Inside a sunbed

Changing colours

Skin colour fashions come and go, but both darkening and lightening pose a threat to health

Skin colour varies dramatically between humans, from almost black to almost white. It is determined by a pigment in the skin called melanin (see our Genes that affect how we look article).

Until the last century, in Europe and Asia lighter skin was perceived to be beautiful. The Romans and Greeks used lead paints and chalks to whiten their skin, as did people in Elizabethan England.

The Japanese have idealised ‘bihaku’ (beautiful white) skin for centuries: women protected themselves from the sun with parasols, scrubbed their skin with ‘nuka’ (rice hulls) or ground pearl from seashells into a powder for swallowing to whiten their skin.

White skin was viewed as a symbol of innocence and purity – and more importantly of wealth, education and status. Peasants and farmers worked outside and grew dark under the sun, while the wealthy lived indoors, protected from its rays.

In 1920 Coco Chanel sported the ‘first’ tan, having stayed out too long on a yacht in the Mediterranean, and a new fashion trend was started. Rather than signifying poverty, a tan now became an emblem of the rich and fashionable, who could afford holidays in the sun.

Sunbathing was also promoted as part of a ‘healthy lifestyle’ in the interwar years, to counter diseases such as tuberculosis and rickets.

With the health risks of sun exposure now well known – or perhaps because tanning is no longer socially exclusive – the desirability of a real tan may now be on the decline. But British people still spend around £35 million a year on fake tan products. It is now illegal for under-18s to use sunbeds. Cancer Research UK estimates that sunbed use before the age of 35 can increase your risk of skin cancer by as much as 60 per cent. Skin cancer causes over 2,100 deaths a year in the UK.

Lighten up

Meanwhile, some women with African ancestry aim to lighten their skin. Lotions developed for medical use have been popular, but many contain a bleaching chemical called hydroquinone – now banned in the UK (though still obtainable illegally).

Perhaps more alarmingly, use of skin-lightening products by women is common in sub-Saharan Africa. Studies in Nigeria, for example, suggest more than three-quarters of women are using hydroquinone, steroids or other skin-lightening chemicals. Over half use them in Togo and more than a quarter in Senegal. In many countries the use of skin-lightening agents, including mercury-rich soaps, is a significant public health problem.

Lead image:

Inside a sunbed.

Rob Igo/Flickr CC BY NC


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘How We Look’ in June 2008 and reviewed and updated in November 2014.

Ecology and environment, Health, infection and disease, Medicine
How We Look
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development