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Innovative Bronze-Age Technology

July 12, 2002|BOOTH MOORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Blame Coco Chanel. No matter how much research comes out about the cancer risk of sun exposure, tans haven't fallen out of fashion since the trend-setting French designer returned to Paris bronzed from a cruise on the Duke of Westminster's yacht shortly after World War I.

Bottle tans are my sunless solution each summer. Trouble is, one errant swipe of the peanutty-smelling stuff can make you look sun-spackled instead of sun-kissed. Three years ago, I resorted to having a tan kneaded onto my skin at a luxe spa. But despite the posh products and expert application, the results were still uneven and a shade too close to Lizzie Grubman, if you know what I mean.

This year, I am going high tech with a machine that looks like a Porta Potti, sprays like a garden sprinkler and delivers a tan in a process akin to an Earl Scheib quickie car paint job. The rage around the Southland, self-tanner spray booths dispense a mist of UV-free bronzer evenly over the entire body in less than 60 seconds.

"The machine goes over you three or four times, front and back. It can't miss a spot," says Raymond Klarich, 33, a hairstylist who bought his bronze at Suntans to Go in Sherman Oaks, one of several area tanning salons that has the new booths. "It takes two or three hours for it to fully come into effect, but there is no streaking. It looks so natural."

Booths are private to allow bronzing in the buff, and the treatments (about $25) last an average of four to five days. Shower caps are provided to protect the head and "barrier cream" keeps solution from falling into crevices on the hands and feet.

Once properly prepped, I stepped inside the booth, faced the shower in an open-legged stance and pushed the green "go" button. It's a bit startling when the jets begin squirting the cool solution, moving up and down, up and down. (I got so nervous, I breathed in a cloud-full, which the salon owner insisted was harmless). After a few seconds, the jets stopped, the cue to turn around for the reverse treatment. The process repeated and as soon as it was started, it was over.

After toweling off (which is encouraged to help prevent streaking), I was able to put my clothes back on without staining them with color. I was sticky, like I had rolled around in a melted snow cone, but it was a small price to pay for what turned into a golden glow by the next morning.

"It's perfect for people who are really fair. I'd have to lay out every weekend all summer for eight hours a day because I'd have to put so much sunscreen on to keep from burning," says Lindsley Lowell, 33, a publicist from L.A. "This got me dark in one treatment."

Some users have complained about color collecting on their elbows and knees, hands and feet. Others have had difficulty tanning their stomachs and, um, other parts. Still, on the chat board at Sunless.com (an entire Web site devoted to self-tanning if you can believe it), the majority of postings about UV-free booths are positive. "I will never go back to trying to get a real tan," wrote Lisa Hawke, 22, a paralegal from New York City.

Several companies make the booths but the largest is Dallas-based Mystic Tan. With 450 units in salons in 43 states and Canada, it bills itself a bit cheesily as the "official tan" of the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders. It was back in 1995 that company President Troy Cooper and former partner Thomas Laughlin began experimenting with prototypes inspired by a neighbor who spent a whole summer using a pressurized paint gun to spray himself with self-tanner. By 2000, they had perfected a design and a "unique" polarizing process called MagneTan. "We found that a negative charge on the particles of the bronzing mist meant the body would attract it better," Cooper explains.

Mystic Tan solution contains a water-soluble dye to give the instant illusion of bronze and a chemical called DHA (dihydroxy acetone, the product in most self-tanners), which reacts with cells on the surface of the skin to create a deeper color. Those who have extremely sensitive skin may want to do a patch test before using Mystic Tan, but in general, dermatologists agree the chemical is harmless.

"There is no evidence that DHA is damaging," Beverly Hills dermatologist Dr. Arnold Klein says. "But Mystic Tan seems a bit pricey. I would tell people to buy a bottle of Endless Summer by Coppertone instead of putting themselves through a car wash."

Not that tanning salons are having a problem attracting customers who want to fake instead of bake. "The day before July 4, we had people lined up all day to do it, from 11 a.m. until closing at about 9 p.m.," according to Crystal Riggleman, who works at UVA Sun Tanning Center on 3rd Street in L.A.

Some predict sunless tanning booths could someday eclipse electric tanning beds. "We've had a Mystic Tan booth since November and it changed the life of the salon," says owner Greg Rand, who opened UVA in 1982 and plans to purchase a second $30,000 sunless booth. "I realized I had been in the wrong business. I had been in the tanning business and I should have been in the non-tanning business."

We are "appealing to a group we didn't appeal to before," says Rod Perdew, who owns City Tan in Studio City. "Now we can get people in who are albino-like, because they can get color without any harm."

For Mystic Tan locations, log on to www.mystictan.com. Mist-On self- tanning booths (www.mist- on.com) provide a similar experience.

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