2.1 The history of the tanning industry

You only need to think about tanning fails of the past, which turned people bright orange to know that the tanning industry has come a long way in recent years. Many of your clients may remember these times and may be averse to having a sunless tan in fear of turning that ‘Oompa Loompa’ orange. Knowing why certain tanning products turn peoples skin orange, patchy or streaky is essential as an expert spray tanning technician. Every expert of their respective industry should have a firm understanding of where their craft originated and the progression of trends and styles through the ages.  Let’s take a closer look!

Prior to the 1920’s

In many cultures, prior to the 1920s, a suntan was considered to be a marker of lower classes. Working-class people, farmers and labourers often worked in the sun and developed natural tans, which was a clear visual indicator that they were working class and not wealthy. In addition to determining class, pale skin was usually common among women as they were expected to stay inside and out of the sun.

Women in ancient Greece and Rome would whiten their skin with lead paint and chalk, and in Elizabethan times, women would actually paint on blue veins to emphasise the paleness of their skin or would apply lead paint to try and cover up pesky freckles! If you look back at artwork during these time periods, pay close attention to the variances in skin colour and the sorts of clothes they wore. For instance, in Elizabethan and Victorian times, women and children would often be covered from head to toe to protect their skin from the sun. There is a famous Claude Monet painting which shows a lady with a parasol and her son, both covered completely from the sun:

As another example, in the painting below, you can see that Phryne, an ancient Greek courtesan, is featured in the painting with pale skin and is being protected from the sun with an umbrella. Phryne’s real name was actually Mnesarete, but she was given the name Phryne (the Greek name for toad) due to her pale and sallow complexion.

Trying to attain lighter skin is still prevalent today, and in some countries and cultures, skin bleaching is still a practice. Some of the ingredients used in bleaching agents, such as Hydroquinone, can be very harmful, and countries such as Ghana, Japan, Australia, and Rwanda, have banned the use of this chemical in cosmetics. Even today, the skin has social, racial, historical, political, and sociological meanings, and many people around the world are trying to attain lighter or darker skin for their own personal or cultural reasons. Everyone has a right to look and feel beautiful in their skin, regardless of tonal preference. In terms of a sunless tan, the industry has been able to develop products to assist people with achieving their bronzed skin goals without the harmful impact of excessive sun exposure or unsafe products.

If you are interested in learning more about the trends, impacts and differences between the  skin lightening and darkening industries, access the resources below:

1920’s to 1950’s

When fashion designer and icon Coco Chanel returned from holidays in 1923 with a glowing all-over tan, the fashion industry took notice. Rather than avoid a bronzed glow, people everywhere were now wanting a sun-kissed look for themselves, and this created a fashion trend that became a norm. Soon after Coco Chanel’s return from holidays, many celebrities and socialites flocked to beaches and tropical paradises to achieve a glowing tan for themselves. Some people even say Coco Chanel invented sunbathing given the popularity tanning would now have on the world!

The bronzed look was not only achieved by those who could afford fancy holidays. During World War II, it was said that women used tea-bags, shoe polish and Bovril (salty meat extract paste) to achieve a tanned look. In 1928, fashion designer Jean Patou introduced the very first tanning oil called Huile de Chaldé, and people in the early 1950s would often use baby oil to assist with their tan development.

Evolution of Dihydroxyacetone (DHA)

Dihydroxyacetone, or DHA, is often derived from plant sources such as sugar beets, sugar cane or through the fermentation of glycerine. DHA was first discovered in the 1920s by German scientists who used it in the X-Ray process, and they had noticed that it causes the skin to turn brown when it made contact. These scientists didn’t take much notice of this reaction, and it wasn’t until the mid-1950s when researcher Eva Wittgenstein studied this reaction further. At this time, Wittgenstein was working with children with metabolic disorders and noticed that DHA was staining their skin when it spilled out of their mouths (or when they spat out the solution!). To continue the experiment, Wittgenstein decided to paint solutions with DHA on her own skin to see if she could reproduce the change in pigmentation – success!

Put simply, the way DHA works is that it reacts with amino acids that are a major component of the surface of our skin. This reaction causes different tones of pigmentation, from yellows to deep browns. In nutritional studies, this is known as the ‘Maillard reaction’, where a reaction occurs between amino acids and sugars. We see the Maillard reaction all the time when we toast bread, sear steaks or toast marshmallows! An excellent way to think about how DHA works is using the example of a cut apple. If you cut an apple in half, over time, the insides of the apple will turn brown. This is similar to the reaction our skin has to DHA. When we apply DHA to the skin, our skin will react over several hours and will turn into shades of brown, depending on the percentage of DHA and the other ingredients in the tanning solution.

Did you know: DHA comes in different strengths – the higher the percentage of DHA, the quicker and darker the tan develops.

Many of our clients think that the topcoat of the tan is the tan, but this is not the case! Think of the first layer as the guide colour, and the magic really happens when the DHA reacts. So, when clients rinse off the top layer after the processing time, they are actually rinsing off the cosmetic bronzer – not the tan. The tan continues to develop as it reacts with the amino acids in the keratin protein in our skin.

If you are interested in learning more about how DHA works, watch the videos linked:

Evolution of sunless tanning products

The world’s first tanning product with DHA, Man-Tan, was available for purchase in the 1950s. As the name suggests, this product was aimed at men; however, it did not take off due to the unpredictable outcomes. No two tans were the same as everyone’s skin is different, particularly the pH levels and level of moisture. Man-Tan could turn your skin orange and tended to be super streaky, plus it didn’t smell very nice! In a similar way, a company called Coppertone released the very first ‘quick tan’ product, which claimed to work indoors and outdoors, with a tan developing in four to five hours.

If you would like to look at the ‘savvy’ advertisements of these products, watch the videos linked: 

In addition to the development of self-tanning products, indoor tanning (sunbeds) were also increasing in popularity. In the 1970s, European scientist Friedrich Wolff founded the indoor tanning industry while studying the impacts of ultraviolet (UV) light on athletes. The perceived bonus of using tanning beds was that people could achieve a bronzed glow all year round. Sun beds are still used today but have declined due to the increased risks of skin cancer and premature aging, which are linked to exposure to UV. So, back in the 1970s, you could use self-tanning products that came with a risk of turning you orange/streaky, or you could opt to tan in the sun or use a sunbed, which increased your risk of skin cancer (which was unbeknown to many sunbathers and sun bed users at the time). Once DHA became an approved ingredient by the United States of America Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the rest is history!

Tanning products have continued to improve and evolve over the past few decades, and with more research that shows how harmful exposure to the sun and sunbeds can be, the sunless tanning industry continues to boom! On the market today, there are numerous products available, including but not limited to tanning sprays, mousse, gels, oils, body masks and creams. Further to these products, tanning products available today all have different processing times and can be used as instant tans or gradual tan building – the options are endless!

These days, spray tanning technicians can help to ensure their clients do not turn orange as there are way better products on the market to suit all skin types and tones. The main culprits for ‘Oompa Loompa’ disasters are overdevelopment, low-grade ingredients and using the incorrect colour. We will look at these factors in more detail in the coming modules.

If you would like to learn more about the history of tanning, read the articles linked:

Scroll to Top