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April 2014

From Elizabeth Bennet to Barbie: Sun Tanning Through the Ages

Author Affiliations
  • 1Weill Cornell Medical College, New York, New York
JAMA Dermatol. 2014;150(4):406. doi:10.1001/jamadermatol.2013.10436

Never mind the little black dress; Coco Chanel’s most lasting contribution to the world of style—and, unfortunately, to dermatology—may well be the suntan. For centuries, in a fashion statement freighted with racial undertones, women around the world coveted a fair complexion. Ancient Egyptians lightened their skin with myrrh and frankincense. Eighth-century Japanese women risked death, using lead and mercury as whiteners. Intent on showing they had never needed to labor under the sun, 18th-century Europeans followed suit, adding whale blubber for good measure.1 The Castilian nobles cultivated skin so translucent their veins showed through, making them the original “blue bloods.”2

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