“Black girl tanning” is the summer’s most radical beauty trend (2024)

One of the best beauty tips I ever read came from Mindy Kaling. In her 2015 memoir Why Not Me?, the television producer offers a list of beauty rituals she adopted as her celebrity status rose, including one that initially surprised me.

“Two or three times a year, I get a spray tan,” Kaling writes. As an Indian American woman, she recognizes the irony of enjoying a service primarily designed for paler white people and which would be seemingly useless to those already with dark skin. (“It turns out I’m white after all!” she jokes.) However, she makes a revelatory distinction for any skeptics: “It’s not about changing the color, it's about evening the color.”

As a Black woman who has struggled with an uneven complexion, I immediately took note of this hack. However, I wouldn’t actually dabble in artificial tanning until about a decade later when I started noticing other Black women doing the same on social media. In the early years of the pandemic — when everyone was experimenting with their skin routines — Black influencers and casual users alike began showing up on TikTok in noticeable numbers trying out self-tanners and quite literally beaming about the results.

“The winter really prompted my tanning because we’re all our most pale selves during that season,” says influencer Taylor Caldwell (@taylorcaldwell). Others, like content creator Mia Leshae (@movewithmia), found self-tanner to be an efficient, albeit temporary, way to address hyperpigmentation and scarring. Across the board, users emphasize the extra glowiness it adds to the skin.

While tanning of all kinds is an extremely popular beauty regimen that has prevailed over time, it hasn’t historically (or even presently) been marketed as something for Black consumers. To certain members of the Black community, tanning may still seem unnecessary or culturally “white.” For reasons that are rooted in colorism, many might even find tanning unfavorable. Still, Black women have managed to innovate upon a beauty regime that was not originally targeted toward them, despite its fraught connection to race.

As the summer continues to heat up and interest in tanning continues to grow, it seems like the industry needs to gear up for a new consumer base.

Tanned skin has long been a status symbol

After centuries of being associated with lower-class, outdoor workers, tans became a sign of wealth and cosmopolitan living in the early 20th century. On one hand, medical views about sun exposure were changing, as scientist Niels Finsen found that vitamin D deficiency was the cause for diseases like rickets and lupus. At the same time, fashion was beginning to ditch the parasol in favor of a sun-baked look. This shift is largely credited to French designer Coco Chanel, who, in 1923, returned from a trip to the French Riviera with an accidental suntan. Rather than covering her body, she embraced her new look, inspiring other wealthy women to want to achieve the same bronze tint and wear less clothing during the summer. In 1929, she stated that “a golden tan is the index of chic.”

Still, the influence of people of color can’t be understated. African American performer Josephine Baker was also widely admired, if not fetishized, in France for her caramel skin in the 1920s. Considered one of the first beauty influencers in this regard, she began marketing her own tanning oil, called Baker Oil, to help white Parisians emulate her “le peau de brune," as advertised on the bottle.

By the mid-century, tanning was evolving from a casual, DIY activity for the leisure class (and those who wanted to look like they were a part of it) into a profitable industry. In the 1950s, German researcher Eva Wittgenstein discovered the skin-darkening properties of a medicine she had used to treated patients with a rare metabolic disorder. The solution, which used dihydroxyacetone (DHA), was later sold in Coppertone suntan lotions. Two decades later, German scientist Freidrich Wolff invented the first “sunbed” using UVA and UVB lights as a way to darken the skin and combat winter depression. By 1978, indoor tanning salons had emerged in the United States and become staples of malls.

“Black girl tanning” is the summer’s most radical beauty trend (1)

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In the 2004 study “To Die For: The Semiotic Seductive Power of the Tanned Body,” Phillip Vannini and Aaron M. McCright explore the multiple purposes of artificial tanning in more recent times, as society developed a “newer vision of the body as a sign of youth, pleasure, and self-expression.” They found that for older consumers, tanning was partially seen as an anti-aging method for “concealing age spots and skin blotches.” Meanwhile, younger consumers tanned to achieve the illusion of a “thinner silhouette,” adding definition to one’s muscles.

In recent years, tanning has also become interrogated for its racial implications and “problematic” uses. In 2018, writer Wanna Thompson coined the term “blackfishing,” after she and others began to notice white influencers presenting themselves as Black or, at least in some ways, nonwhite, sometimes partially by excessively tanning their skin. Namely, one of those influencers was Kim Kardashian, whose sometimes overly tan complexion has led to accusations of blackface online. At the height of her celebrity, singer Ariana Grande also provoked plenty of discourse and outrage surrounding her startlingly brown complexion.

Tanning is more popular than ever, especially for Black women

This past March, the Washington Post declared the return of “tanning mania,” noting an increase in self-proclaimed “tanning addicts” on TikTok. Under the #tanning hashtag, which currently has 4.1 billion views, Gen Z is discovering new (and dangerous) ways to make themselves darker including non-FDA-approved tanning pills that contain large doses of color additives. There’s also a viral contouring hack, where users strategically apply SPF to their faces in order to achieve tan lines where they would normally apply contouring makeup. Maybe the sketchiest method is tanning nasal spray, which features the unregulated hormone Melanotan-II. Currently, these products are largely being sold by cheap, no-name brands. (You can find a 30-milliliter container on Temu for $2.) In addition to side effects like nausea and fatigue, these nasal sprays can also raise one’s risk of developing melanoma.

Despite their well-documented correlation to skin cancer, tanning beds or, as TikTok users refer to them, “sunbeds” are also making a strange comeback. They even got a recent co-sign from Kim Kardashian, who showed off her tanning bed during a tour of her Skims office.

