WHEN MANY people think of the colors of fall, what comes to mind are the russet browns of autumn leaves. But for men and women who measure the success of their summer by the darkness of their tans, fall is the depressing season when their carefully cultivated bronzes fade to blah.
Despite warnings about the relationship of skin cancer to ultraviolet light, many spend their non-summer months on tanning beds, under sunlamps or at distant resorts--just to maintain their color.
Beverly Hills dermatologist Arnold Klein says some of his patients beg him for suggestions on how to maintain their tans. "There is no safe way to sunbathe, so I suggest that they buy a tube of 'instant tan.' "
Ingredients in products such as Prescriptives Sun-Free Tanner or Biotherm Self-Tanning Lotion react with proteins in the outermost layer of the skin, darkening it within a few hours without sun exposure. Each application deepens the color. (These differ from bronzers offered by companies such as Bonne Bell and Clinique that merely stain the skin.)
Although more than six new sunless-tan products have been introduced recently, the formulas do not differ significantly from QT, which first appeared in 1960, according to Tony Guiliano, Coppertone vice president of marketing. He explains that dihydroxyacetone is the main ingredient in QT and many other self-tanning products. "For the great majority, the result is a natural-looking tan," he says. "But for a few, the skin turns an orangish color."
One preparation, Self-Action Tanning Creme, is Estee Lauder's best-selling sun product. "It is designed for the woman who likes a tan but does not want to risk the dangers of sun exposure," says company founder Estee Lauder.
Another recently introduced product category is the pre-tan accelerator. Manufacturers claim that it will speed up the tanning process if applied for three consecutive days before exposure and then again each day in the sun. According to manufacturers, tyrosine, the main ingredient, activates pigment production in the skin's outer layer and results in a faster tan, so less exposure is necessary.
However, a recent study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology indicated that accelerators have no effect. According to author Dr. John Ratz, co-director of dermatological surgery and oncology at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, the skin's outer layer is "basically impermeable to tyrosine," so it can't do what makers claim.
The study evaluated only two products: Lauder's Golden Sun Pre-Tan Accelerator and Coppertone's Natural Tan Accelerator. According to Guiliano, the light source used was not similar enough to sunlight, and the procedures followed were not consistent with package directions. Ratz says, however, that neither manufacturer has contacted him to refute the study.
Walter Smith, vice president of research and development for Estee Lauder, maintains that Golden Sun has been proven effective by dermatologists, biologists and chemists, "who definitely support our claims."
It's important to remember, however, that most accelerators and instant tanners do not contain sunscreen, Klein says. "If you go out in the sun, you'll burn if you don't apply sunscreen. Accelerators and instant tanners won't protect you."
Some think they can stay tanned without risk by using tanning salons, but Ratz says that salons are not safer than sun exposure. "It doesn't matter whether UV rays come from the sun or an artificial source."
In the future, a tan may be attained by swallowing a pill. Melano-Tan's developers claim that it stimulates melanin production and result in darker skin. The drug is unlike so-called tanning capsules that flood the body with beta carotene, coloring the skin orange. "They do the same thing as eating too many carrots," Ratz says. "This new drug may be effective, but it is far too early to tell, especially about side effects."
It may be years before the FDA reaches a verdict on the efficacy of Melano-Tan. In the meantime, many specialists would like to see the public re-evaluate its attraction to tanning. "Considering the cancer risk," Ratz says, "the price of is far too high. It would be better for people to appreciate their natural color."
Hair and makeup by Beth Katz / Cloutier; styling by Tracy Kirst.