Why The Cool Crowd Doesn’t Tan Anymore

Health messages mean more women are now conscious of using sunscreen. Photopixel/Shutterstock.com

When Tawny Willoughby recently shared a selfie showing the damage on her face after undergoing skin cancer treatment, the photograph was shared more than 50,000 times. “It’s really cool to hear people say they won’t tan anymore,” she told CNN as the picture went viral. Similarly, Danish 19-year-old Maja Hansen wrote on Facebook this month about her fight against skin cancer. “I wish I knew that it doesn’t take that much for things to go wrong and that it doesn’t require much to protect oneself,” she says.

The dangers of tanning recently prompted the Skin Cancer Foundation’s “Go With Your Own Glow” campaign, designed to encourage women to love and protect their skin no matter its natural color and endorsed by celebrities including Nicole Kidman and Victoria Beckham. After decades of skin cancer awareness messages, women are becoming more conscious of the need to use sunscreen while eschewing tanning beds. And lately, lighter-skinned celebrities such Rachel McAdams, Christina Hendricks, Marion Cotillard and Amanda Seyfried have embraced the fairer, natural trend.

Dr. Nina Jablonski, professor of anthropology at Penn State University and author of Skin: A Natural History, says the facts about the increasing prevalence of all types of skin cancer are stark, and there is a clear causal connection between skin cancer and sun exposure.

“The trend emphasizes the beauty of everyone’s natural skin color, and the importance of cultivating a love of one’s own color,” she says of the shift away from tanning. “The trend is in direct opposition to the focus and desirability of tanning.”

Michelle Villett, who runs the Beauty Editor blog and is a former health and beauty editor at ELLE Canada, is a vocal advocate for spurning tanning. “I just couldn’t lie there now knowing that I’m probably speeding up the aging process and creating future wrinkles,” she says.

Villett has studied the celebrity world and red carpet snaps for years and says there is a definite trend lately toward looking less tanned. “10 years ago, every celebrity had a deep spray tan on the red carpet, and that was very aspirational. But now it’s become a bit tacky, a bit overdone, like hair extensions or Ugg boots. The cooler celebrities are just embracing whatever skin tone they were born with,” she explains.

The beauty editor also believes that fewer people are tanning these days. “They might do it for a week on vacation, but it’s not a beauty goal like it used to be. However, the self-tanner and spray tan industries still seem to be booming. There’s a certain contingent of the population where that look is still very much alive. Think Kardashians, YouTube and Instagram ‘beauty gurus,’” she continues.

To understand the reactionary no-tan trend, it’s important to examine why the tanned ideal has pervaded our collective consciousness for so long. The iconic status of the tan has its roots in the freedom loving 60s, with icons like Brigitte Bardot embodying those ideals by frolicking in bikinis on the beach, shunning the modesty and strict sun avoidance of earlier decades.

As sunbathing quickly became an institution, it wasn’t long before images of sun, sea and the good life spread and got widely endorsed—whether directly or indirectly—by both male and female celebrities. In many Western countries, a year-round tan came to be associated with a healthy and privileged lifestyle.

During the heyday of tanning in the 80s, girls would rub baby oil on their bodies before lying on the beach or in their backyards for hours at a time. The desirability of a tan was embodied by athletic Amazonian supermodels like Cindy Crawford and Niki Taylor. Then came the pale, skinny heroin chic look of the 90s that saw tanning briefly take a backseat on fashion runways until the 00s comeback replete with fake tans and accompanying highlighted hair. Spurred on by the likes of Gisele Bundchen and Alessandra Ambrosio, looked like the tanning trend was set to be in vogue again. But it seems like mid-decade that the health scares are finally catching up with us and a tan is no longer de rigueur to be stylish.

The no-tan trend has been a long time coming. Doctors have pointed out the link between tanning and skin cancer for at least three to four decades. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, one in five Americans will develop skin cancer at some point during their lives. In the UK, the incidence of melanoma has increased more than fivefold since the late 1970s and is predicted to double each decade. Currently there are around 15,000 new cases of malignant melanoma in the UK each year. Skin cancer rates are rising faster than most other cancers in both men and women.