Looking through the hashtag, many of the users going to these extremes seem to be white. On a different side of BeautyTok, though, Black women are engaging with this “sun-kissed” trend in a different and markedly safer way. Mid-priced body bronzers and glow oils like Kopari’s Sun Shield Body Glow Sunscreen, Refy Body Glow Tinted Moisturizer, and the Anastasia Beverly Hills Shimmer Body Oil have become viral sensations. Tanning drops and serums, like Drunk Elephant D Bronzi Drops and Isle of Paradise’s Self Tanning Natural Glow Face Drops, have become a quick, customizable option for those looking to brighten their faces.

For a longer-lasting, full-body glow for the summer, though, drugstore self-tanners and spray tans have become a newfound go-to in the Black beauty community. This growing beauty trend represents more than a shift in the perception of these products and who they’re for. It reflects a subtle change in Black beauty standards, and the skin tones women have been taught to value under white supremacy. Given the amount of dangerous skin-bleaching products that are on the market, it feels slightly radical to see so many Black women online eagerly embrace products that deepen their complexions.

Taylor Caldwell, 24, who first tried self-tanner about three years ago, says she didn’t know that it was “a thing for Black people.”

“It was just something that I always saw in the store and would walk past it,” she says. “I've never known anyone who was Black who also tanned. So in my head, it was just not a product for me.”

Now, Caldwell is an avid self-tanner consumer, even nabbing a sponsorship with the first brand she purchased called B.Tan. However, her love for tanning did come with some initial judgment.

“When I posted my first TikTok, there were people who were intrigued by it and people who literally couldn't conceptualize it,” she says. “They didn’t understand why I, as a Black person, was tanning at all.”

Mia Leshae, 25, says she was initially nervous about posting tanning content, given its stereotypical association with white people. “I was already categorized as that ‘white’ Black girl simply because I was a Black woman growing up in a white area,” she says. “So I definitely already had those reservations. In my videos, I even over-explain. This literally helps make me get darker.”

It’s not that tanning is a totally foreign concept to Black people. Growing up, I would anticipate going outside during warm months and coming home with a richer, more chocolate-y tone. While artificial tanning products might be uncharted territory for some, many Black people still rely on the summer sun to naturally deliver the hue they want. However, according to Dr. Naana Boakye of Bergen Dermatology, Black people should be just as cautious about sunbathing as their white counterparts.

“Darker skin is still at risk for sun damage,” says Boakye. “While you may not be able to see it as clearly as you can on lighter skin, sunburns on darker skin can result in redness, peeling, and blistering.”

While Black people are less likely to develop skin cancer than white people, survival rates for Black patients are lower. When the disease does occur in Black people, it’s likely to happen in places that receive less sun exposure, such as the palms of the hands, the soles of the feet, and under the nails. Thankfully, the awareness surrounding sun protection has noticeably grown within the Black community, with companies making sunscreens specifically for Black people. In our current skincare-obsessed culture, many Black consumers have also discovered Korean sunscreens, finding them more blendable and transparent on dark skin. Boakye recommends that people with dark skin use mineral sunscreen with “SPF 30–50 or above.”

“SPF 50 blocks about 98 percent of UVB rays and protects your skin from sun exposure,” she says. “Choosing a sunscreen for dark skin tones, finding broad-spectrum SPF is pivotal.”

The industry is still catching up to Black women’s needs

While self-tanners are a safe, affordable entry point into artificial tanning, getting a professional spray tan may be a more daunting activity for Black people.

“I’m kind of hesitant about being in a predominantly white area,” says Leshae. “I don’t want to look orange.”

Thankfully, a number of Black spray-tanning stylists and enthusiasts, like LA-based Sabrina Johnson (@chocoolate_chun_li), are providing other Black women with spray tans suited to their complexions and offering advice on how to ensure they’ll get the best results.

The seeds of Johnson’s tanning career were planted as a dancer while she was looking for inclusive shoe options. “I was researching ways to develop flesh-toned pointe shoes and kept landing on spray-tan sites.” After being laid off from a housing manager job, Johnson began advertising her business on Facebook and doing mobile tans at sorority houses at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In LA, she was trained by celebrity spray-tan stylist and Dolce Glow founder Isabel Alysa, who helped her perfect her POC-focused technique.

While Johnson represents exciting progress in the tanning industry, the majority of Black women don’t have access to Johnson’s services or tanning salons that specialize in dark skin. However, she says that there are a few ways to tailor your spray tan to your specific needs.

“If the salon you visit doesn't have a Black stylist or is unfamiliar with tanning dark skin, ask if they have a spray tan solution with at least 14% DHA,” she says. “If the salon offers different colored cosmetic bronzers, avoid the ash tones and opt for chocolate brown, violet, or green bases instead.”

Johnson still advocates for self-tanners as a safe alternative. She’s even releasing her own line for darker complexion users called Gold Trim Tan. That said, the overwhelming majority of tanning products sold at cosmetic stores are not designed with Black people in mind and may require some trial and error.

“I find that violet-based tanners work best for me,” says Caldwell. “I've used the St. Tropez tanner that’s for a deeper, olive skin tone. It’s a broadening mousse with a violet color that helps neutralize my orangeness.”

Leshae, who was nervous to get a professional spray tan, says she’s sticking to her Jergens Instant Sun Tanning Mousse for now. However, with the loud demand for inclusive tanning and the continued obsession with looking sun-kissed, it hopefully won’t be long until she feels comfortable walking into a spray tan booth.

“Black girl tanning” is the summer’s most radical beauty trend (2024)
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