A History of Bain de Soleil
When I was a young girl in the early 1980s, I spent my days at a community pool…and I mean all day, every day. My Mom would drop me and my older sister off for swim team practice around 8:00 AM, on her way to work, and pick us up after 5:00 PM, on her way home.
After swim practice, big sis and I would go off with our separate friend groups. I would spend my day playing Marco Polo, diving for plastic rings/rocks/coins, and bravely jumping off the high-dive. Chilly from swimming in a huge unheated pool — which never warmed up until the end of the season — I’d lay in the sun, often on a towel spread across the blacktop basketball court for extra warmth. I don’t recall wearing sunscreen, or even “sun tan lotion,” as we called it back then.
My sister and her teenage friends would circle-up their towels on the premium lawn space next to the bathhouse. They’d drink Tab, play Uno, and “work” on their tans. As a teen, my sister was more concerned than I was with the aesthetic of tanned skin. Back then, deeply tanned skin was a signal of beauty, youth, and sophistication. Tanning was a pastime integral to the identity of many Americans, young and old.
To “turn on” her tan, my sister would apply Johnson’s Baby Oil. Johnson’s ads taught us that “the deeper the tan, the longer it’ll last after summer is gone.” And that to become a “hero,” “just smooth it on and let the sun do its thing.” Johnson’s bragged that, unlike tanning lotions and creams, its product contained no sunscreens, so there was “nothing to block out the golden sun.”
A Dab of Defense with an Amazing Aroma
But what if you wanted a deep, dark tan with just a whisper of sunburn protection? What if you also wanted to lavish your skin with luxurious emollients, leaving it soft, supple and glowing, without a greasy feel? And what if you wanted all of this, plus an elegant fragrance that exuded class and European refinement?
Well, in that case, Johnson’s Baby Oil simply would not do. You needed to upgrade to Bain de Soleil, which translates from French to “sunbath.”
Let me be upfront, my family was not swanky enough to have purchased Bain de Soleil, but I was certainly familiar with the brand from its ever-present TV/radio commercials. Sing it with me now: “Bain de Soleil, for the San Tropez taaaaaan…”
That infectious jingle evoked dreamy images of leisure and luxury on the shores of Saint-Tropez, a coastal town on the French Riviera in Southern France. The refrain was composed by Irwin Finger in the early ‘70s for ad agency Warner-Levinson. Regarding the ditty, Finger remarked, “I think a lot of people hated me because they couldn’t get it out of their heads…It played so much everyone remembers it. Whether it’s a good song or not, I don’t know.”
My interest in Bain de Soleil was recently revived upon hearing devotees eulogizing the loss of this classic product. You may still attempt to achieve a Saint-Tropez tan, but not with the aid of Bain de Soleil as the brand was discontinued in December 2019. Celebrants exalted the virtues of the sun cream, leaving me with an inalterable sense of having missed out on something great. Let’s go back to the beginning…
History of Bain de Soleil
According to the brand’s web site, the original product was inspired by Coco Chanel [1883-1971], the French fashion designer and businesswoman who founded the famous Chanel brand.
In the 1920s, Coco Chanel was a global “It Girl,” and women worldwide wanted to imitate her and get a taste of her lavish jet-setter’s lifestyle. So when Chanel appeared with deeply bronzed skin, tanning was turned into a fashion statement. By using suntanned models in Chanel fashion shows, who then appeared on glamor magazine covers, the sun-drenched look was further solidified as a beauty ideal.
In 1925, capitalizing on this tanning trend, Monsieur Antonine of Paris developed an Orange Gelée tanning formula called “Antoine de Paris.” Monsieur Antoine [1884-1976], born in Poland as Antoine Cierplikowski, moved to Paris in 1901 and became the world’s first celebrity hairdresser as well as an innovator of many beauty products.
Monsieur Antoine’s wife and business manager, Berthe Astier, visited New York in the 1940s where she promoted his various creations, including his velvety, orange-fragranced tan-inducing gel, introduced in America as “Antoine’s Bain de Soleil.” The sun-tanning product gained popularity stateside even as it continued to thrive in Europe.
Bain de Soleil’s Wild Corporate Ride:
In 1963, the U.S. arm of the Antoine de Paris cosmetic company was sold to New York’s Charles of the Ritz. Under their ownership, Antoine’s Bain de Soleil became the second-biggest tanning brand in the United States.
Charles of the Ritz (which also launched Jean Naté), developed various versions and formulations of Bain de Soleil before it was sold to Revlon in 1987.
Revlon quickly sold the Bain de Soleil brand to Richardson-Vicks, a subsidiary of Procter & Gamble. The new owners extended the range to over 20 products before selling it to Pfizer in 1995.
In the ’90s, Pfizer shifted Bain de Soleil’s marketing focus from bronzed skin to “intelligent tanning” and the brand’s “therapeutic” benefits.
