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No-bake Tan Touted As Safer

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Brown is in -- as in tanned skin. And it's in more than ever now that ''spray tanning'' has spread beyond the big cities into salons, health clubs, spas, malls and even laundromats across the country.

Strip, spray, rub and go. You can be bronzed in minutes by a machine that sprays you, or from a more labor-intensive session with someone who ''paints'' you with an airbrush. No more turning contortionist by trying to cover hard-to-reach parts of your body with a self-tanning lotion. No more smelling like a chemical factory from foul lotions and sprays.

Even better, dermatologists say, it's as safe as applying makeup. And there's no more worrying about getting skin cancer from the sun or from the ultraviolet rays of conventional tanning beds and booths. Sunless tanning is just that: It stains the skin, leaving the appearance of a tan that lasts four to six days. But you still have to wear a sun block if you want to avoid harmful effects of the sun.

''It's wonderful,'' says Samantha Youngman, 28, a writer at Us Weekly in New York. She got her airbrush tan at Brazil Bronze in Soho; it took about 10 minutes. ''It's a good, safe way to get a bit of color. And no streaking!''

So maybe it is a little strange that people are paying good money to imitate the multiracial hues of sun-kissed Brazilians and other Latinos, but that's fashion for you. In fact, spray tanning first came to widespread attention last year when the golden glow of the celebrity tribe -- Jennifer Lopez, Jennifer Aniston, Christina Aguilera, to name a few -- turned out to be fake.

''I want to extend a personal thank-you to Jennifer Lopez, who was the first person to step up to the plate and say, 'Yes, I do it, and why not?' '' says Starr Hamson, who started airbrush tanning in 1997 and has sold her Fantasy Tan equipment ($3,000) to 1,500 salons worldwide. ''She made it not just acceptable but fashionable.''

What's fashionable is usually lucrative. About 28 million Americans go to a tanning facility in any given year, according to the Indoor Tanning Association. For the past 20 years, UV tanning (in ''beds'' that unnervingly resemble high-tech coffins) was the only kind of salon tanning available, and eventually it grew to a $5 billion-a-year industry, despite warnings from dermatologists about the dangers of prolonged exposure to UV rays.

''UV light causes tremendous damage to the skin, not only in terms of aging but in being the main risk factor for all three types of skin cancer,'' says Constance Nagi, chief of the dermatology division at the University of California-San Diego School of Medicine. ''For those who think they look or feel better with tan skin, the spray tan is very safe, though temporary.''

The UV tanning industry initially viewed spray tanning as a threat; now it's embraced as a boost for revenue and clientele. Dallas-based Mystic Tan, which just sold its 1,000th machine at $30,000 each, more than doubled its sales in the past year.

Of the estimated 25,000 tanning salons in the USA, most of them offer sunless tanning or will be offering it soon, the Indoor Tanning Association says.

''It's bringing in a whole new consumer, and it's enhanced our business with our existing clientele because it gives them another way to even out their (conventional UV) tan,'' says Scott Shortnacy, owner of a chain of seven Solar Planet salons in the Washington, D.C., metro area. He is buying more Mystic Tan tanning machines for his salons. ''Just in the month of June, our sales were up 100%.''

Soon, says Tom Laughlin, inventor of the Mist-On tanning machine ($50,000 each), spray tanning will be as common in hotels as swimming pools -- and just as necessary to stay competitive.

''We've only scratched the surface,'' he says. ''You're going to see them on cruise ships, at beach resorts. People want to be tan before they go on vacation as well as after, so we can get them coming and going.''

Although dermatologists recommend sunless tanning over UV tanning, many say they still wish people weren't so obsessed with being brown.

''We're trying to educate the public that tan is not beautiful,'' Nagi says. ''It's unfortunate that the availability of sunless tans will perpetuate the desirability of a tan.''

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© Copyright 2003 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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