A History Of…Fake Tan


From tea bags to St. Tropez; this week Georgina Grant gives us the low-down on how we arrived at the fake tan we know and love today and makes some interesting discoveries along the way.

Fake tan seems to divide opinion amongst girls. While it is loved by many, there are also the few who would not contemplate using it. It has the benefit of hiding skin imperfections and gives a lovely healthy look, but overused or applied incorrectly, and you result in looking like you haven’t showered in a while.

Fake tan is at a high point at the moment; 5 bottles of Saint Tropez self tan are sold every single minute. But believe it or not, fake tan doesn’t have a particularly long history. Right up until the 1920s, the big idea was that pale is beautiful. This was mainly because having a suntan was seen as being poor. In Ancient Rome, for example, the lady of the house would have had servants and slaves to do the errands. Heaven forbid that you would be outside doing this yourself, with the sun burning your precious skin. In short, being pale meant being wealthy.

This followed suit for every subsequent century in Britain. Elizabeth I, for example, became an icon for her pale skin. She, and many others, used a type of foundation called ceruse composed of ground white lead powder and vinegar. It created such a smooth, flawless white complexion that it was used for several centuries, despite the huge drawback of it being a fatal poison.

In the 1920s, it was Coco Chanel herself who brought in the bronzed goddess look. Returning from a holiday on the French Riviera, she wowed contemporaries with her tanned skin, bringing about an enormous change. A suntan was no longer seen as distasteful and linked to labour; it signified glamour. And to give her due, I don’t think Chanel quite envisaged this escalating to the scale we see today. (Katie Price, I’m looking at you.) I’m all for looking healthy, but there is a fine line.

During the Second World War, enterprising women used tea bags to create a natural looking tan. To mimic the appearance of stockings however, a different method was used. Gravy granules gave just the right shade of colour and teamed with a line of black eyeliner up the back of each leg, stockings were successfully faked.

It was not until the 1950s that the first self tan, known as ‘Man-Tan’, appeared on the market. This contained dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a chemical derived from sugar cane. It causes a browning reaction with the amino acids on the skin’s surface rather than simply staining the skin. DHA is so successful that it is still used in self tanning products today.

In the 1980s, sun beds become popular, but started to fade out of fashion when their link to cancer was discovered. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, with more self tan products than ever on the market, the look of glowing carrot was in, giving rise to the term ‘tangoed’. The era of tangerine reached a high point (or low depending on your view) when in 2004 the Sun rated a list of celebrities by the colour codes found on a Dulux colour chart (Donatella Versace is ‘Flame Frenzy’ if you’re interested).

Thankfully, the time of the tango has gone. Today’s fashion sees more of a low key, natural looking fresh glow, and with celebrities such as Lily Cole, Kristen Stewart and Daisy Lowe embracing their milky complexion, the scale could be about to tip back to pale and interesting.