In 1999, Pfizer sold the U.S. rights to the Bain de Soleil line to Schering-Plough, owner of Coppertone, giving Schering a larger share of the sun care products industry.
When Bain de Soleil was discontinued in 2019 — much to the dismay of its dedicated fan base — it was owned by Bayer, which acquired it from Schering in 2006.
Sundry Sun Solutions
Bain de Soleil was a brand for nearly a century before it was discontinued. Over that long history, and many owners, dozens of products were developed.
Though the original formula contained no sunscreen, eventually, Bain de Soleil was offered with Sun Protection Factors (SPFs), including up to SPF 30. Products were offered for pre-tanning, self-tanning (i.e. sunless), and after-tanning; they were available as gels, creams, oils, and foams; and were marketed for different body parts and different complexions.
But, hands-down, the most beloved and well-remembered formula is the Bain de Soleil Orange Gelée, SPF 4.
The history section of Bayer’s corporate website for Bain de Soleil mentions that the original 1925 concoction developed by Monsieur Antonine of Paris was the “Orange Gelée dark tanning formula.” And yet, based on a review of historical archives, the term “Orange Gelée” was not incorporated into Bain de Soleil advertising until the early 1980s.
What Was So Special About Bain de Soleil Orange Gelée?
Let’s take a closer look at the features that made Bain de Soleil Orange Gelée so unique that people sought the product for decades, as well as beyond its production life.
One of the first things people comment on when discussing Bain de Soleil Orange Gelée is the gel’s color, bright orange as seen in the ad below.
The product contained a cosmetic tint that was evident in the gel itself, but also apparent on the user’s skin, providing an “instant” bronze hue even without the sun. The color components consisted of D&C Yellow No. 10 Aluminum Lake and D&C Red No. 17. The strikingly colored gel was said to even out color inconsistencies in one’s complexion, which is why it was often used on models before a photoshoot, even when no sun was involved.
Fair warning, however, that tint also tended to stain some clothing, bathing suits, and furniture. It was recommended to let the product absorb for 30 minutes before dressing and/or wear dark fabrics. Also, if you manage to get your hands on the Orange Gelée these days, make sure that you wash those hands after application if you don’t want orange palms.
Smells like glamour…smells like summer…smells like a tropical vacation that only the wealthy could afford. What’s that smell? Why it’s Bain de Soleil Orange Gelée, of course!
While the color of Bain de Soleil Orange Gelée was remarkable, no aspect of the product is more heavily discussed online than its fragrance. There seems to be some debate about whether the “orange” in the name “Orange Gelée” referenced the product’s color or its scent. The answer seems to be, both. While the orange color was unmistakable, the fragrance also included orange blossom aromas.
Often described as “exotic,” the scent was more complex than just orange, blending other aromas, most frequently cited as clove, patchouli, and sandalwood. Since its discontinuation, some have tried to recreate the Bain de Soleil experience by adding orange and clove essential oils to non-BdS sunscreens, but these seekers acknowledge that the effect has been an inadequate imitation of the real thing.
Bain de Soleil Orange Gelée’s fragrance was so appealing that many users talk about having applied the gel for the scent alone, either using it in place of solid perfume, or as a general moisturizer. One magazine beauty editor mentioned that in the late ’90s, Bain de Soleil made a scented candle as part of a promotional campaign. The candle was described as “heavenly” as it well-captured that sought-after aroma of the sunscreen itself.
While I couldn’t find any other reference online to the promotional candle from the ‘90s, I did discover a modern company, called Canyon Collection, from Topanga, CA, that sells a “Bain de Soleil Soy Candle.” Their product description reads, “Our awesome soy candle will not give you the Saint Tropez tan. But… if you love the smell of a summer day poolside this candle is for you! With notes of orange, cloves, and patchouli your house will smell like a 1970 Miami hotel pool!” Intrigued, I have ordered one for $22 with free shipping and eagerly await its arrival.
Many online commenters expressed the “missed opportunity” for any of the product’s former owners to add a straight-up perfume to the collection, one that replicated the sunscreen’s fragrance.
According to “The Rose Sheet,” a cosmetic trade publication, we came close to approximating this dream. As reported in the May 10, 1999, issue, Arcade Beauty’s “ScentStrip” single-use fragrance samples would serve as the “perfect vehicle” to sample the orange scent of Bain de Soleil Orange Gelée sunscreen.
Under a deal between Pfizer and Arcade, the fragrance samples were paired with the “Orange. It’s the color of daydreams.” advertisement (pictured above), and would appear in a wide variety of women’s magazines, such as In Style, Vogue, and Allure. According to Arcade, the campaign marked the first time a sunscreen had been sampled for its scent. Now that speaks volumes about the force of that fragrance!
