Forget Barbie pink, this summer is all about tan

Tan is back, tan is chic, this is an essay about why we all want a tan

Hero image in post
Hero image in post

Tan is back, tan is chic, this is an essay about why we all want a tan

By Rhys Thomas07 Aug 2023
8 mins read time
8 mins read time

It looks like summertime in the United Kingdom has been incredibly brief. Gone is the smiling sun and Barbiecore galore, and in is the crying rain (unless you’re a farmer or a plant or something, we’re happy you got tears of joy falling from the sky). But for most of us, woah, are we missing those sweet rays.

Despite the actual lack of UV rays on this little island, somehow everyone’s tans look good though. But where did they come from?! Like, okay, you’ve been to the Mediterranean for a couple weeks, great, but so many people have popping tans right now: Ryan Gosling as Ken, Will Poulter, Kendal Jenner, and the person in the flat next to yours! So there must be more to it. And not only is more people with tans the case, but the aesthetic of a tan seems to be having a real moment.

Had you noticed the world getting a little tan-talising, as if everything was going even more firmly Y2K (we’re talking Pairs Hilton vibes back then), or as you’d imagine every teenager looking in 1980s LA, you’d be on to something. Data from Melanoma Focus suggests that 42 percent of 18-25 year olds (within their dataset of around a thousand people) have claimed to have used a sunbed. Almost half, that’s a lot of people.

What actually is a tan?

A tan is the result of skin being exposed to UV radiation. This exposure is actually a type of genetic damage and the body increases its melanin production in order to protect the skin from further damage. Melanin is a pigment colouring our hair, eyes, and skin. More melanin (which everyone has, except for some albino people) results in darker skin tone. The increase in melanin production after our skin gets too much sun is temporary, and therefore so is the change in skin colour. We call this a tan. Skin damage from the UV radiation is cumulative, meaning it worsens each time.

Tanning has been popular for around a hundred years as an aesthetic choice in Western society, predominantly with lighter skin tones. Issues of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar from the 1920s advertise tanning products, and while it was still popular to bleach skin at the time, later into the decade adverts for tanning products began to outnumber those for skin bleaching and sun-protecting products (and therefore likely society).

“Earlier, pale skin was often perceived as a mark of beauty, wealth, and refinement, whereas tanned skin was considered to be typical of manual laborers,” this academic article in the National Library of Medicine says. It’s why white women wore lead on their faces in the Elizabethan era; to make it known they weren’t ever toiling on the land. By the 1920s, there was a shift as a lot of working class work went indoors or underground as well as outdoors. There was less of a hard and fast rule around tanning being a working class thing (and rich people could afford holidays, and to not work). Then, in 1923 Coco Chanel got sunburned on holiday. When she arrived home it had turned into a tan, and people started copying the look. Many believe Coco Chanel accidentally invented sunbathing as a result.

In 2010, Girls Aloud’s Nicola Roberts successfully campaigned for it to be illegal for under 18s to use sunbeds and tanning in general fell from favour. Just over a decade on, perhaps that’s simply changing once again in the way fashions do, and across all genders. The tan is becoming more widespread than subcultures this summer. So what’s going on there?

Tan is back in a big way - here’s why

Well, tans are evocative of days in the sun, time away doing nothing but catching rays. Whether that’s poolside or not. You see tan, your brain goes ooo holiday! And we all need a damn break don’t we? Given the choice would you choose to, or not choose to go somewhere sunny and lay about all day right now? Exactly. Tans represent freedom, in a British context throughout July, they’d have represented successfully escaping hell island (home).

And of course, when it comes to sunbeds and self-tanning application, there’s the “cozzie livs”. We can’t fly about as much as before, a sunbed session tends to come in at £1 a minute, and sessions are generally less than 20 minutes, and you should leave a couple days between sessions. So you’re looking at less than £60 a week on sunbeds, which is cheaper than a holiday. Spray tans work out cheaper, and self-tanning is cheaper still.

Somewhere where tanning has remained a constant is the bodybuilding community. Tanning improves muscle definition, and helps people to look leaner when they have very defined visible muscles, particularly under the stage lightning you’d get at bodybuilding shows. Bodybuilders don’t get more famous than Arnold Schwarzenegger, and in order to achieve his tan, he used to exercise outside on Venice Beach, jump in the sea (UV reflecting off the water exposes your skin to additional UV rays, and therefore more skin damage), and then exercise all over again. Of course, the flash of a ring light is similar to the stage lights of a bodybuilding competition, so influencers who rely on their physique for engagement are finding benefits from tanning there too, and the influence is rubbing off (literally in the case of fake tan) on their followers too.

We live in a world of micro-trends, subcultures, and self-expression, but sometimes there is a general zeitgeist or overarching view on what is considered in or not. Recent complexion-considering trends have included “foundation a shade or two paler than your skin tone”, and heroin chic. Last year, The Guardian’s Jess Cartner-Morley wrote a piece titled “As tans fade from culture, I’m finally going to give up the sun worshipping”. But today, Barbiecore is at its peak.

On TikTok, if you search “pale skin” many of the videos that come up are of people implying they wish their skin was more tanned - or using a pale skin filter to feel better about their skin (as it’s less pale than the filter). Of course some videos are also pale creators negatively reacting to people saying they should fake tan, too. But it signals a shift.

The rise of anti-wellness

The fact that there seems to be a move toward something less “wellness” - even though your nana would absolutely describe a tan as healthy - is also popping up in other parts of culture. Take, for example, the apparent rise in people smoking cigarettes again, and the fact that cigs are being re-considered as “cool”. The fact that we’ve seemingly ditched SPF (or at least are tanning while using it, hopefully) and picked up sunbeds and cigarettes immediately after a pandemic may seem curious, but it may also be exactly the reason why (and you know, climate change, the economy, other big scary factors). People just want to have fun.

Along with the cons of tanning using sunbeds or sunlight, which include an increased risk of melanoma skin cancer by up to 20 percent (and greater risk if you’re under 25 years old); there are pros. “Several health benefit claims such as improved appearance, enhanced mood, and increased vitamin D levels have been attributed to tanning.” Says an article in the National Library of Medicine from academics at Colorado School of Public Health, and the School of Medicine, University of California. Other sources including the American Academy of Dermatology Association suggests that as most sunbeds use UVA and not UVB which is where we get vitamin D from, so sunbeds aren’t going to help with vitamin D levels. Both of these sources suggest self-tanners as a safer alternative to sunbeds. But realistically, people are not tanning for physical health reasons.

If people’s primary concerns were skin cancer and wrinkles, they would self-tan. But self-tanning is very difficult to guarantee good results (an even tan without streaks and missing spots) compared to sunbeds and actual sun. And good even tans seem to be the priority: people are increasingly choosing the side of the coin that guarantees better looks as opposed to safety. Sunbeds are on the rise.

Plus there’s other sunkissed reactions, like freckles and hair bleaching, the improved mood from feeling like you’ve been in the sun as opposed to having just painted your body with something that smells like bad biscuits and the bad biscuit smelling fake tan rubbing off onto bed sheets, that people enjoy. Perhaps with the world going to shit in some ways and the never-ending rainy season, people are just looking to find happiness where they can. Short term takes priority: if people can’t go to the sun, then perhaps they can get the sun (or the next best thing) to come to them. Wellness is all about balance, and for many, the benefits of a tan now are outweighing the risks of tomorrow.

For further information on melanoma, and advice on how to screen yourself at home, head to melanomauk.org.uk