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One-Night Tan

Our pale writer braves the new, high-tech world of fake tans

By Jessica Neuman Beck

J. Lo's doing it. Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt are doing it.

Fake tans are becoming the faux fur of the red carpet set, only without those annoying PETA demonstrators harassing those who still get their color the old-fashioned way. Can you imagine? Pale-skinned models wearing only a sign that says, "I'd rather go naked than expose my skin to ultraviolet rays!" Hmm ... maybe that isn't such a terrible idea. But sunless tans offend no one, and have the added bonus of instant gratification for those of us who don't want to spend hours at the beach.

Magic Tan, a mist-on bronzing system which boasts an even, streak-free color that can last up to seven days, is at the forefront of the sunless tanning movement. Geek that I am, I looked up the Magic Tan website before subjecting my precious derma to the process. The active ingredient in sunless tanning is dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a colorless sugar that usually comes from vegetables like sugar beets. One to four hours after application, it causes a chemical reaction on the outer layers of skin which results in a tanned appearance. It's the same stuff that used to turn self-tanning hopefuls an unfortunate shade of orange, but in the past few years the refining process has been improved and the results are much more natural. Pictures of a smiling, sun-kissed model on the website were encouraging, but I was a little put off by the last line, which said, "Thanks to advances in technology, there's no longer any reason for any person to go through life looking pale and unhealthy."

Dragging my pale and unhealthy-looking self out to Tanner's Cove in Capitola, I was greeted by Ashley Jennings and Megan Nobles. They both had subtle, natural-looking tans--not the ultrabaked look I unconsciously associated with tanning salons. They showed me a video detailing the Magic Tan process, which involved stepping into what looked like a high-tech shower stall and assuming a variety of different positions to ensure even application of the DHA mist. But would I look like a pumpkin when it was done?

"That's probably the No. 1 question people ask us," said Ashley. "It's definitely not going to turn you orange. You get a nice golden-brown color. Just remember to keep the shower cap slightly above your forehead, so you don't get a line."

Thusly armed, I went into the private room and applied the special lotion to the places I didn't want to darken, like my palms and the soles of my feet. I stepped into the Magic Tan booth. I was gently sprayed with a sweet-smelling mist, and then remembered, belatedly, that I was supposed to hold my breath. Oh well. The entire process was over in less than a minute, and when I stepped out, I was surprised to see that I already looked darker.

"It will keep developing over the next 24 hours," Megan told me, but I was too busy admiring my newly bronzed midriff to really pay attention. Tanning really does make you look thinner.

The next day, my fake tan was in full force. I looked like I'd just gotten back from a tropical vacation. I felt a compelling urge to wear a sundress and affect a foreign accent. My skin practically glowed. I noticed a few places like my knuckles and heels where it came out a little too dark, but had I been a little more diligent with the lotion it would have been fine. Mental note: next time, be sure to put lotion on cuticles.

Despite what I'd heard about the tan lasting for up to a week, mine started to seriously fade after only a couple of days. My face was the first thing to go, and my legs and torso remained a pleasantly caramel color for slightly longer, which was fine with me. My friend LaWanna had it worse--she got a spray-on tan at a salon in Los Gatos and the only places it lasted were the soles of her feet and her belly button.

"My advice to you?" she said. "Don't do it if you have a sunburn." The experience hasn't deterred her, though--she wants to get an airbrushed tan next.

I'm on the fence about whether I want to go back for another round of tanning mist. On the one hand, I'm going to miss my golden-brown legs, but on the other hand, it's hard to look properly spooky and gothlike with a suntan. As my co-worker, Lisa, said upon seeing my tan, "You look so healthy!"

Magic Tan is available at several salons in the Bay Area, including Tanner's Cove, located in Capitola and Santa Cruz.

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From the July 30-August 6, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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