It’s summer: Golden rules

Times Staff Writer

IN the dog days of summer, everything seems to slow. When the temperature’s high, motivation is lackluster and so are many of our major entertainment options. Most of the blockbuster movies have opened, the big concerts have swung through town, museums have unveiled their major exhibits. Whatever beach reads we’d stocked for the season are dwindling to their last pages.

Yet one activity continues unabated throughout Southern California: pursuing the perfect tan. Whether it’s out-of-towners staking out blanket space on the beach or movie stars paying for salon-applied tanners or contestants in a bikini contest using a combination of tactics, the ritual of tanning continues in full force.

No method is perfect. Sun worshipers, in evidence year-round in Southern California but especially in the summer, have the option of altering their skin color outdoors free, but that process can lead to long-term skin damage and, in some cases, cancer. Plus, acquiring the perfect tan via the sun takes a lot of time. Ultraviolet tanning beds take less time but cost money. The spray-on tans offered in tanning salons, beauty spas and gyms take about a minute but cost even more money and last only a week. And the sunless tanners that can be purchased at drug and department stores don’t last long and look pretty terrible if applied incorrectly.

Nonetheless, large chunks of the population soldier on.


Most Americans think people not only look better with a tan but also look healthier, according to a recent survey by the American Academy of Dermatology. During the summer, that prevailing attitude is mirrored nearly everywhere you look, from the beach to the grocery store to celebrities both on- and offscreen.

Jennifer Lopez, Jennifer Aniston and Jessica Simpson are among the many starlets radiating a warm, seemingly sun-kissed glow. How they got that glow is anyone’s guess, though the trend among celebrities seems to be faked rather than baked. Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, among others, admit to using spray-on, sunless tans.

Sunless tanners -- the lotions, gels, mousses and aerosols that can be applied at home or professionally in beauty spas -- are the fastest-growing sun-care products on the market today, just as bronzers -- makeups that create the illusion of a tan -- are the fastest-growing segment in cosmetics. That’s in addition to the 28 million Americans who use UV tanning beds and the millions more who use mist-on sprays, according to the Indoor Tanning Assn.

The American Academy of Dermatology divides skin types into six categories, all of which can burn, whether it’s the very fair, porcelain-white Type I or the very dark Type VI. Just five burns in a person’s lifetime double the risk of skin cancer, thus the common dermatologist refrain: Do not go in the sun without wearing sunscreen of at least SPF 15.


But wander out to any Southern California beach during the summer and the sand is dotted with sun worshipers ignoring doctors’ advice. On any given day, thousands and thousands of people are taking advantage of the area’s most plentiful and free tanning resource to bronze their skin the old-fashioned way.

“When you say summertime, what does that mean? It means sun. Warm temperatures. It doesn’t mean a white body,” said Cheryl McCauley, a deeply tanned, self-described “sun lover” who was lying out on Venice Beach in a turquoise bikini one recent Friday afternoon.

McCauley, 56, and her husband, Jerry, 58, were vacationing from Chicago, where they’d gotten a running start on matching tans the color of perfect, fire-roasted marshmallows.

“I just think people look better aesthetically when they have a little bit of color, whether it’s a dark tan or a little bit of a tan,” said McCauley, who was using a tanning oil with SPF 6. “That’s, of course, contradictory to what they say the sun does to you.”


As far as the dermatology academy is concerned, the short-term cosmetic benefits of a tan acquired with ultraviolet light never warrant the long-term risks, whether that tan is acquired outdoors in the sun or indoors on a UV tanning bed. This year, 1 million new cases of skin cancer will be diagnosed in the U.S.; nearly 11,000 Americans will die of the disease. Of the country’s white population, which is at the greatest risk for skin cancer, one in 70 has a lifetime risk of developing melanoma, the deadliest form of the disease.

A handful of doctors came forward recently to advocate limited sun exposure, citing the benefits of vitamin D. It varies by skin type, but “in L.A. in August at noon, we’re talking three to five minutes on the hands, arms and legs, two to three times a week followed by good sun protection,” says Dr. Michael Holick, a Boston University professor who’s gotten a lot of flak from the dermatology academy for his book “The UV Advantage.”

The premise of Holick’s book: The vitamin D that bodies produce from UV exposure prevents more cancers than it causes. It’s a concept that’s been embraced not only by sun lovers but also by the indoor tanning industry.

Many people who tan indoors do so to get a “base tan” that will prepare their skin for outdoor sun, the idea being that the controlled UV exposure of a tanning bed is less damaging than the actual sun. It’s this idea of controlled tanning that has built the indoor tanning business into a $5-billion annually industry. Nationwide, there are 25,000 tanning salons. The FDA estimates that 1 million people in the U.S. visit tanning salons every day.


But even though controlled UV exposure may reduce the risk of burns, it doesn’t lessen the risk of skin cancer. In fact, UV exposure is considered so damaging that in 1988 California enacted the Filante Tanning Facility Act, requiring anyone age 14 to 18 to present proof of parental permission before using a UV tanning device and parental accompaniment for any child younger than 14. Last year, California strengthened the law, barring anyone under the age of 18 from using a tanning booth unless a doctor prescribes it for treatment; it prohibits those under 14 from using tanning devices altogether.

IF the popularity of sunless tanners, both self- and professionally applied, is any indication, some people, at least, seem to be getting the message about UV exposure.

Forty years ago, a sunless tanner meant QT lotion, which resulted in an orangey stink bomb of a tan that didn’t fool anyone. Today there are more than 200 sunless tanners in all different types of formulations, from lotions and gels to mousses and, most recently, aerosols. Sold at drugstores and high-end cosmetics counters, and costing anywhere from $5 to $100 a bottle, they also come in a variety of shades and effects, from matte to sparkly.

