Aug 16, 2023
How Brown Women Can Embrace a Sunless Tan, Too
By Parizaad Khan Sethi All products featured on Vogue are independently selected by our editors. However, when you buy something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission. One day,
By Parizaad Khan Sethi
All products featured on Vogue are independently selected by our editors. However, when you buy something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission.
One day, in around the year 2000, Stella Simona, a high schooler growing up in Los Angeles, drove to her local Sally’s to buy some self-tanner. When she got home, she finally tried her first bottle bronze. Totally acceptable teenage behavior, you might think: until we note the fact that Simona is South Asian American.
For most people, getting a tan—whether via sun, spray gun, or bottle—is by no means a radical act. Unless you’re South Asian, that is. Within our culture, a tan of any sort has long been considered madness, and it’s near-impossible to fully grasp how subversive and defiant Simona’s tan was if you haven’t grown up with that conditioning. “There was a lot of pressure [from my family] to be more fair complexioned, to not be outdoors, to use bleaching creams—all of that was encouraged and very normal conversation growing up,” she says. “The biggest thing I heard at home was that if I am fair-skinned life will be easy, and if I am dark life will be hard, and I will have to take what I can get.”
Simona—now a creative entrepreneur, content creator, and mom of two—conformed to that thinking, until she didn’t. “At some point, I realized that I’m comfortable in my skin and I’m tired of people making me feel uncomfortable,” she recalls. It was around that same moment when she noticed there was something different about girls with complexions like hers walking the Victoria’s Secret runway. “I could tell there was something on their skin to give it a sun-kissed undertone: After some research, I realized it was self-tanner,” she says, noting that’s what prompted the Sally’s run and subsequent tan. “It was just me appreciating my skin and not wanting to hide it, but rather draw attention to it.”
The tanner gave her the same kind of boost that concealer often does: it was barely noticeable, but blurred any imperfections and created a more uniform skin tone. “It’s really confidence-building for a lot of people who deal with stretch marks or sunspots,” she says. “We can even out the things that make us self-conscious.” It was also “one-hundred percent” a push-back against the constant colorism she had been subjected to her whole life.
While fair skin is unfairly (and problematically) prized and encouraged within South Asia and across the diaspora, more recently, a resistance to these ideals has been brewing. A growing tribe wants to present a different narrative: one in which they’re empowered to shrug off the lingering colonial mindset that prized whiteness, instead leaning into their natural color and enhancing it by sunless tanning.
Their official ambassador should be Poorna Jagannathan, because right now, she is undoubtedly the unofficial one. “There’s nothing sexier than a girl who’s had a great fucking summer,” she says, and she means it. The beach is the Never Have I Ever actor’s natural habitat, whether on vacation or in the course of her daily life in Los Angeles—and as a result, her skin has a perma-burnished, Brancusi-bronze glow. “When I’m tan, [what I love] is not just the skin color, it’s about the experience I’ve had—that I was away on vacation, or I was one with nature, and got to take in the sun. It makes me feel beautiful from the inside.”
This year, however, her natural tan wasn’t popping like it normally would. L.A. had zero sunny days at the start of summer, and the beach had become a distant memory. Jagannathan also began worrying about sun damage. “I turned 50 last year and I'm much more cautious as I grow older,” she explains. “This is the first year of my life that I started using sunscreen regularly. Although I love being in the sun, I just want to be mindful.”
A tan, however, had to be acquired. Two days before the premiere of Never Have I Ever’s final season in June, she decided cosmetic intervention was needed and took a risk. She got her first-ever spray tan—and it was a vibe. “I became a shade darker than I normally am, and I’m totally addicted,” she says. “I think it’s going to be my go-to thing.” She got another one a few weeks later, right before her next premiere for Netflix’s The Out-Laws. “It just seems like a fantastic way to invite summer into your life without the toxic effects of actually baking in the sun,” she adds. (Jagannathan is also quick to note that being afraid to tan is “not my narrative,” meaning she didn’t grow up with her family chastising her every time her skin deepened half a shade, something millions of people across diverse countries and communities experience.)
By Hannah Coates
By Christian Allaire
By Kui Mwai
Sunless tanning for people of color—not just South Asians—is now a quickly growing sector. While there are no separate statistics or sales tracking for this category, a Spate report that tracks Google search data shows tanning products experienced strong growth over the last 12 months, compared to the 12 months prior. Another report predicts a growth rate of 5.9% from 2023 to 2033, noting the “rising popularity of tanned skin in Asia Pacific and the Middle East.” As awareness grows about the effects of sun damage on people of color, brown tanning enthusiasts are realizing that their melanin offers less protection from UV damage than previously thought, and are turning to sunless tanning solutions instead. “The demand from deeper-skinned clients now compared to ten years ago is completely worlds apart,” says Jules Von Hep, creator and founder of sunless tanning brand Isle of Paradise.
“Previously, the knowledge that self-tan worked on all skin tones really was a beauty industry secret that traveled via word of mouth, client to client, rather than direct from self-tan brand to consumer,” says Von Hep. “They did it for people of color in pageants, in the dance world, and for fitness models all the time,” says Maria Michelle'lee, a beauty diversity expert. She’s also a spray tan artist, and says that her clients of color—whether they’ve never gotten a spray tan before or do so often—always have the same reaction. “They say, ‘I wish my skin looked illuminated like this all the time.’”