Next up, we have the luxurious Bain de Soleil Orange Gelée texture. Full of emollients including Mineral Oil, Petrolatum, Paraffin, Isopropyl Myristate, Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil, Propylparaben, and pure Vitamin E (Tocopherol), the gel packed a moisturizing punch. In fact, though Bain de Soleil Orange Gelée (SPF 4) was not considered sufficient for sun protection, it was considered to be an excellent moisturizer. The combination of ingredients softened the top layer of skin, protected the skin from free radicals, prevented moisture loss, and even repaired skin barrier function.
Ozokerite was used to thicken the product’s consistency, which is described by users as a cross between a cream and an oil, i.e. a thick gel. Users loved the silky feel and “glistening” effect the product imparted. Also, because of all of the emollients, the product was naturally waterproof. Even advertisements from the 1940s, when Bain de Soleil was first introduced to America, remarked that the product was “unaffected by salt water.”
The only downside to the product’s texture was its tendency to liquify when left out in direct sunlight…such as when sunbathing. To prevent this issue, consider keeping your Gelée in your Playmate cooler with your Capri Sun or Tab.
The last product benefit worth noting is Bain de Soleil Orange Gelée’s “signature metal tube.” From its inception to its discontinuation, the product was only delivered in a metal tube, whereas many other brands were presented in plastic bottles.
The metal tube was chosen in the 1920s as it was considered the most convenient container, and more importantly, “traveled without worry.” What was the worry? That your sunscreen/moisturizer would break open while traveling, leaving an eruption of oily cream all over your belongings and suitcase…not a great way to start a vacation. That metal tube was secured with a ridged screw top cap, not prone to leakage even in the roughest turbulence.
With all of the reasons to love Bain de Soleil Orange Gelée, I can understand why the product’s discontinuation in December 2019, by its then-owner Bayer, was so devastating to hardcore fans. News about people’s crushing disappointment regarding the product’s stoppage is what got me so interested in learning more about Bain de Soleil.
Though familiar with the sun salve, especially from the ‘80s commercials featuring that haunting refrain, I had never actually used the product. But now, after the product’s cessation, I see that eBay offers a “brand new in box,” classic Bain de Soleil Orange Gelée SPF-4, 3.12 oz, which expired in October 2017, for $325, plus shipping! That’s a 3150% price increase since the product was last sold on local drug store shelves for about $10. Even a crumpled up, half-used tube is available via eBay for $199.99. Reports on these prices really crystalized in my mind the depth of nostalgia felt for Bain de Soleil Orange Gelée.
Yet, even the most dedicated devotee may scoff at paying over $300 bucks for the beloved lotion, so alternative strategies have been employed. One approach is rationing. For the lucky few with remaining stock at home, sparing use is essential. Back in 2019, some sun worshipers caught wind — or maybe it was a sea breeze — of the pending termination of the product and scoured every shop on every block looking for the elixir, hoarding what supply they could find. True aficionados collected these treasures for personal use, but surely there were some shrewd entrepreneurs that snached up the remaining merch with reselling in mind.
Apart from the secondary market and rationed use of old supply, people are attempting creative concoctions at home, such as mixing essential oils (for fragrance) with Coppertone and other sunscreens, but as mentioned before, these attempts have produced feeble facsimiles.
Lastly, people are looking for substitute products that capture the essence of the original, if only in a limited capacity. These are mostly other tinted tanning oils and sunscreens with retro packaging. The suggested dupe, at least for those interested in reliving the fragrance of Bain de Soleil Orange Gelée (i.e. without the moisturizing and pseudo-sunscreen benefits), is Michael Kors Signature Eau de Parfum.
As reported by “The Strategist,” New York Magazine’s consumer products section, like Bain de Soleil, the Michael Kors’ scent bottles the smell of “sun and sand and exotic flowers all at once.” Kathleen Hou, beauty director for “The Cut” (another NYMag section), noted: “While getting into the fragrance business, Michael Kors talked about how his signature scent was always a little (or a lot) inspired by Bain de Soleil. He’s never said it directly, but his Eau de Parfum smells very, very close to it.” That sounds like a good lead, but connoisseurs of the original product will be the true arbiters.
Will they bring back Bain de Soleil?
As with other beloved, yet abandoned, products, an online community has assembled that hopes to bring back the long-gone lotion through collective action.
To persuade Bayer to restart the production of Bain De Soleil Orange Gelée, James Fallacaro started a Change.org petition. Mr. Fallacaro beckons, “This product has been a favorite of every beachgoer I know. Please take the time to join me in informing Bayer that they have made a huge mistake by pulling this product off the shelves. We demand our San Tropez tan people, we can do this.” As of the time of this writing, 9,315 tan fans have signed. Organizers note that at 10,000 signatures, the petition is more likely to get a reaction from the decision makers.
