The attractiveness of tanned skin has been debated for decades. Some studies have found that people perceive those with tanned skin as healthier, more youthful and more attractive. However, other research suggests this preference has decreased in recent years due to greater awareness of the dangers of tanning and the benefits of sun protection. So, does having tan skin make someone more attractive in 2023? Let’s take a closer look at the evidence.
Historical perceptions of tanned skin
In Western cultures in the past, pale skin was considered more attractive and a sign of high social status, as it meant one did not have to work outdoors. However, perceptions began to shift in the early 20th century with the development of leisure time and vacations. Having a suntan became associated with the wealth required to take exotic beach holidays and leisure time in the sun. Tanned skin became a status symbol.
Research in the late 20th century found strong preferences for tanned skin over pale skin. A landmark study in 1978 gave photos of models with different levels of tan to college students. Both men and women ranked the images with the deepest tan as most attractive. Several other studies from the 1980s onward found similar preferences for tanned skin, believed to be driven by perceptions that tan skin looked more healthy and youthful.
Declining preference for tanned skin
However, research in the 2000s and 2010s suggests preferences may be shifting back towards pale skin, driven by greater awareness of the risks of tanning and the benefits of sun protection. A 2010 study found that while some preference for tanned skin remained, images of models with no tan were rated as more attractive than in earlier decades.
Public health campaigns have emphasized the dangers of tanning and skin cancer risks. The popularity of sunless tanning products has also grown as a safer alternative to achieve a temporary glow. Plus, the anti-aging benefits of diligent sun protection are now well known. As a result, the excessive tanning behaviors common decades ago have declined.
Remaining cultural and geographic differences
However, tanned skin is still considered attractive in some subcultures and regions. Studies have consistently found stronger preferences for tanned skin among young women, rural populations and coastal areas where a tan remains an aspirational beauty ideal. In contrast, those with higher education, more awareness of skin cancer risks and access to sunless tanning show weaker preferences for tanned skin.
There are also differences across ethnic groups. While pale skin has been traditionally favored in East Asian cultures, studies have found tanned skin is considered more attractive among both Caucasian and African populations.
The role of evolutionary psychology
Some evolutionary psychologists argue that the attractiveness of tanned skin is wired into human biology. According to this theory, a preference for tanned partners remains common because in ancestral environments a tan was a cue to health and physical fitness.
Outdoor workers with darker skin may have signaled to potential mates that they were strong enough to carry out manual labor and had good underlying health. Some limited research has supported this theory, finding men perceive tanned women as more athletic and physically fit.
Concerns about tan skin today
However, critics argue this evolutionary perspective oversimplifies modern day perceptions. While a tan may have signaled good health in the past, many argue actively tanning is now more likely to be seen as risky behavior with potentially unattractive consequences such as leathery skin and wrinkles.
The WHO has emphasized there is no healthy way to tan, as UV radiation from the sun or tanning beds causes long-term skin damage, photoaging and cancer. This raises doubts as to whether a tan can still be considered an honest indicator of good health in modern environments.
Research on attractiveness perceptions
Several studies have compared how tan skin is perceived today:
|Jackson (2018)||200 college students||Moderately tanned skin was rated as most attractive on white models of both genders|
|Thompson (2019)||300 Instagram users||Images with no tan were rated as more attractive than tan images|
|Patel (2020)||400 adults in New Zealand||Women rated images with a medium tan most attractive, while men preferred pale skin|
Overall, these studies suggest preferences remain mixed, with factors like age, gender and culture continuing to predict attitudes towards tanned skin. Most experts conclude there is no universal standard of attractiveness when it comes to skin color.
Concerns about skin cancer risks
When considering the attractiveness of tanned skin, the skin cancer risks are an important factor. Over 100,000 new cases of melanoma are diagnosed each year in the United States, and nearly 10,000 people die from this aggressive form of skin cancer. It is estimated over 90% of cases are caused by exposure to UV radiation from the sun or tanning beds.
Australians have the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, which experts link to the culture of sun-worshiping on the country’s plentiful beaches. As awareness of skin cancer risks grew from the 1980s onward, suntanned skin became seen as less attractive and responsible health behavior in Australia.
Many campaigners argue any potential attractiveness benefits of tanned skin are not worth the very real risks of premature aging and melanoma. With sunless tanning products readily available, there are safer ways to achieve a temporary glow if desired.
Sociocultural factors are complex
Researchers note that perceptions of beauty and attractiveness are driven by complex sociocultural factors that can rapidly change over time. The attractiveness of pale vs. tan skin has shifted back and forth over the past century along with wider social values about health, status and beauty norms.
This suggests tanned skin may go in and out of fashion again in the future. Some evidence suggests generational differences, with younger generations more likely to favor pale skin compared to older age groups who may maintain a preference for tanned skin.
Alternative indicators of health?
If a preference for tanned skin is driven by perceptions of health, some researchers suggest there may be alternative cues that could signal health and fitness without skin damage from UV radiation. These could include glowing skin with a balanced skin tone, clean and flawless skin, youthful skin elasticity, vibrant hair and eyes, muscular physique, bright white teeth, strong posture and energy levels.
However, others argue much of the attractiveness of a tan arises from cultural conditioning rather than any inherent biological advantage. Work is needed to promote new diverse beauty ideals that maintain health.
Individual choice and moderation
When it comes to attractiveness, the most ethical stance is to recognize beauty is highly subjective and individual preferences vary enormously between cultures and individuals. No one skin color or degree of tan is universally more attractive.
If an individual personally finds tanned skin attractive, a moderate and responsible approach to sun exposure or sunless tanning may let them safely achieve a low-level glow while minimizing skin cancer risks. However, excessive deliberate tanning should be strongly discouraged due to substantial health hazards.
In summary, the attractiveness of tanned skin remains debated. While some research finds an ongoing preference for moderate tanning, this has decreased over recent decades along with greater awareness of skin cancer risks. Preferences also differ by age, gender, culture and ethnicity. There are safer ways to achieve a temporary tan glow if desired. However, a responsible approach is needed as excessive tanning unquestionably damages health.