POSITIVE THINKERS say that America's passion for the suntan is fading. Yet last year, sales of sun-care products were at a record $500 million, with most of the dollars going to preparations that allow for a suntan.
Despite the National Institutes of Health's adamant "no tan is a safe tan" message, millions of Americans are still convinced that bronzed is beautiful.
Since most sunscreens only filter out the sunburn-producing ultraviolet-B rays, it is still possible to get a suntan via ultraviolet-A, infrared and other rays generated by the sun.
But, according to dermatologist Madhu Pathak, chairman of the Skin Cancer Foundation's photobiology committee, "Fair-skinned people cannot stimulate a tan without damaging their skin cells first." A recent nationwide survey of more than 1,000 people by the American Academy of Dermatology and the Avon Foundation, however, found that half of the respondents make an effort to tan and think it looks healthy. Another Academy study of 500 women found that 68% think they are more attractive tanned.
Manufacturers are responding with more types of tanning products and, for the cautious, more ways to limit exposure or fake the baked look.
NIH skin specialists say that people who live in sunny climates should use a product with a sun protection factor of at least 15. "The biggest growth area is in SPF 15 and above," says Susan Babinsky, consumer-products specialist for Kline & Co., an international consulting firm. At Coppertone, America's largest sun-care firm, the best-selling new product is an SPF 44.
But as manufacturers point out, most sales continue to be in lower SPF numbers. Coppertone's hottest seller overall, for example, is an SPF-4 lotion.
"Even though SPF-24 sales were strong last year, our best sellers were SPF 10 and 6, and we forecast the same for this season," says Jacqueline Cohen, spokesperson for Giorgio Beverly Hills Tan products.
Sequi Inc.'s Rescue, a mass-market sunscreen that also wards off insects, is available in SPF 4 because "so many people want protection but still want to tan," says Steve Schulze, president of the Newport Beach firm.
For sun worshipers, new Sun Spots from Delaware-based Sun du jour and Solasis UV Sunsensors by Manhattan's Sola Research Labs Inc., monitor exposure to rays.
The tiny adhesive patches work like little alarm clocks, turning red when it's time to apply more sunscreen. Sun du jour President Doug Fariss says the skin patches, which absorb ultraviolet rays, change color before the wearer's skin has received enough radiation to develop a sunburn.
Other consumers are compromising: They will stay out of the sun, but they will manage to keep up a bronze appearance by using either a "self-tanning" product, such as Lauder's Self-Action Tanning Creme, or a makeup designed to impart a sunny glow, such as Giorgio's Extraordinary Bronzing Powder. As I. Magnin cosmetics buyer Gary Cockrell puts it: "There are two consumers out there: the ones who must tan and the ones who won't. We have to sell something for both."
Photographed by Eika Aoshima; model: Joanna Hathcock / Eastwest-Prima; hair and makeup: Sharon Gault / Cloutier; styling: Shinko Iura