Where there are large populations of Caucasians, in this contemporary world that sees them more likely to toil beneath fluorescent bulbs than a noonday sun, a celebration of tanned flesh seems de rigueur. The theorized threat of a melanoma death has not killed this sensibility.
Add a threat of premature wrinkles to the International Agency for Research on Cancer's July announcement that tanning beds have been upgraded from "probably carcinogenic to humans" to the IARC's most dangerous rating that simply deletes the "probably," and a fake tan may be sounding better every day.
But won't it look absurd? Will it be splotchy or streaked? Will I look less like a bronzed god and more like an Oompa Loompa? The questions don't come from out of the blue, but from results that have been witnessed.
Fortunately, what's on offer today is a bit more evolved than the results researcher Eva Wittgenstein reported in the September 1960 issue of the journal Science: "Staining of Skin with Dihydroxyacetone."
Claudia, a local woman who'd like to keep her last name to herself -- because what girl doesn't like to keep a tight hold on her beauty secrets? -- says she converted to a brand of spray tan last summer. Working in TV, she saw one of her on-air colleagues arrive one day with a beautiful tan. Seems it didn't come from the tropics, but from a can. The brand was SunFX and Claudia loves it, both for the results and for the convenience.
"I'm not scared of the sun, but I don't have time for those results," Claudia says. "You'd have to sun worship. Basically, it's $20 a pop. It rocks."
The inconvenience, however, is that Claudia drives 45 minutes to an aesthetician in Prince Frederick County, Md., for the one-minute treatment. Still, incorporating a bronzer into her SunFX solution gives her an immediate glow. "You walk out and go, 'Hello!'"
While Claudia prefers the handiwork of an aesthetician spraying the SunFX solution on her body, another leader in the field, Mystic Tan, offers an automated process -- as close as downtown Washington. Hollywood Tans at 625 D St. NW sports a bank of Mystic Tan booths, and a visit couldn't possibly be more no-nonsense.
"Is this your first time?" an attendant asks.
"Yes," you respond.
With that, you're escorted to a Mystic Tan booth and given a quick rundown: When you enter the booth, strip -- or wear your Speedo for a tan line. Cover your hair with the cap provided. There is also lotion provided to block the spray, so apply it to your palms, the bottoms of your feet, your fingernails and toenails, possibly knuckles and the backs of knees and fronts of elbows.
The attendant inserts a canister of Mystic Tan into the booth's waiting receptacle.
"Is that the lightest formula?"
"There's only one."
Yes and no. With SunFX and Mystic Tan, dihydroxyacetone (DHA) is the active ingredient. DHA is a plant-based product that has the odd effect of staining the upper layer of skin, though not immediately. In fine-tuning a formula, a manufacturer may add a bronzer for an immediate effect, aloe for soft skin, and so on. The basic Mystic Tan formula on offer is the original-formula clear mist.
What happens next is totally sci-fi.
Stepping into the private booth's second cylinder -- the business end, one might say -- four numbered footprints mark the floor. There is a small sensor.
"Welcome to Mystic Tan," says the automated voice, something far cheerier than the one telling Ripley she had T-minus 10 minutes to abandon ship. After instructing you on which numbers to place your feet, she cautions, "Spraying will begin in 3, 2, 1..." Then your canister sweeps horizontally as it glides vertically, basting somewhere between a quarter and a third of your body. And repeat.
Don't forget to keep your arms out, elbows bent with fingers pointing down. You should probably also keep your eyes closed and not breathe while the spray hits your face. Although there's nothing terribly exotic in the bronze-free formula, the FDA hasn't approved it for your mucus membranes, just your skin. If you're particularly concerned, ask for eye and mouth guards.
A towel is provided to pat yourself down afterward, and your clothes go right back on. Without a bronzer, there's no fear of coloring your clothes.
The results, particularly for those pasties who've never known a genuine tan, are fairly impressive. Men who may be manscaping mightily beforehand should shave at least four hours prior. Another must is a shower with a good scrubbing immediately beforehand. After the spray, wait at least four hours before showering, as water will stop the DHA from doing its job.
Within a few hours, you'll see the results: about a week of color that others may or may not notice. The basic treatment is fairly subtle. But if you're sick of watching your purple-blue blood pump through your veins, about $20 for a splash of color may be worth it.
Mystic Tan is available at Hollywood Tans, 625 D St. NW. Call 202-393-8267 or visit www.hollywoodtansdc.com. To find a SunFX salon, visit www.sunfxamerica.com.