Style trends, unpredictable little firecrackers that they are, occasionally point toward a reliable resurgence of one kind or another. The fashion-conscious were warned about leggings and skinny jeans, and sure enough, they have taken up residence at a store nearby. Pantone sends a new color forecast memo every season, and everyone sighs with relief that it’s all finally been figured out: it’s spring time, and you’ll be needing a flirty pair of wedges and something—anything—in a grassy green. But with skin color trends, it’s a whole different ball of pigment.
There were signs this year—murky, ambiguous signs—that pointed to a possible return to paler skin. This year’s spring palette, after all, is pale, pale and pale. There are crisp white shirts, neutral tones, pale pinks and nudes, all well matched to the romantic minimalism seen in the return of lace, wide belts, wedges and oversized bags.
And that’s not all—parasols have been added to the must-have accessories list for summer, while fashion magazines are peppered with freckle-faced, fair-skinned models with flawless skin. The porcelain-complexioned supermodel Karen Elson enjoys steady work that highlights her strikingly pale skin and flaming mane of red hair. There are now even bathing suits that block out the sun, or at least a good 98 percent of it.
It was just enough to make the pigmentally challenged jump with joy, before they started blushing in blotches. But, alas, not so fast: tanning, it turns out, is more popular than ever, with the indoor tanning industry reaching billion-dollar status, despite the inherent risks.
Burlesque revivalist Dita Von Teese recently told Cosmo UK that, “We don’t all have to blend in or look like Sienna Miller.” Easy for her to say—the Goth-inspired pinup certainly presents an equally desirable beauty alternative with her dark hair and alabaster complexion. But most American women seem to strive for Sienna Miller’s sun-kissed good looks; a recent In Style magazine beauty roundup included Miller in its list of the top female beauty icons of the year, and of the four featured, only one—Angelina Jolie—was milky-white. Yes, J. Lo was included, and thanks to her, no makeup bag is respectable without a bronzer.
Here’s the history lesson: fair complexions once marked nobility and wealth. Paler skin meant one could afford to spend most of the time indoors, safely away from the sun’s harsh glare. Paler skin was literally to die for, with skin-whitening methods including arsenic and lead paint. (It still is: fairer complexions are a status symbol among some darker-skinned nations, and as a result, higher rates of mercury poisoning in India and Africa have led some countries to ban skin-lightening substances.) When Coco Chanel unveiled an accidental tan in the 1920s, skin became the newest accessory. In the intervening decades, the technology jumped from lamps to reflectors to tanning beds, from baby oil to cocoa butter to SPFs of 50. Tan lines may change depending on the favored bikini line, but the principle is the same: dark fat looks better than light fat.
So it seems the golden age has not only returned; it’s staying put, at least in this country. Only now, sun-seekers have simply become savvier and more health-conscious about how to achieve a safer tan. In other words, this isn’t your mother’s tan—lathering on baby oil under a metallic UV reflector to achieve that baked tropical look. Today’s tan is smart, safe and completely fake.
Welcome to the age of the double dip. No, not the Seinfeldian lesson on proper chip-eating etiquette, but a popular technique in tanning in which users combine a double dose of a spray tan like Mystic Tan, or for more industrious tanners concerned about longevity, the combination of mixing the bottle with the bed. Today’s tan approximates Coco Chanel’s: a sun-kissed glow with a dab of sweat mixed in, reminiscent of a week spent lounging in the French Riviera.
The publication of an oft-cited study from 1997 by Seventeen revealed two out of three teens feel they look “better” or “more athletic” with a tan. Today’s prom photos, coupled with current industry numbers, suggest little has changed. In Nashville, local skin-care providers like Laurie White are not surprised. White, a nurse practitioner at Advanced Skin & Laser Center in Brentwood says, “Yes, people still like to tan—they are just looking for a safer tan.” But surely there are some people interested in preserving a fair complexion? White says the skin care center sees no patients that she knows of looking for skin-lightening procedures who aren’t “being treated for a condition, like melasma,” and says the center offers the popular SunFX spray tan as the healthy alternative to the tanning bed.
Tara Fox, a registered nurse who owns Elite Tan of Green Hills, has spent considerable time and money researching equipment to provide her clientele with the safest tan possible. “People are very skin-conscious now,” says Fox, who is also a songwriter, and whose establishment caters to an elite music industry clientele she does not disclose. Fox ensures that every safety mechanism is built into her equipment to protect skin from damage, referring to her methods as “the condom of tanning.” The double dip is one of her salon’s most sought-after techniques. “In L.A., they call it the Paris Hilton tan,” Fox explains.
Elite Tan is part of a growing trend in tanning salons that choose to offer more than simply 60 beds and 100 lotions, by instead providing top-notch products like Mystic Tan (“the real Mystic Tan solution—not the cheap imitation some salons offer,” Fox chides), and by helping educate their clientele about safety and risk. And Fox’s customers are more than just former sun-addicts looking for a new fix; many of her clients are advised to seek light therapy for skin conditions like eczema and skin rashes.
“Skin is an accessory that you wear all the time,” Fox says. “We have clients that tan year-round and clients that tan for television appearances and even charity events.
“When it’s time for Steeplechase or the Swan Ball, I have people lined up all the way outside the door at 9 at night saying, ‘You can’t close. You don’t understand—this is an emergency. I have to have my tan.’ ”