Clearly, it’s been decades of missed opportunities for the industry. Von Hep has been a spray tanner for over 15 years, and says until recently the products she could find catered to a very narrow aesthetic. “Even though I was seeing a range of skin tones, body shapes, and genders in my spray tan booth, this wasn’t what was represented in brand communication and education.” Isle of Paradise was the first ever self-tan brand to use a woman of color in a campaign, something he still finds hard to believe. “Why this wasn’t done before is beyond me.”
Von Hep says he’s always thought of self-tan as a way to mimic a vacation glow, no matter your skin tone, and other experts agree. Maria Michelle'lee says that for Black and brown women, tanning is more about evening out the skin tone than darkening. “Sunless tanning is not changing our skin tone, it's amplifying it, and it’s doing exactly what it would if you were outside in the sun, just in a safer way,” she explains. Von Hep loves the way tanner reduces grey, ash, or blue undertones—as well as the appearance of stress or fatigue in melanated skin tones—while increasing evenness and uniformity for a noticeably glowier complexion.
By Hannah Coates
By Christian Allaire
By Kui Mwai
These experts also stress that they’re trying to spread the message that melanated skin doesn’t protect itself from UVA and UVB damage. “There’s a statistic out there that Black or African American skin tones are actually one of the latest to find out they have skin cancer because it's not detected early enough,” says Isabel Alysa, a celebrity tanning artist (J Lo and Selena Gomez are clients) and the founder of Dolce Glow, a buzzy brand that offers spray tanning and in-home products. Both she and Maria Michelle'lee are educators in the space, training professionals on how to successfully spray tan deeper complexions. Maria Michelle'lee consults with large brands, advising them on what their advertising and marketing should look like when it comes to sunless tanning for darker skin tones and diverse communities, as well as the healthy conversations they should be encouraging.
It seems to be working. On TikTok, #blackgirltanning has 9.8 million views, while #blackgirltan is at 9.6 million. I’m giddy at the thought of young brown and Black people rejecting the burden of fairness that generation after generation that came before us have received and handed down.
It might sound simplistic to expect brown out of a bottle to erase our inherited traumas—which I don’t. Neither do I see it as brands selling us insecurity and then a way to fix it. Instead, I think of tanning products as giving us the means to usher in a revolution. I know just how fraught it is to tell women of color that they need to modify their very skin or bodies to reach an imaginary beauty goal, pointing out yet one more thing we need to fix to appease the beauty industrial complex. And if it seems like I’m doing more of the same here, that doesn’t escape me. But I make this suggestion not to change, but to subvert. Women have used beauty to perform traditional femininity long enough. Why not use it to be seditious?
What’s more revolutionary for colored women than turning up the dial on the very thing that was thought to make them undesirable: their melanin? What if we used the beauty industrial complex to pop that melanin as far as it could possibly be popped, then revel in it and wear it with fierce pride? The best revenge, after all, is living well. Looks like we’re entering our endless summer era.
By Hannah Coates
By Christian Allaire
By Kui Mwai
Below, an edit of self-tanning solutions that deliver a sun-kissed bronze to brown and Black skin tones.
For deeper-skinned girlies, these self-tan drops are the easiest route to a post-vacay bronze. Squeeze a few drops (founder Jules Von Hep’s magic number is between 2-6) into your facial and body moisturizers, respectively, and use the plush kabuki brush to buff it in for a top-shelf glow. They’re easy and effective, perfect for beginners and advanced users alike, and loaded with skin-nourishing ingredients, so ashy limbs will never be in your future.
Isle of Paradise Drop, Blend and Glow Bundle Green
ISLE OF PARADISE
This is one of celebrity artist Isabel Alysa’s fave products from her line, and who are we to argue with J.Lo’s tanner? I use it just like a regular face mist by pumping out a few refreshing spritzes. (I prefer rubbing it in though the instructions say it’s not needed.) I manifest Mallorca as I wait for the hue to develop, and a few hours later, I look like my Spanish sojourn is already underway.
Dolce Glow Acqua Hydrating Self Tanning Water Body
Whind is a beautiful Moroccan skincare and fragrance brand that recently released these drops powered by a botanical alternative to DHA, the chemical responsible for the fake tanning process. The M.O. is the same: simply mix them in with your moisturizer. I love the subtle bronzing that reveals itself the next day.
Whind Marrakech Sun Instant Glow Tinting Water
Tanner and educator Maria Michelle'lee gives this product her vote for being a “beautiful color for deeper skin tones.” Its airy, mousse-like texture helps it go on buttery smooth, and you can layer to build intensity as needed.
Jergens Natural Glow Ultra Deep Instant Moisturizing Self Tanner
It’s impossible to talk about self-tanners without talking about skin prep products. This one is an O.G. I think of it as liquid sandpaper—in the best way, of course! Its 10% concentration of AHAs sloughs off the top layer of dead skin effortlessly and with no irritation, making it a must-have if you’re a tanning newbie. This way, you don’t have to live with any patchy tans which are an inevitable part of a beginner’s fate.
Paula’s Choice Skin Revealing Body Lotion 10% AHA
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more luxurious body exfoliator, and to be honest, I don’t know why anyone would even try. In this product is a blend of exfoliating acids with hydrating compounds, and if you slather your limbs with it a day before you tan, the resultant bronze will be the smoothest, most flawless coloring you will achieve.
U Beauty Resurfacing Body Compound
Boosted by Vitamins A, C, and E and squalane, this is the Goldilocks of body oils. It has enough heft to actually lubricate, but sinks in quickly to leave no oil slick. Topping a successful tan with this is a recipe for optimum beach body.
Fig. 1 Beauty All Over Oil