Fake tan: how it began, why we do it & risks

Global attitudes towards tanning and the use of self-tan has changed dramatically in the last hundred years but one idea seems to remain consistent throughout: our great love for tanning.

The global self-tanning market was valued at USD 1.47 billion in 2018 and of course, is expected to grow in the years to follow. Tanning merch includes bronzers, contouring products, tan accelerators, injectable, tablets, lotions, mousses, creams, sprays and professional treatments to make our skin look darker for a few days or more. Despite some stigma about using fake tan (-it take lots of practice to get it right) 41% of women use it in the UK according to St. Tropez. Why has tanning become an eventual norm that most of us feel pressure to adhere to? How does tanning work and where did it come from? Scroll down to find out everything that you need to know about tanning, including the undisclosed risks and psychological meaning behind our obsessions to Fake Bake.

A brief history of (not) tanning

For years, the common belief amongst high society Westerners was that creamy skin was the way forward. Unblemished, pearly skin signified a life of leisure, and large amounts of wealth. In those days, the shade of a person’s skin would give insight to a person’s economic class – a high society businessman or wife would never perform manual labour outside in the sun, and therefore would never be tanned. Particularly in the Victorian era, parasols and wide-brimmed hats were a must-have fashion accessory amongst women.


Fast forward one hundred years and attitudes have remarkably changed. It’s difficult to determine when the exact moment in time was, or whether the obsession gradually developed over the decades as self-tanning products became more advanced, and the ideal beauty image transformed. For many reasons, which I will now discuss, fake tanning is something that many women and men will try at least once in their lifetime.

Why there is so much hype about tanning

For anyone that has tried out a self-tanning before, they will know, it’s hard work. The preparation of exfoliating and moisturising, the anxiety and questioning of it going wrong and drying patchy, and the endless minutes of waiting for it to dry is A LOT of effort. And if you’re a regular tanner, well, it’s a full-time job – just read Nicole Catanese’s story on her 20-year tanning ritual. So why do we do it?

Social pressures and celebrity culture

These reasons may be obvious to some, but their significance in the popularity of tanning should still be noted. 90 years after its accidental discovery, tanning has become social norm. There is an undisputed pressure to tan, particularly as women, in Western culture. 

The celebrities we read about; the influencers we scroll past all emit the same, imperfection-free, bronzed skin. 

We associate tans with holidays, leisure and having the time and money to do so. 

The desire and societal pressure to experiment with the way we look, and to feel a more luxurious version of ourselves is something that can be temporarily achieved with a layer of tan.

A safe alternative to the sun

Particularly in recent years, there has been a much broader, global awareness regarding the risk of UV exposure and its link to the development of skin cancer. For those who want to look tanned but don’t want to take the risk with long bouts of sun exposure, self-tanning seems like the perfect, safer substitute.

This could also be why fake tan is sometimes confused as skin protection against the sun.

The ultimate concealer

One of the most important motivations behind tanning is its ability to instantly create the illusion of a more even skin tone. Tanning, especially fake tan, can help temporarily fade c common imperfections like scarring, bruising, stretch marks and spider veins. 

It is also important to note at this point, that despite common belief, self-tanning is not only popular to use amongst lighter Fitzpatrick skin types. The use of self-tan on dark skin can have the same useful effect of concealing imperfections and uneven skin tone, just as it would on lighter skin. Due to the lack of inclusivity of using darker skinned models to promote tanning products, it isn’t something that is regularly discussed or advised in the industry. Grazia reported that Youtube stars have rated Vita Liberata Body Blur and St. Tropez’s Dark Sunless Tanner a great option for darker skin.

Self-image booster

Tanning our skin can have profound effects on our self-esteem, as highlighted by a qualitative study consisting of 79 women ranging between the ages of 15 to 50 years in Australia. They participants were interviewed about the role of tanning, their reasons for using it. The findings showed how the women’s perceptions ‘aligned with improved self-esteem, body image, and social interaction. 


When was fake tan invented?

The main ingredient that has been approved for self-tanning, and present in most conventional tanning products is dihydroxyacetone (DHA). It’s derived from sugar beets and cane, and also by the fermentation of glycerin.

Dihydroxyacetone reacts with the protein keratin on the skin’s surface by producing pigments called melanoids. This information was accidentally discovered in the 1930s, when diabetic patients were given oral doses of DHA during treatment, and resulted in the deep yellow colouring of gums. 

