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The Top-to-Toe Tan Makes a Strong Return as the Beauty Ideal Shifts from a Porcelain Complexion

For millennia, a porcelain complexion was the beauty ideal. Now the top-to-toe tan makes a return in full glow.

Photo: Laurie Bartley

A healthy, radiant complexion is always on the agenda, whatever the season. But come summer, bronzed, sun-kissed skin is at the top of most beauty must-have lists. From self-tanner offering a better way to add a little color, to next-gen collections featuring shades to suit every skin tone, an ongoing obsession with bronzing products proves that tanning is here to stay.

Sun worshipers have been on the lookout for faux tanning options for decades, owing to a multitude of lightening statistics. Using tanning beds before the age of 20, for instance, can increase chances of developing melanoma by 47%, and the risk increases with each use, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. “There is no such thing as a safe tan,” says Dr Fazeela Abbasi, a dermatologist at Euromed Clinic, Dubai. “Unprotected sun exposure is very damaging and can change your skin permanently. The increase in melanin, which causes the tan, is a sign of damage. Skin cell damage not only increases your risk of developing skin cancer but also accelerates the appearance of wrinkles and sagging.” In keeping with this demand for products, in 1984 Guerlain launched Terracotta, its iconic bronzing powder. The compact saw success right away, and simultaneously launched a brand-new category of makeup. “It’s no secret that if something is this famous, it means that it’s a good product,” says Violette Serrat, creative director of makeup for Guerlain. “Terracotta is really fine, so it delivers without a powdery effect, which is great because it doesn’t act like a traditional powder or foundation. The color is perfect for achieving a sun-kissed look.”

Guerlain Terracotta Bronzing Powder

But bronzed skin hasn’t always been a symbol of good health. It was associated with those toiling in the fields under the sun. Since antiquity, pallor, popular within the noble classes, was considered the ultimate beauty luxury, connoting a life of privilege. In ancient Egypt, men and women lightened their skin with ochre yellow powder, while the Greeks and Romans used chalk or white lead. In Japan and China, women created a white mask that contained poisonous lead or mercury-based powders, or opted for the less toxic choice of rice powder. During the reign of Elizabeth I, wealthy women wore heavy layers of ceruse, a deadly mixture of white lead and vinegar or powdered borax that could lead to scarring, anemia, or even renal failure. But when the Industrial Revolution of the early 19th century saw the laboring classes working long hours in dark factories and mines, the association of tanned skin with poverty quickly vanished.

Coco Chanel is widely credited for the origin of the fashionable tan. In 1923, the French couturier and s le icon acquired a deep tan while on a Côte d’Azur cruise, and inadvertently ushered in a new era of beau standards. For the first time, tanned skin represented glamour rather than peasantry, and having the means to travel to sunnier climes. The emerging fashion was perfectly suited to the new flapper styles and symbolized yet another rebellion against stagnant Victorian values. Soon enough, the social elite of Europe and North America were embracing the bronzed look with gusto, chasing the sun in hot destinations around the world. In 1928, designer Jean Patou created Huile de Chaldée, the first tanning oil. This was swiftly followed by the launch of Ambre Solaire in 1935, a revolutionary product that was developed by pharmacist Eugène Schueller, the founder of L’Oréal; it was the first oil of its kind to absorb UV rays.

By the 1950s, the new age of the all-over tan had taken root: bathing suits were distinctly less modest and adverts for products such as Coppertone were promoting oils that claimed to give you a “better suntan.” By the Sixties and Seventies, television screens were ablaze with glamorous, permatanned Hollywood stars. Thanks to the increased interest in year-round tanning, the world’s first salon dedicated to it opened its doors in Berlin in 1977, with more opening around the world at record rates throughout the Eighties and Nineties. Enter the age of “tanorexia” – a term coined by the media referring to an addiction to the deep bronze look.

Benefit Hoola Toasted Bronzer

Fast forward to 2001 and Benefit Cosmetics was the next in line to develop a legendary product. “Hoola was launched as a literal substitute for a vacation in Hawaii,” reveals Maggie Ford Danielson, chief beauty ambassador for the brand. The compact offered the perfect blend of pigments to create a shade that works on a wide variety of complexions. A shimmer-free, neutral matte formula with no orange or red undertones gave a truly bronzed, natural-looking glow. “We now have four shades to pick from depending on your skin tone and the look you’re trying to achieve.” Lite, Original, Caramel, and Toasted can be used all over the face for warmth, or in a more artistic way to contour. While a good glow is here to stay, the nuance is in how it’s achieved. An unsafe burnished bronze is left for the history books, with customizable faux tans now the future.

Originally published in the July/August 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia

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