Get In Loser, We’re Going Reverse Tanning

So tanning makes you darker…but does reverse tanning make you lighter?

Questions you wonder about late at night.

So I looked it up.  Reverse tanning.  First of all, yep it’s a thing. Second of all, NASA invented it (NASA???) Third, it supposedly does not make your skin lighter. It only evens out your skin tone.[1]


But why is it synonymous with “white tanning” then?

So many questions.  So little time.

“White tanning” has become very popular amongst women in South Korea.  Skin color means a lot in Korea; a long time ago, dark skin was considered a sign that someone was part of the labor class, since they worked long hours under the sun.  Now, dark skin is not necessarily associated with labor; however, the “cultural preference” for lighter skin has not changed.

Thus, “these days, the pressure for Korean women to maintain light skin for beauty reasons is kind of intense.  The (suspect) logic is that a whiter canvas better showcases the meticulously pampered skin they spend a great deal of time and money to achieve.”[2]

So why is it called white tanning if you’re not getting whiter????

Actual tanning involves UV light penetrating your skin to make more melanin.  Melanin is your body’s way of protecting your skin from burning.  So while tanning increases melanin, reverse tanning uses infrared to increase elastin production.  It doesn’t necessarily tan anything – it just evens out your skin tone.

It takes about ten sessions to actually see any type of result.  You have to go several times a week for at least 20 minutes.  You also have to lay naked in a coffin-like box (just like tanning) to walk away…whiter?  Brighter?  Even-er?

Although reverse tanning has not taken hold in the United States (yet), Snapchat has made it as easy as a swipe of a filter to make your skin lighter.  About a year ago, Snapchat added a few filters (such as the flower filter, the “pretty” filter and the “even-skin” filter).  All three filters drastically make one’s skin flawless and lighter.  They enhance certain features (like eyes and lips) and make other features (nose and jaw) slimmer and smaller.  Basically, Snapchat seems to favor white skin. When asked about their controversial filters, they refused to comment.[3]  What’s new?

Nowadays, “beautiful skin” is tied to the idea that you must be white or, at the very least, light skinned.  Someone who has “light skin” is automatically privileged with “racial capital.” This “capital” can be seen in a variety forms, such as social capital (social network) or economic capital (a job that pays well).  Skin-lightening products are on the rise; the global market demands them, and if you type in “skin-lightening products” on Google, oh man.  Prepare to be overwhelmed by over-priced creams that literally use the word “white” in their name.  “This practice reveals the strong desire by consumers to achieve aesthetic whiteness, if not a white identity.”[4] Thus, when it comes to advertising, beauty companies make sure to put in a few “light-skinned, Anglo-looking women of color,” to RE-emphasize that white beauty is better.[5]

So get in! We’re going reverse tanning. *insert eye roll emoji here*

[1] Amy Sciarretto, “Reverse Tanning Is A Misnomer — Here’s What It Actually Is (And Isn’t),” Bustle, December 2014,

[2] Joyce Kong, “Reverse Tanning: What It Is & Why It’s Huge In South Korea,” Refinery29, December 2014,

[3] Rachael Krishna, “People Think These Snapchat Filters Are Making Their Face Look Whiter,” Buzzfeed, May 2016,

[4] Margaret L. Hunter, “Buying Racial Capital: Skin-Bleaching and Cosmetic Surgery in a Globalized World,” The Journal of Pan African Studies (2011): 149.

[5] Margaret L. Hunter, “Buying Racial Capital: Skin-Bleaching and Cosmetic Surgery in a Globalized World,” The Journal of Pan African Studies (2011): 146.


2 thoughts on “Get In Loser, We’re Going Reverse Tanning

Add yours

  1. Your post really reminded me of Hope In A Jar! Do you remember there was a chapter detailing the branding of skin whiteners, and how companies would go to any length to avoid just coming out and saying what their products were? This is where the idea of skin “evening” came from! Especially when targeting people of color for their advertisements, companies like Ponds and Olay go to so many lengths to avoid the phrase “whitening” in their skin-whitening products. “Skintone evening,” “Skin brightening,” and now, as you mention “Reverse Tanning.” Why is it acceptable to use the word “tan,” which explicitly means to make darker, but not “whiten,” which would be the accurate term for making whiter?


  2. It doesn’t surprise me that this exists, but I had no idea that this was a thing! I have been consistently frustrated by racist snapchat filters, and not only are there filters which completely change a person’s face to give them more white features, but there are filters like the Bob Marley filter on 4/20, and the Frida Kahlo filters which are complete appropriation. One thing that your post made me think about was the speaker we had in our class on Friday, who spoke about how mixed race people often feel uncomfortable when their skin is lighter, because they are afraid that people will read them as white when they don’t identify as white. This was something that I have never thought about, as I have consistently seen products marketed towards making a person’s skin lighter, and was an interesting thing for me to think about in terms of being “tan,” being “dark,” and being “fair,” and how those are all read.


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