We Are Sunshine

Smart Tan Turns 25: The story behind the movement

Wednesday, September 8th, 2021

By Joseph Levy

This month marks a pretty significant anniversary in the history of the professional indoor tanning community.

Twenty-nine years ago Matt Russell hired me – that’s not the significant anniversary, but it’s hard to believe Matt and I have been working together that long – and gave me a single task: Find out the truth about the science related to sun exposure. We want to know.

I had been an investigative business reporter in my early 20s. So, this was an interesting challenge. “Don’t blue sky it,” he told me. “We want the truth.”

It’s turned into a 29-year passion. For both of us.

There was no internet back then. No readily accessible science upon which to base any conclusions. But an increasing amount of “sun scare” citations in the press – each time without reference or access to actual data. So I spent much of about six months in the Taubman Health Sciences Library at the University of Michigan (with a photocopy card) finding the science, photocopying medical journal articles and studies, and then talking with many of the researchers themselves.

It was a tough project. But Matt was committed to taking it on. And looking back on it today I’m still struck by the fact that the core of what we learned back then continues to be true today: There’s a huge gap in sun-care messaging that is still being ignored: In spite of mounting science supporting balance in sun care, no one was trying to separate the data about sunburn from the data about non-burning sun exposure. And no one was respecting any of the nuance of sun-care messaging. And there’s still a lot more money made telling people to avoid any sunlight than will ever be made telling people to simply prevent sunburn based on their skin type.

Matt and I reviewed that project and parlayed it into “Smart Tan Month” in July 1993 and 1994, and eventually into International Smart Tan Network in 1996, which was always much more than just a tanning training program. It was and is a values-based group of tanning facilities and professionals committed to training their staffs and communities the right way and promoting what we coined all those years ago as “The Golden Rule of Smart Tanning”: Don’t EVER sunburn.

Twenty-five years ago this month, Matt and I launched Smart Tan at “Smart Tan ’96: The Big Show in Orlando.” It was a more than just a training program. It was, and is, a movement that stood for defining and promoting the best of what our market can be when we do our jobs correctly: Part of the solution.

And we’re both proud that we’re able to use all of Smart Tan’s commitment for 25 years as a big part of what we both do in support of the American Suntanning Association today. That groundwork – and our solid dedication to each other through the years in the pursuit of answers to the tanning community’s biggest challenges – is a big part of what helps us both in our roles with ASA.

Here’s what led up to that moment 25 years ago.

Click here to read the entire article in the latest issue of Smart Tan Magazine online.