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A rite of peroxided passage

Times Staff Writer

There was a time when the blond and bronzed California girl ideal was held up as something universally desired. Most people never had a chance of looking like Farrah Fawcett, Christie Brinkley or Pamela Anderson. But one product made it possible for some to have a piece of the flaxen-haired dream. And was it cheap!

For more than three decades, Sun-In, the drugstore hair lightener, has promised to “bring out natural highlights just like the sun, only faster.” Along with baby oil, the spray-pump bottle was a fixture in teen beach bags and an essential accessory for the summertime ritual of “laying out,” grammatically incorrect though it may be.

You’d see the Sun-In girls all over the beach: They’d fan their hair behind them on a beach towel for maximum exposure to the rays, making sure to spend at least half an hour on their stomachs so the backs of their heads might bake. Beads of milky peroxide would roll off the tips of the hair tendrils onto tanned shoulders, bleach fumes mingling with the scent of sunscreen and sea spray. And always, for them, it was a struggle to keep from tap-dancing across the scalding sand to the nearest public restroom for a “hair check.”

“I remember the girl on the package; she looked like something out of a teen magazine,” said Danielle Brincko, 25, a publicist in San Francisco who grew up in Los Angeles.

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Anne Crawford, a fashion publicist and former style editor of Los Angeles magazine, came of age at a time when the surfer girl -- and her tresses -- were celebrated far beyond the bounds of Crawford’s then-provincial beach town. “When I was growing up in Santa Monica in the late 1960s, everyone wanted that white-blond, California girl hair. My friends and I would save our allowance and go to Thrifty and buy a bottle. It would go pretty fast among us,” said Crawford.

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Highlights of adolescence

Many women who remember using Sun-In say they discovered it about the same time they discovered boys and zits, at 11 or 12. Often, they were introduced to the product by a “Sun-In pusher” -- someone older and, of course, blonder. Crawford’s sister, Mary, let her in on the secret. “My sister was a year older and she was the hot girl at the beach,” Crawford said. “She surfed. She was the quintessential California girl. We all wanted to be like her and look like her.”

For some, experimenting with the hydrogen peroxide-based hair lightener was fraught with the same anxiety as trying a first cigarette or debating a second ear piercing. After all, the consequences could be dire: parental ire or, worse, peer ridicule, because Sun-In users belong to one of two camps -- those who can use the lightener unabashedly to great blond success and those who have horror stories of the sort that sometimes end in a bob.

Such was the sad case of Amy Robinson, who first tried Sun-In at 12, on a river rafting vacation in Yosemite. “It was a cloudless day and I kept wetting my hair and applying Sun-In, wetting and applying for two hours,” said Robinson, a 30-year-old management consultant. “I’m a brunet and my head turned a copper color. My mother took one look at me and called me a puta, which means whore in Spanish. She made me cut my hair off for 7th grade.”

Likewise, Liesel Reinisch tried Sun-In for the first and last time at 13. “I was at my grandmother’s beach house in Oceanside and my friend Bianca had a bottle,” said Reinisch, who is now a 29-year-old portfolio manager for an asset management company.

“She put some on her hair and I put some on mine, and then we went into the house after a few minutes to see if we had blond streaks. I didn’t notice anything so I put more on and kind of forgot about it until I went inside at the end of the day and my hair was orange,” she said.

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“It turned out to be one of the worst years of my life. I was 13. I was ugly with short, orange hair, dark eyebrows, and I was going through puberty.... I still don’t streak or dye my hair to this day.”

But, she added, “It was a rite of passage at that age. Everyone was experimenting with peroxide. At school, there were lots of brunets with gross, straw-like orange hair. You’d see girls growing their hair out and it would be brown on top and then there would be a line and it would be orange.”

There’s no great mystery about how Sun-In works. The no-mix hair lightener is activated by sunlight or, in the winter, heat from a hair dryer. Heat acts as a catalyst for a chemical reaction in which peroxide strips hair cells of pigment, according to Marianne O’Donoghue, a dermatologist at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center in Chicago.

Those orange hair nightmares occur because Sun-In is unpredictable; it works differently on different hair colors. Natural blond hair has less pigment than brown hair, so it lightens quickly, but brunets may end up with orange streaks if they stop using Sun-In too soon, she said.

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Of course, there are other ways for nonprofessionals to lighten their hair -- lemon juice and mayonnaise are folk remedies. For some girls, using Sun-In is the equivalent of riding a bike with training wheels. “I used it through high school, until I was old enough to highlight my hair professionally,” said Brincko.

After graduating to salon care, most young women insist that their hair feels healthier than it did with Sun-In. But experts say that Sun-In isn’t that different from salon dye. “The active ingredient in hair bleach of all kinds is peroxide,” said O’Donoghue, the dermatologist. “Sun-In is just less elegant.”

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Sun-In’s roots

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For the last 29 years, Sun-In, which now costs $4.99, has been produced by Chattem, a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based company that also produces such female favorites as Dexatrim and Pamprin. (Sun-In’s over-the-counter competition includes Clairol’s A Touch of Sun for $3.99 and two John Frieda products, Beach Blonde Streaks and Lemon Lights, which contains little pieces of rind, each for $6.49.)

According to Sun-In’s brand manager, Kelly McClusky, the hair lightener was acquired from Gillette in 1974. But calls to Gillette to investigate the birth of the product and to pin down the eureka! moment of do-it-yourself blondification provoked confusion. “We went through every piece of financial data we had for that year, and I called one of our oldest employees,” said Michelle Szynal, a Gillette spokeswoman. “I don’t think we ever owned it. It’s a mystery.”

What is known is that the formula has remained largely the same since the 1970s. In 1987, a conditioner was added, and in 2000, botanical extracts were blended in to help mask the sour bleach smell. As always, Sun-In continues to be marketed primarily to teens and has even been tinged by controversy. Three years ago, a Sun-In ad that touched on the concept of teen envy drew criticism from a national advocacy group called Dads and Daughters: “Four out five girls you hate ask for it by name,” read the full-page ad in Teen People. “Stop hating them. Start being them. With original Sun-In spray-in hair lightener.... “

Girls’ feelings about using Sun-In can be as complicated and embarrassing as those surrounding a high school crush. “I’ve definitely tried to spray it in my hand first, and then wipe it on my hair so nobody knew what I was doing,” said Jennifer Richards, 21, a junior at USC who was raised in Laguna Hills. “There’s something about being a California girl and using Sun-In.... I mean, could it be any more stereotypical?”

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