Ancient Egypt to Essex: A Brief History of Tanning

As the first fleeting rays of sun permeate through the eternal cloudbanks to beat upon on our beloved smoky city, it is safe to assume that summer has decided to make its appearance (even if for just a short time). And with these few UV infused glimmers of light, people scramble to any open space not already occupied by other pasty skinned folk to soak it up in the hope of getting a tan – usually in vain. But why is having sun kissed skin something so many of us yearn for?

Throughout history, the levels of tanning and of having tanned skin has gone in and out of fashion, and with it the fashions of the time. In ancient cultures such as Egypt, Rome and Greece, skin colour did not denote social status; however, as time went on and colonialism by European countries took place, a lighter skin tone became a symbol of upper class standing. Go back prior to the Industrial Revolution (circa 19th century) when tanned skin was associated with the lower classes, and you would see women taking every and all measures to ensure they maintained a fair and pale complexion. Full-length skirts and sleeves, bonnets and the parasol were used as everyday accessories to shield them from the sunlight and preserve their refined, upper-class appearances.

The longing that Victorian women had for a lighter skin tone took them to some extreme lengths, even to using lead-based cosmetics such as creams and lightening powers what would artificially lighten the skin, this was particularly popular with black American’s trying to elevate themselves and forget the shackles of slavery. However, the use of these cosmetics was not always carefully controlled and so women would end up giving themselves lead poisoning; all in the name of staying white. A light smear of SPF 20 would have done the trick, ladies!

These rather dubious trends of life threatening home-dermatology lasted until the end of the Victorian Era, when the discovery that the Vitamin-D absorbed by the skin when exposed to the sun could be used as a cure for several diseases of the time. By the 1920s, things had taken a complete 360-degree turn, with sunbathing becoming a desirable activity for the leisure class. It wasn’t until the 1940s, however, that sun tanning reached new heights of obsession. As advertisements in magazines encouraged women to sunbathe more often, the bathing suits that they would wear also decreased in size, opening up more flesh for those rays of the light. Enter the bikini.

The social mantra to attain a “healthy” tan continued to rule our Western cultures, and we soon, through our desperation as much as our laziness, found a way to bring the tan inducing rays indoors. Tanning salons, and indeed beauty salons in general, began offering time on sun beds for a few quid a pop, with some people regularly using the beds to maintain their bronzed look. And while it was a good way to prep your skin for your holiday, and gain a few melanomas on the way, governments began to campaign against their use. As public awareness of the risks of using these tanning facilities rose, people turned their attention to spray tans (AKA Tan in a Can).

Now, in the long line of changing tanning trends, we are consumed by the modern day phenomenon of the orange spray tanners of Essex. Packed full of Carotenoids, Beta-Carotenes and Canthanxanthins, these chemically tan inducing bottles of Tango are still one of the safer forms of tanning – aside from actually using sunscreen – but it does lack the reality factor, no matter how much Amy Childs endorses it.

So where will our burning desires for tanning perfection take us next? A UV App maybe? Or maybe even move somewhere with more heat, like Mercury. Whatever it is, you may be adamant that adding a little colour to your skin tone is the best way to kick-start your summer and fully forget the aftermath of the harsh winter months. But whichever way you prefer to get your tan on, or not as the case may be, just remember to stay safe and slap on some Factor 50 for good measure.

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