Despite these efforts, Bayer has made it clear that it has no plans to redistribute the product. According to Bayer, it “discontinued the production and sale of Bain de Soleil products due to limited consumer interest.” Actually, after a review of their Consumer Health Products portfolio, the company decided to exit the sun care sector altogether, concentrating on over-the-counter drugs for allergies/colds, pain management, digestion/ nutrition, and heart health instead.
Apparently there were not enough members of the zealous band of followers of Bain de Soleil Orange Gelée, to justify its continued sale. While the members of the tanning tribe are devoted, they hold a minority view when it comes to the current attitude towards sun exposure. For better or worse, tanning as a pastime is no longer in fashion. High-SPF sunscreen is now considered a must — the American Academy of Dermatology recommends SPF 30 as a minimum — so declining demand for Bain de Soleil seemed inevitable.
When It Comes To Tanning…We Know We Shouldn’t, But We Do Anyway
Beauty ideals, fashion trends, and even doctors’ recommendations, vis-à-vis sunbathing, have changed radically over the years.
The medical research community challenged the popularity of sun tanning in the late 20th century with evidence of its link to skin cancer, but before that, doctors routinely recommended sun exposure as a means to avoid rickets (a disease caused by vitamin D deficiency).
We’ve swung from life insurance companies recommending the “healing power of sunshine” to feel “better and stronger” to an opposite view where vitamin D deficiencies are now resurging as people deliberately cover every inch of their skin under protective clothing and/or sunscreen to avoid even a moment’s touch of the sun’s rays.
As for beauty, beginning in the 1920s, perhaps with Coco Chanel herself, anything from a “healthy glow” to a “deep dark tan” has been recommended as the aesthetic to strive for, but before that, a pale pigment was considered perfection. So, as health experts have warned us away from the sun, has a chalky complexion come back into vogue? In a word, “no.”
Though we now know about the perils of sun exposure — skin cancer, premature aging, etc. — beauty standards still favor tanned skin. A Psychology Today article from July 17, 2020, asks in its title, “Will a Tan Make You More Attractive?” The answer, according to the research, is simply “yes.”
Across assorted studies, here’s some of what the research says about tanning:
When shown models with varying levels of tan (none, light, medium, and dark), study participants found that the most attractive and healthiest-looking models were those with a medium to dark tan.
People who are actively dating, engaged in suntanning, with 64% believing that tanned skin made them more attractive to potential relationship partners.
Boys who perceive themselves as over or underweight were more likely to tan, as were boys who had been bullied.
Among adolescent females, the primary motives for sunbathing are appearance and well-being.
People are more likely to respond positively to requests for help when asked by a tanned person.
Tan people are more likely to get hired for jobs because they are perceived as more attractive.
One of the most interesting findings was the connection between a belief in tan-attractiveness and a stress response. For instance, “those who were more concerned with appearing attractive had more incidental sun exposure but also worried more about skin cancer and the sun’s effect on aging.” Similarly, “among women who were led to see a connection between tanning and attractiveness, thinking of death (as a consequence of sun exposure) threatened their self-esteem, which ironically increased interest in tanning behavior.”
So the key takeaway seems to be, despite known health risks, we continue to tan ourselves for the social benefits…we’re just riddled with anxiety while doing so! Yes, skin cancer is bad, no question, but so is a perpetual state of worry. Anxiety can lead to depression, a sense of doom, panic attacks, headaches, irritability, heart palpitations, increased blood pressure, breathing problems, upset stomach, loss of libido, muscle aches, and fatigue.
There’s a tension created in the gap between what we know we should do and what we actually do. It seems that for many people, tanning is now done “incidentally,” instead of intentionally, because we can’t bear to admit that we value our personal allure more than our physical health.
Let the Sun Shine, Let the Sunshine In
We fear cancer, but we fear social rejection and isolation more. If this were not the case, we wouldn’t continue to tan ourselves in the face of multiple decades of public health warnings. But is this really so wrong? Isn’t our mental health as important as our physical health?
A high self-esteem impacts a person’s decision-making process, relationships, emotional health, and overall well-being. It also influences motivation, as folks with a positive self-image understand their capabilities and feel more energized to take on new challenges. If a bit of a tan can influence a positive view of one’s self, doesn’t that tan have value.
Perhaps in the future, a medical breakthrough will grant us the ability to be out in the sun with no adverse effects…or maybe we’ll all sleep in bacta tanks to heal any damage accrued during the day. But in the meantime, I propose that we get honest with ourselves. Radical acceptance. We can avoid the burn, but embrace the tan…we’re doing it anyway, so let’s stop pretending and just hang loose, baby!
Let’s find the middle ground between skin cancer and rickets. Let’s openly love our sun-loving selves. Let’s renew our communal love of rich, vibrantly colored emollients that smell like summer and trigger sweet memories. Let’s bring back Bain de Soleil. Let’s let the sunshine in.