarke. “The older creams were so heavy it turned people off. Now, you don’t feel as if your skin is caked.”

With star power support and quality sun safety information out there, there’s no better time to slap on the SPF and embrace the pale. Saves you the risk of a dodgy fake tan, anyway.

Screengrab via


Have your say

More like this