Twenty years later DHA was rediscovered as a skin darkening agent when a researcher named Eva Wittgenstein was treating children with glycogen storage disease. It was found that when solution spilt from the mouths of the children, their skin turned a darker shade of brown. Wittgenstein published an official paper in 1960 on how dihydroxyacetone stains the skin for Science.

The birth of self-tan

Bronzing products slowly flooded the cosmetic market from the 1940s - some reports say that the first official, commercialised self-tanner was in 1945, in California. But this isn’t necessarily true. These products were powder and creams, designed to wash off and didn’t have the ability to change the colour of the skin.


Most reports agree that the world’s first fake-tanning products were released in the late 1950s. This time was liberating for women in Western society, daring fashions and the arrival of the bikini may have contributed to the developing sport of tanning. Darkening of your natural skin tone started to become fashion, a representation of tropical holidays and good health.

One of the first tanning products released to market was ‘Miss ManTan’, a ‘moisturising, foundation cream that tans you within hours.’ 

The most common type of self-tan used in the home is with the application of a mitt and a mousse or lotion. Aerosol tanners are equally as popular. You can see a professional, and get sprayed with false tan in a pop-up, tent-styled booth. Bronzers in cosmetics and wash-off varieties are also available. Tan accelerators that contain tyrosine and psoralen are found in sunbed shops to stimulate your melanin production. Illegal tanning injections like the synthetic Melanotropic Peptide Melanotan II, nasal sprays and tanning pills can easily be purchased on the internet. 

What’s the risk?

Fake-tanning is always a risky process with variable, unpredictable outcomes. Mainstream tanning products usually contain high levels of DHA which contributes to the common, unnatural-looking orange tones, burnt biscuit odour, skin dryness and uneven spread of colour.

It was surprising to me, during my research of self-tanning, how the conversation of potential risk of the use of fake tan was tiptoed around and avoided in most online articles.

Here’s what I found. 

Fake tan can increase free radical production

The US FDA approved concentrations of up to 15% of DHA in the use of self-tanning cosmetics in 1977. Since then, studies have shown no significant systemic absorption when applied topically however, it has been noted that DHA generates reactive oxygen species (ROS). Reactive Oxygen Species are made up of free radicals.

Free radicals explained
The oxygen in the body splits into single atoms with unpaired electrons, however these electrons like to pair up so the atoms tend to scavenge the body to seek out other electrons to pair up with. This action causes oxidative stress and damage to the cells, proteins, lipids and DNA in the skin.  Sun exposure, pollution, radiation, alcohol, bad diet, some medications, too much exercise, smoking and toxic chemicals all trigger the formation of free radicals, and so does self-tan according to studies. 

More evidence is recently surfacing to support the theory that Dihydroxyacetone (DHA), the main ingredient found in most self-tanning products, can induce DNA damage as it alters the cells microenvironment.

Preservative in spray tans linked to contact dermatitis 

Of course, DHA isn’t the only ingredient in self-tanning products – perfumes, moisturisers, preservatives, thickening agents and Vitamins A, E and C can also be found in these types of formulations. Because of this, some self-tanning products have been known to induce allergic-type reactions which induce dermatitis and respiratory problems for consumers with conditions such as asthma. 

A case study published in 2015 showed how a healthy 49-year-old woman who used a spray tan containing DHA, preserved by methylisothiazolinone (MI) and methylchloroisothiazolinone. The patient had a reaction to spray tan on her face, arms and legs, and a patch testing confirmed it was because of the MI ingredient in the tanning product. 

Researchers reviewed MI allergy reports in Belgium, of 8680 patients between 2010 and 2013 and found that mostly women were affected by this tanning preservative, with rash often found on the face and hands. The study recommends the discontinuation of using MI in leave-on tanning formulations, and lower concentrations to be used in rinse-off products.

Fake tan is a must-have beauty accessory for many, and its popularity doesn’t seem to be diminishing any time soon. This is because the reasons for tanning are endless, and can vary between each individual. Some fake tan because it makes them feel good, more confident, slimmer. Wearing tanning product can make you smell like a biscuit for a day or two, look patchy and make skin look scaly as it fades, but it undeniably helps to conceal imperfections and blemishes when first applied.

The risks are rarely discussed. Recent evidence has shown how fake tan can increase free radical production in the skin, which may increase cell damage, however this area still needs more research before we can come to the right conclusion. 

How does tan make you feel? Leave a comment or connect with Skinfit Studio through Instagram. Thanks for reading.

12 views0 comments