Sunlight and Mankind
 – A Brief History

1940s and 1950s

In the 1940s women’s magazines started carrying adverts promoting sunbathing. This period also saw the development of tanning oils and ever skimpier bathing suits. In 1946 the French designer Louis Reard introduced the bikini.

The 1950s saw a growing trend of the use of baby oil to accelerate the tanning process, and by the end of the decade the use of metal foil reflectors as a tanning aid was widespread. This period also saw the introduction of the first sunless tanning products, although the results were often less than successful, leading to an orange rather than brown skin colour.

1960s and 1970s

The popularity of the Beach Boys in the 1960s, with their sand-and-surf ethos, also helped to promote the desirability of a tan. Someone possessing a tan was seen as successful and having a leisurely, free lifestyle.

The availability of cheap package holidays, which became widespread in the 60s and 70s, also made the Mediterranean sun accessible to the masses.

In 1971 the ‘Malibu Barbie’ toy doll was introduced, marketed as ‘the ultimate beach bunny’ and complete with tanned skin, sunglasses and bottle of tanning lotion.

The late 70s also saw the introduction of the first full sunbeds, and the development of a highly profitable industry. Growth has also been rapid, with 10,000 outlets in the 1990s rising to 50,000 today.

However, the 60s also saw the first warnings from scientists of the growing concern that skin cancer was a direct result of sun exposure and tanning. By the 70s, Australia, the beach capital of the world, was experiencing an epidemic of skin cancers. The Australian government therefore started its national campaign to fight the epidemic and change the perception of ‘the beautiful tan’: a tan that lasts a few days creates a lifetime of damaged skin.

Elsewhere, the cancer problem was largely considered to be uniquely Australian, due to its proximity to the equator and thinning of the ozone layer over the southern hemisphere. Concern was increasing, however, about burning and children getting too much sun.

1980s and 1990s

At the end of the 20th Century a tan was still considered very fashionable, but many parents were using sunscreens on their children to prevent burning. There was little understanding in the general public that UV exposure at any age could be harmful.

Skin cancers were now beginning to show up at younger ages, and in the 1990s scientists announced that widespread incorrect use of sunscreens may have contributed to the problem.


In the early 21st Century, a tan is still considered by many to be fashionable. Sunbathing is still a popular activity, but the official sun avoidance message is getting through, perhaps only too well in some areas: vitamin D deficiency is a widespread and under-recognised problem, possibly exacerbated by the transfer of the extreme sun avoidance message of the Australian campaign to less sunny areas of the world.

This is, at least, the situation among white ‘western’ populations, such as the UK. In other cultures fair skin remains the desirable form:

  • The Japanese Geisha are renowned for their brilliant white faces; the appeal of the ‘bihaku’ (beautiful white) ideal still leads many Japanese women to avoid any form of tanning.
  • In many Eastern religions the colour white is associated with purity and divinity.
  • In post-colonial Africa and India, a dark skin colour is strongly associated with lower class status, leading some to resort to skin bleaching to achieve, in their eyes, a more socially acceptable skin colour.

We now know that we depend on the sun to feed us and keep us healthy: we need moderate exposure to the sun’s rays for optimum health, both physical and mental. However, we also know that too much exposure to the sun can cause severe harm. The decision is therefore ours: knowledge is available, backed up by decades of scientific research, to allow each of us, individually, to determine how much sun is right for us, and then take appropriate steps to prevent over-exposure. The purpose of this site is to provide you with this information in an accessible form, so that you can make your own decision.

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