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See how ‘suntan’ became the big beauty buzzword, starting in the ’50s

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Suntan was the big beauty buzzword until we knew just how bad it was for us

Cost of suntanning in city area estimated at $13 million yearly (from 1964)

By Gerald White, The Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio) May 30, 1964

The great hue pursuit is in full cry these summery days in Greater Cincinnati.

Through backyards, atop hillsides, across rooftops, through country clubs and public swimming pools, thousands of Greater Cincinnati women and some men seek to change the hue of their skin from pale pink to flat brown.

Armed with bottles, jars and tubes of anti-sunburn and pro-suntan fluids and cream, garbed in the briefest that the law and neighborhood propriety will allow, loaded down with sunglasses, books, boxes of tissues, wristwatches, alarm clocks, books, magazines, radios and propelled by great zeal, the sunbathers sally forth.

They have the knowledge of an astronomer when it comes to placement of blankets, folding chairs and prone forms. They know the degrees of the suns rays, and they know within minutes — seconds rather — the time needed to char the left side of their upper back.

Ali MacGraw for Johnson's Baby Oil tan from 1971
Actress Ali MacGraw for Johnson’s Baby Oil tan from 1971
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THE INVADER from Mars would be wrong if he thought this is idle and inexpensive fun. Businessmen, with an eye for all figures, have estimated that the art of sun-tanning costs Greater Cincinnati more than $18 million yearly.

This breaks down this way: $200,000 in suntan lotions and the artificial coloring fluids; another $200,000-$300,000 in admission to the public and private places where suntans, among other things, can be obtained, $2.5 million in woman power used to obtain the tan and $10.7 million in manhours wasted (?) in watching the girl sunbathers at work.

And what does this $18 million buy? Happiness in the form of miles of human skin darkened to a depth of two millimeters — and other factors.

But why do the sunbathers join mad dogs and Englishmen in the noonday sun? It goes a lot deeper than those two millimeters, psychologists will explain.

Barbara Eden for Coppertone suntan lotion in 1964
Barbara Eden for Coppertone suntan lotion in 1964

“IT MAY HAVE started with liking the color of tanned skin,” a mind man said recently. “But it’s all tied up with status and competitiveness now. You want to get a better tan now than your neighbor. Or you want people to think you’re the kind of person who has time to get a tan. Or maybe you want people to think you’re just back from the islands.

“But one thing: the obtaining of a suntan is no longer considered a pleasure by most people — it’s a necessity.”

A housewife echoed these words when she was interviewed in her backyard amid her sun-tanning litter. As the sweat rolled down a pretty nose and the sun’s rays glistened off a heavy coat of glop, she brushed back a damp lock of sun-bleached hair and replied to a genial question:

“Sun-tanning fun? Are you kidding? This is hard work,” she gasped and rocked from front to back. “If you don’t believe it, try sitting in the sun for three hours some time. But I do it because, well, because it’s fashionable and summer clothes look better when you have a tan.”

New tan in town - Sea and Ski baby oil tan
New tan in town – Sea and Ski baby oil lotion. For a deep, dark Sea & Ski tan. (1982)
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A PROMINENT Cincinnati dermatologist echoed this opinion as he sought to explain the lure of the sun.

“It’s much more of a case of fashion rather than health,” he said. “A tanned person is no healthier than an untanned person — he just looks healthier.”

In fact, a tanned person may be a whole lot unhealthier than the bleached one, he added.

“The sun’s rays are definitely one of the factors in producing skin cancer,” he said. “We don’t have much of that problem in this area but in Southwest America and Hawaii there is much skin cancer which can be directly linked to sun-tanning.”

No alarmist, the doctor said he did not believe the summer-long tan, gained gradually at great time and expense, will produce skin cancers.

“If the skin remains smooth and not too dry, the person is safe — at least while he’s young,” the doctor said. “But people over the mid-40s should leave this tanning business to the kids. Their skins just can’t take the battering of sun-tanning.”

Actress Mitzi Gaynor for Coppertone suntan lotion in 1968
Actress Mitzi Gaynor for Coppertone suntan lotion in 1968

AND BATTERING is just what the sun’s rays do in producing tanning, the doctor said as he sketched a simple outline of the process of tanning.

“The process starts when certain particles of the sun’s rays, caused photons, strike the skin,” he said. “There are more photons coming from the sun in the summer — that’s why you can get a suntan quicker in the summer.

“But they are there all year ’round. Some photons pierce the outer layers of the skin, lodging in the dark pigment cells between the outer skin layers. Other photons set up chemicals and increase.”

The pigment cells produce the tan when they have spread throughout the skin. These skins act as a barrier to keep the sun’s rays from going deeper into the body where they could do real damage.”

Coppertone tan from 1969
Coppertone tan from 1969
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AS A FOOTNOTE, the doctor explained that the new artificial tanning formulas — the overnight tan — do not produce true tans. They simply combine with ingredients in the skin to artificially dye the skin a tan-like color.

“These formulas do not have any effect upon the pigment cells,” he explained. “And they give no protection from the sunlight the way a tan does.”

In another footnote, a Cincinnati druggist reported that the overnight tanning agents have created a new and expanding market here but have not eaten into the regular suntan oil sales.

“The people who always worked hard at tanning are still doing it although they could use these things and get a quick tan,” he explained.

Which, probably only means, that love of the sun — and suntan is greater than skin deep with many people.

Now! Have that glorious SUMMER TAN LOOK! (1952)

Jan 28, 1952 tanning lamp

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Swedish Tanning Secret tanning lotion from 1972


Coppertone tanning lotion & oil from 1969

Coppertone tan from 1969

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“Coppertone gives you a better tan!” – Martha Hyer

Coppertone tanning lotion ad from 1965 with Martha Hyer


Actress Elke Sommer vintage tanning ads from the ’60s

Actress Elke Sommer vintage tanning ad

Coopertone gives you a better tan - Elke Sommer on suntans c1965


“I tan faster with Coppertone!” says Myrna Hansen

Actress Myrna Hansen for Coppertone Suntan Lotion 1959


Beautiful tan today. Young-looking skin tomorrow.

Beautiful tan today with Coppertone


Sharon Tate: “Coppertone gives you a better tan” (1967)

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Vintage Sharon Tate ad for Coppertone c1967


GE Sunlamp – July for Christmas (1972)

Dec 1, 1972 Christmas gift - Tanning lamp

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Give a June tan for Christmas (1952)

Dec 8, 1952 home tan sun lamp

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