When did the sun turn bad? A brief history of tanning

Get ready: Reminders to wear sunscreen will soon be everywhere.  For that we can thank medical researchers who challenged the popularity of sun tanning in the late 20th century with evidence of its link to skin cancer. Because before that, the reminders were to get plenty of sun.

The history of tanning goes back thousands of years, and sunbathing won widespread approval for much of the 20th century. Advocates ranged from beauty experts who admired the “healthy glow” that developed after hours in the sun to medical authorities who saw tanning, along with cod liver oil, as an essential element in avoiding rickets. Among the staggering two billion advice pamphlets that the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company gave to its subscribers was "Sunlight the Health Giver," a small volume published in 1928. The booklet reviewed the history of the "healing power of sunshine" which reportedly made people feel "better and stronger" and explained that the sun "works mysteriously through the skin and causes certain chemical changes in the blood." The somewhat cryptic phrase referred to the process by which, a Harvard Medical School publication explained, the sun turned a chemical in the skin into vitamin D3, which was then transformed in the liver and kidneys into active vitamin D -- an essential element, but one that does not require individuals to spend hours of sunbathing each day.  You can get vitamin D through attention to diet and supplements (which experts believe are used far more widely than is necessary or even safe).

Health experts once believed that extensive tanning was essential for children and infants. The 1929 book, The Perfect Baby included a chapter titled "The Perfect Baby Has a Health Tan."  The United States Children's Bureau, the nation's baby experts, recommended two lengthy periods out of doors each day beginning at age three to four months. For babies likely to be trapped indoors by cold weather or in housing with little access to the outdoors, an ingenious "baby cage" a box made of wire, could be affixed to the exterior of a window allowing the infant to catch some rays. For families with money, the sun lamp offered another solution. Seasonal changes in sunlight prompted one Cleveland mother to write to the Children's Bureau in 1938 to ask what time to set her baby out in the sun as the days grew shorter. A reply came from Marion W. Clarke, M.D., director of the Division of Research in Child Development, who suggested: “During the Spring and Fall in order to obtain the full benefit of the sun’s rays, the sun bath should be given during the middle part of the day.”

It was only in recent decades that scientists definitively linked excess sun with skin cancer. The combination made sun protection into a big business. Pharmacies are stocked with sunscreen products, stores sell sun protection clothing, and dogs, cats, and other pets have special sunscreen products designed to protect them from what are now seen as dangerous ultraviolet rays. (Yes, it seems that even Fido needs protection)

And then there are indoor tanning beds, which are known to be as dangerous as outdoor tanning. The Food and Drug Administration notes the serious health risks from their use, including skin cancer, skin burns, and eye damage. Some states – including Pennsylvania and New Jersey -- regulate indoor tanning by minors, and the goal-setting Healthy People 2020 includes among its objectives, reducing the portion of American adolescents and adults who report indoor tanning. A tax on tanning salons that is part of the Affordable Care Act had significantly harmed the industry, according to those businesses, which had been hoping that the tax would disappear as part of the Republicans’ currently stalled plans to repeal and replace Obamacare.

 In the 1920s and ’30s, Americans learned to tan; with new information, Americans are now learning to avoid overexposure to the sun. If you've got some of those old pamphlets with tanning advice sitting in a drawer or up in the attic, consider contributing them to your local historical society or medical history archive. Or you can  sell these relics online.

For up-to-date information about tanning and skin cancer visit the American Cancer Society page "Be Safe in the Sun" or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s "How Can I Protect My Children From the Sun?"


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