Sun & Skin News

All Skin Tones Need Sun Protection, Doll!

By Julie Bain • March 14, 2024
sun safe dolls

Over the decades, Barbie dolls have evolved (slowly, but getting there!) to reflect a broader and more diverse definition of who we are. Our understanding of how important it is to protect everyone’s skin from the sun has evolved, too. But, at last, we are making progress! 

Barbie. The blockbuster movie. The doll that evokes strong memories, feelings and, yes, judgments, in all of us? Need I say more? Yes, I believe I should, because there’s a story here, and it relates to your skin. 

As a kid, I loved my Barbie. I knew even then that I would never grow up to look like her. But I admired her confidence, posture and fabulous wardrobe, including Grace Kelly-worthy ballgowns created by my dad’s cousin, Kathy. (She was a wonderful woman who, in my eyes, could have been a famous fashion designer but chose to help countless teenagers as a high-school guidance counselor.)  

Anyhoo, I also loved my Barbie because she had perfect, unblemished, unfreckled skin, which never got rashes or severe, peeling sunburns, like I did. I also noticed she had very white skin, like me — and all the other Barbies then. 

However, when I was a kid, it was cool to be tan, so when Mattel introduced Malibu Barbie in 1971, with her sun-kissed blonde hair and smoothly tanned skin, I thought, Wow, she looks like my older sister (who, of course, was way cooler than I was). Our mom tried, but the sunscreens in those days didn’t offer high SPF, water resistance or broad-spectrum protection. Hollywood icons like Farrah Fawcett and Pamela Anderson helped fuel the tanning fervor of the 1970s and ’80s, too, which only continued to damage the skin I was in.  

I wish I’d known then what I know now. At the age of 25, I helped diagnose my own first skin cancer, a basal cell carcinoma (BCC) on my left thigh, by pointing it out to my surgeon brother-in-law. He listened to me carefully, examined the lesion and ultimately recommended a biopsy. It was the first of many skin cancers to come, thanks to my childhood sun exposure and sunburns. I got wise and started protecting my skin from the sun more diligently. Those personal experiences also led me in 2015, after a career as a health and science writer and editor, to The Skin Cancer Foundation. 

One of my first creative projects in my new job at the Foundation was spurred by my sister alerting me to a press release, early in 2016, that Mattel was introducing Barbie dolls with a more diverse range of skin tones and body types. My first thought (besides, They’re beautiful and I want to play with them!) was that we could use them to remind people that everybody’s skin can be at risk for sun damage that can lead to premature aging and skin cancer  

My sister charitably drove to several different stores in her suburban city to gather the dolls you see above and send them to me. (Thanks for the donation, Lisa!) When they arrived at our office, I showed them to my colleagues, who agreed these more diverse Barbies were a good conversation starter to talk to kids about why it’s so important to protect their skin from the sun. 

Barbie BFFs look out for each other: “Time to reapply our sunscreen and put our hats back on!”

Before my colleague Paul and I could take the dolls to the park for the photos you see here, though, I hunted for sun-protective gear for them, especially hats. Guess what? Not so easy to find. I had to turn to eBay to locate some vintage straw Barbie hats from the 1970s, and then to Etsy for handmade ones. (Mattel, are you listening?) 

We decided we should update this cute post to remind everyone about the importance of daily sun protection to keep your skin looking and feeling its best — at a time when Barbie may have even more to contribute. (We’ll have to see the movie to find out.) 

The author also acted as stylist, making sure the hair wasn’t too windblown and the hats enhanced the outfits — crucial in Barbie World!

For now, consider these photos as a teaching tool. Tell your kids that wearing sunscreen and a hat is smart and stylish. It will help keep their skin looking young and fresh — like Barbie! And it can also help them avoid hyperpigmentation, freckles, dark spots, tanning and sunburns, which can lead to skin cancer later. Believe me, I know. I hope the new Barbies will see the light, too. 

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