Reverse Tanning: What It Is & Why It's Huge In South Korea

Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
A few years ago, I started noticing tanning salons popping up in Seoul’s trendy neighborhoods, which is honestly something I never thought would happen considering the near-obsession South Korean women seem to have with milky-white skin. For them, tanning beds have never held much appeal.
This is probably because skin color matters in Korea, although the meanings attached to different skin tones have shifted over time. Long ago, dark skin was known as a sign of the laboring class, since they worked under the hot sun. And, while no one assumes you’re a farmer if you’re sporting a tan, the cultural preference for fair skin hasn’t subsided.
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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. And, that's why “white tanning,” also known as red-light therapy, has taken Seoul by storm.
Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
White tanning is as much a paradox as it is a misnomer (seriously, that name makes no sense). Unlike the tanning most Americans are familiar with, which uses UV light to increase melanin production, white tanning is accomplished through infrared light — so there’s no actual tanning going on. But, there isn’t much whitening happening either. Despite its slightly misleading name, the real reason the trend has picked up in Korea is because of its promises to improve skin tone.
It may sound slightly dubious, but science is on its side. NASA (yes, rocket scientists are behind white tanning) developed the technology to treat wounds in space by stimulating the body in healing itself. The long wavelength of infrared light allows it to penetrate deep into the dermis and energize fibroblast cells, which boosts collagen and elastin production. You won’t heal like Wolverine, but the technology will even out skin tone and minimize pigmentation issues.
In the name of research and curiosity, I booked a white-tanning session at one of Korea’s premier spots for the procedure, Ibiza Tanning Studio. Right away, I was shown photo after photo of Korean celebrities who had white-tanned at Ibiza. Lee Hyori, Big Bang, Shin Min Ah, Ha Ji-won, Jay Park...I’ll stop there, because you probably have no idea who any of these people are. According to Ibiza manager Teaho Kim, many Korean pop stars and other celebs (actually) tan to achieve the right look for an appearance or shoot, and then white-tan to get themselves back to their original looks.
The session lasts just 20 minutes, and it takes at least five visits for the therapy to get collagen and elastin production going and at least 10 to start seeing results. Different lotions can help enhance the efficacy of the process, but the real technology is in the light. The process isn’t at all painful as it's a slightly warm sensation, but it is weird. It feels pretty vulnerable to be bombarded with scary red rays while standing naked in a coffin-like container. Though I would have had to commit to several times a week for six to 12 weeks to see significant changes, some Korean beauty bloggers who have tried it for the recommended time have already weighed in with an assortment of positive verdicts, ranging from improved skin tone to cured acne to fewer fine lines and wrinkles.
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Now, to be clear, white tanning does not erase the damage caused by UV radiation — nor does it negate its dangers. Just because your skin tone is more even doesn't mean you've also suddenly erased your risk for melanoma.
Infrared technology itself is nothing new — it has been offered for years in the U.S. However, the red- and blue-light therapies available at spas and dermatology practices are designed specifically for the face — white-tanning booths allow users to get those same beneficial results on their entire bodies. The concept has already started to trickle over to the U.S.: Celeb facialist Joanna Vargas recently debuted a full-body booth (with the much more PC name Healing Bed) at her NYC spa.
Horrible name aside, we can totally get behind this futuristic skin treatment. Let's all start thinking of some better names to call it when it catches on stateside.


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