“There’s no such thing as a safe tan,” says Dr. Andrew Morris, a consultant dermatological surgeon based in Brighton, England. He diagnoses and treats skin cancer for the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) and in private practice. “Many people reason that if they tan slowly, it’s safe. But as soon as the skin gets tanned the DNA has been damaged,” he says.

Tanned skin is no longer as desirable as it once was in beauty circles. Gurinaleksandr/Shutterstock.com

Tanned skin is no longer as desirable as it once was in beauty circles. Gurinaleksandr/Shutterstock.com

Short periods of strong sun exposure increase an individual’s risk of developing melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer. “This is the kind of sun exposure that many people experience today because of the patterns of holidays they take: One week of strong unprotected sun exposure on holiday will wreak enormous damage on the skin, not only in the form of painful and visible sunburn but in the extensive but invisible damage to the DNA in skin cells,” says Jablonski. “The unrepaired DNA damage that remains after the ravages of a bad sunburn and continued strong UV exposure are now recognized as key risk factors for the development of melanoma,” she continues.

By now everyone knows that chronic sun exposure leads to irreversible damage that manifests as changes in skin texture and deep wrinkles (think European seniors holidaying on the Riviera and you get the picture). These changes often take many years to develop, however, so you pay for chronic sun exposure decades after the damage occurred.

Just as in the case of smoking, the damage usually takes time to become apparent, as do the health benefits of quitting. “It’s only 20 to 30 years down the line that you can see casual decreases in skin cancer rates. Even if everyone stopped tanning today, it would take 20 years to see the benefits,” says Dr. Morris.

Around one in 10 people diagnosed with malignant melanoma die. But if cases are diagnosed early, there’s a 75 to 80 percent chance of survival. “Most patients take the message very seriously. Their immediate reaction is often to get very frightened,” says Dr. Morris. “There are new drugs now, but previously, if the cancer came back there was nothing to do as chemotherapy doesn’t work on malign melanoma. We are far more positive with patients today. However, we can’t give any guarantees.”

At least good news are coming from one place in the world: Australia—the country with the highest skin cancer and mortality rates in the world. Thanks to the world’s first widespread public awareness campaigns and a now strong understanding of the need for sun protection, skin cancer rates have flattened in recent years Down Under. To try to emulate some of that success, it is now illegal for under 18s to use sunbeds in the UK. 

According to the experts, the best way to avoid skin cancer is to avoid sunburn and tanning. If you go on holiday, come back the same color you left. Avoid the sun between the high UV hours of 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., seek out the shade and cover up with clothing.

Despite the known risks, the tanned look is persistent and seems to recur regularly for many reasons. It remains emblematic of “the good life” and all this represents about higher status. The modern tan connotes leisure, time off, and the luxury of not having to work. Natural tanning in the sun also makes people feel good as it releases endorphins. And many enjoy receiving positive comments about their tan.

“People like to hear other says to them, “Wow, you look great!” These factors taken together are powerfully reinforcing for individuals. But one only has to look at lifelong tanners to know that this is a habit that takes a serious toll. There are few tanners in the fifth, sixth, or seventh decades of life who still garner compliments about their appearance,” says Jablonski.

Most people know a suntan is not safe, but there’s still a widely held belief that a tan will make you look healthier and thinner. “It’s also difficult to change cultural ideals when big beauty brands are putting out certain marketing message,”  says Villett. “Self-tanner manufacturers are capitalizing on the idea of a ‘safe tan’ using their products. They don’t want the tanned ideals to go away anytime soon, and have a lot of money to spend on pushing the message that tanned skin is more beautiful.”

Will we ever reach the end of the “Bronze Age”? Biological anthropologist Jablonski thinks it is possible, but says that it will likely take a long time as the promotion of safe tanning through the use of self-tanners perpetuates the desirability of the tanned look. “The Bronze Age will end only when the desire for the tanned look stops, and this will never happen as long as tanning products are developed and marketed in the contexts of luxury, beauty, and achievement of high status,” she says.

And the Canadian beauty editor urges women to take an emphatically inclusive approach to skin color ideals, including their own: “I just think beauty is all about diversity—different features, shapes, sizes and skin colors. Whatever skin tone you were born with is already beautiful the way it is, and you don’t have to change it.”