From Orange Man-Tan to Today: History of the Sunless Tanning Industry

When did people start using sunless tanner? Here's the history. Know what you need to about getting that sunkissed glow while staying safer.

The History of Sunless Tanning

Until fashion icon Coco Chanel returned from a yachting trip with a golden glow and was photographed in 1923, the preferred look for Caucasian women was a pale, creamy complexion. Suntans were considered a sign of farm work or toiling outdoors for the lower classes. But when Coco Chanel made the tanned look appear to be natural and outdoorsy, a sign of leisure and a healthy and sporting lifestyle, a summer tan became something to strive toward.

During World War II, women dyed their legs with tea bags, when stockings were in shortage, and leg makeup became difficult to find. A tan has been the desired look, at least in the summer months, for most of us ever since.

Unfortunately, by the 1970s it was becoming clear that tanning was not only connected to premature aging, but also to skin cancer, including deadly melanoma, and tanning became a guilty pleasure, something we still enjoyed, and still considered a standard of beauty, but knew we were likely to pay for later.

And so began a brand new line of cosmetics based on the difficult task of achieving a suntan without the sun.

How sunless tanning started: DHA Discovery and Man-Tan

When a medical researcher accidentally discovered that the sugar-cane derived DHA, (dihydroxyacetone) ingredient in a medication she was testing was darkening the skin color of her patients, the self-tanning industry was born. Eventually, the FDA approved DHA for topical use and cosmetic companies went to work trying to perfect a natural-looking tan.

In the late 1950s, the first self-tanner was marketed as a product called “Man-Tan,” a self-tanning after-shave product that was geared toward giving men a “rugged,” tanned appearance without the sun. Man-Tan did not become a marketing trend due to its tendency to turn some users an orange color.

Because DHA reacts differently to different skin types, the first self-tanners were somewhat unpredictable. In general, DHA produces more yellow pigment and less red than a natural suntan, which is why results lean toward a more orange-colored tan.

When did Coppertone Introduce Self-Tanner?

It wasn’t until Coppertone introduced “Coppertone QT” in 1960 as an overnight tanner, that self-tanning lotion became widely available to a skeptical public. QT, or Quick Tan was touted as a “double tan” product that you could apply in the evening, wake up with a tan, and then go sunbathing and apply more QT in order to double your tan. It falsely assumed that the sunless tan would protect the user’s skin from burning the next day, the way a genuine tan would. Of course, we’ve since learned the hard way that a sunless tan does not offer any sun protection at all.

Coppertone QT did not exactly take the market by storm. Between the tendency to turn people orange and streaky, and the strong odor which is the natural result of the chemical reaction between DHA and dead skin cells, Coppertone QT enjoyed only mild success. It did, however, launch a competitive industry into developing new and improved self-tanning technologies that are still being improved upon today.

what are Modern Improvements in Self-Tanners?

Thankfully, self-tanners have come a very long way since the original products with their orange glow and streaky appearance. Today’s self-tanners include organic ingredients that produce less odor, and they are often scented with a longer-lasting fragrance to cover up any unpleasant smell during the tanning process. Formulas have been optimized to spray or glide on smoothly and evenly to prevent streaking, and more color choices are available for various skin tones. Many companies now market face tanner as a separate product, because the skin of the face is very different from the skin on the rest of the body, and is more likely to turn an unsightly color with typical body self-tanning lotions and sprays.

Also available today are special mitts to ensure smooth application of your tanning product and to protect the hands from unplanned staining.

While a tan from a self-tanner may not yet be a perfect imitation of a natural suntan, today’s products certainly come close. And of course, they are much, much safer for the skin than exposure to sun-damaging UV rays. With the rising popularity of sunless tanning products, we have become more accepting of the slightly different look of a sunless tan. In fact, we no longer commonly hear the words, “fake-tan,” used to describe a self-tan. Thanks to improvements in the industry, we can now proudly sport a “faux-glow.”

Resources— HuffPost, Fashionista, Racked