Experts Unravel the Myth of the Healthy Summer Tan

For many people, summer means sun-kissed skin. Some 40 percent of Americans believe they're more attractive with a tan, with devotees citing benefits such as a slimmer-looking silhouette, defined muscles, and improved skin texture.

We're willing to go to great lengths for bronzed skin. In 2021, the self-tanning market was valued at $1 billion, but a "real" tan is still the go-to for many.

From 1,000 people recently polled by the American Academy of Dermatology Association, over half said those with tanned skin appeared healthier, suggesting the idea of a "healthy tan" is still prevalent.

Dr Sasha Dhoat, Consultant Dermatologist at Stratum Clinics, told Newsweek: "The idea of the 'safe' tan is a myth. A tan is basically visible evidence of skin damage. The skin appears darker due to redistribution of melanin, pigment, in an effort to protect itself."

Since skin cancer is the most frequently diagnosed cancer in the U.S., where does the misconception that tanned skin is a sign of health come from? And why are Americans willing to risk their health for that golden glow?

Pale and Interesting

The myth of the healthy tan
A stock photo of a man and woman sunbathing on a beach. 40 percent of Americans believe they are more attractive with a tan. Tom Merton/OJO Images

Beauty standards have changed throughout history. Although the tan has reigned supreme in the Western world for almost 100 years, "pale and interesting" was the ideal for centuries.

Jill Burke is a Professor of Renaissance Visual and Material Cultures at the University of Edinburgh. Specializing in the history of the body and its visual representation, she told Newsweek that historically, pale skin signified wealth and status.

"[A tan] was a sign of having to work outside, so was often associated with peasants and people who had to work for a living," she explained.

The ancient Greeks and Romans would go out of their way to avoid tanning, using chalk or lead powder to appear as pale as possible, while women in China and Japan used similar materials to lighten their skin.

Elizabethans used a mixture of white lead and vinegar called "ceruse" for a chalky complexion, despite it causing side effects such as anemia, scarring and even renal failure. Wealthy women in the Victorian era preferred a parasol and "face-lightening lotion" to whiten their skin, but like other cosmetics in the 1900s, these lotions were full of poisonous chemicals.

As today, the beauty standard for skin tone was set by culture and gender norms, with colorism and a preference for pale skin still an issue in large swathes of the world.

"[In the past], men were expected to 'naturally' have darker skin than women, so it was deemed particularly important for women to have pale delicate skin," Burke said.

"[Skin lightening] is still popular in countries such as India, Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, where colorism is an issue, particularly for women."

Bronzed Skin Is In

Coco Chanel is often credited for our current obsession with tanned skin. After developing an enviable tan on a cruise in the Côte d'Azur in 1923, the French designer unintentionally ushered in a new era of beauty.

Despite not meaning to catch the sun, a snap of her disembarking in Cannes set a trend that is still going strong almost a century later.

However, tans were already beginning to see a surge in popularity, thanks to the industrial revolution.

Beauty Historian Rachel Weingarten told Newsweek: "Tanning became a sign of wealth because only the upper classes could afford to go on a fabulous vacation.

"When they came home sun-bronzed it was obvious that they had been away, unlike the poor pale souls whose hard work created the products they used daily."

Myth of the healthy tan
A woman applying sunblock to her back circa 1950s America. The rise of the bikini led to increased desire for an all-over tan. George Marks/Retrofile RF/Getty Images Plus

Tanned skin is still associated with wealth and a life of leisure, with year-round tans sported by celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and Ariana Grande.

Chanel didn't just launch a trend, but an industry. The first tanning oil was released in 1928, with the first "sunblock" version produced in 1935.

After bikinis started to rise in popularity during the 1950s, an all-over tan became even more desirable. By the time the 70s arrived, tanned skin was synonymous with bronzed beach babes, and the super-tanned, toned physiques of the 80s only solidified the message that a tan was the epitome of beauty.

"Women were slathering themselves with baby oil and iodine to amplify the sun, but what they were really doing was increasing their chances of skin cancer," said Weingarten.

Why Do So Many People Believe Tans Are Healthy?

Despite so many people believing that tans make you appear healthier, the knowledge that UV radiation is bad for your skin isn't a new discovery. Dermatologists noticed a surge in skin cancer in the 70s, but even today, the legend of the healthy tan persists.

As of 2021, 45 percent of Americans believe in one or more "tanning myths."

For example, that you can't burn in cloudy weather or that a "base tan"—tanning ahead of prolonged sun exposure, such as a vacation—is better for your skin. Some 20 percent still believe that tanning is safe as long as you don't burn, while 13 percent are convinced that tanning is a healthy activity.

"Repeated exposure will lead to premature aging, thickened and leathery skin," warned Dr Dhoat. "[It is also] a direct attack on cellular DNA, our genetic blueprint, leading to skin cancers."

So, are we doomed to choose between our health and a tan?

Dr Dhoat said there are steps you can take to protect yourself, such as wearing a sunblock with both UVA and UVB protection and an SPF of at least 30 while outdoors, as well as staying out of the sun during the hottest times of day (between noon and 3pm).

"I am not advocating a life in the dark," she explained. "But merely suggest enjoying the sun safely, [such as] investing in fake tans and over-the-counter vitamin D supplements to achieve that look Coco Chanel set the trend for in the 1920s."