Most of the growth in the business has been within the last three years, says Vicki Mayhew, senior consultant for, a nonprofit website devoted to sunless tanning.


Colleen Sommerin, 35, has been using sunless tanners for the last couple of years. “I have two small children. I’m busy. I don’t have all day to lie out in the sun, and we shouldn’t be doing that anyway,” says Sommerin, an Australian who’s been living in Mar Vista for two years.

Even so, “there’s a bit of an art to it,” she says. “The first time I did it, I ended up with big orange heels and hands with big orange stains all over them, so [after] a couple of times I was fine.”

The key to successful sunless tanner use at home: a good exfoliation 24 hours before application and steering clear of any areas where the tanner might accumulate and look unnatural. Mayhew suggests newbies give themselves two or three months and test out three or four products to find one that suits them.

“People want to grab one bottle and have it work, and that’s probably not going to happen,” says Mayhew, who recommends mousse formulas for beginners. “It’s going to take most people some time to find the perfect product for them.”


Most sunless tanners use DHA, a chemical that reacts with the skin’s amino acids to turn the skin brown. The active ingredients in sunscreens that provide UVA protection tend to block DHA’s absorption, so sunscreen needs to be applied afterward when the sunless tanner is fully dry. The products that can be purchased at the drugstore have certainly improved over the years, but they still leave room for user error, which is part of the reason professionally applied, spray-on tans have taken off. With spray-ons, a machine applies the tanner in as little as a minute.

Available at tanning salons, beauty spas and gyms, spray-on tans are applied in a private booth. With a cap over the hair, plugs in the nose and barrier cream on finger- and toenails and palms of the hands and feet, the customer is blasted with tanning spray twice -- once for the front and back, and again for the sides. Towel off, and voila.

Texas-based Mystic Tan was the first to offer spray-on tan technology in 1999. Now 2,300 U.S. salons offer Mystic Tans, and numerous other companies have jumped on the spray tan bandwagon.

Like hand-applied sunless tanners available for home or beauty spa use, spray-on tans are not permanent. They usually last about a week. Depending on the package, a spray-on tan costs $25 and more per session, making it one of the more expensive tans around but also one of the safest.


“It isn’t getting a real tan, so it’s safer,” says UCLA dermatologist Ron Moy, before adding, “Why can’t people just be white and pasty?”

IF you want to study the tanning habits of early 21st century America, there’s no better place than a skin-baring bikini contest. It may sound like the kind of event that faded away with the disco era, but companies such as Hawaiian Tropic continue to sponsor contests as they continue to market new ways to get brown.

This Saturday at Patrick Molloy’s Irish bar and restaurant in Hermosa Beach, 21 contestants are expected to compete in a local Hawaiian Tropic contest that will send five winners to the state finals in September. At the bar, the 150 to 300 observers who are expected will be able to witness our continuing obsession with golden brown skin.

At one of the preliminary competitions, Molloy’s was packed with twentysomething couples noshing on chicken wings and salad between sips of tall alcoholic drinks served with curly day-glo straws. The waitresses wore coconut-shell bikini tops and flouncy miniskirts. All of them were, of course, tan.


So were the contestants, who, as a whole, sum up our ever-increasing tanning options. They bronze themselves outdoors and indoors, in tanning salons and gyms and spas, with spray-ons, sunless lotions and airbrush guns.

Priscilla Tuft, 24, used a combination of tactics to get the deep, golden tan she was showing off in her red bikini during the preliminaries. Her favorite is the Mystic Tan, followed by a UV tanning bed and running outdoors on the beach in San Clemente. According to Tuft, she needs a tan. Strutting her stuff onstage without one would pretty much have ruled out a win among the eight contestants in Hermosa Beach that day. She did win and will be onstage again Saturday.

“If you’re white,” she says, “you just don’t fit the M.O.”

As much as Tuft needs a tan, she also likes a tan, she says. It makes her look thinner and shows off her well-toned muscles. It also covers up bruises. A nutritionist and fitness model by day, Tuft is an ultimate fighter by night, throwing punches and kicks in the rules-free, multidisciplinary martial arts she enjoys.


“We’re expected to be flawless,” says Tuft. “Part of being flawless in our culture means having a beautiful tan.”



The tanner sets the tone: A guide to techniques


Today’s tan fanatics have more options than ever before. Here’s a look at the methods currently available.

Outdoor Tanning

How it works: Tanning occurs when the sun’s UV rays come in contact with skin cells called melanocytes, which produce the pigment melanin. UV rays activate melanocytes to increase melanin production, which turns the skin brown, or tan. Melanin production occurs over a period of hours. That’s why most people cannot tan in a single day but with repetitive sun exposure.

Pros: Most Americans believe tans make people look healthier and more attractive, according to a recent study by the American Academy of Dermatology. Outdoor tanning fans say they like the feel of the sun, the mood boost it gives them and the idea that outdoor tans are “natural.”


Cons: In actuality, a tan is evidence that skin has been damaged; melanin production is the skin’s protective mechanism. Excessive sun exposure results in premature aging and an increased risk of skin cancer.

Cost: Free, except for the time it takes and the few bucks you’ll fork out for tanning lotion or sunscreen.

UV Tanning Bed

How it works: Tanning beds imitate the sun, using UVA and UVB light to tan the skin. Tanning beds differ, but many concentrate the levels of UVA and minimize UVB to stimulate melanin production and produce a tan.


Pros: They allow the user to control the amount of UV exposure, reducing the risk of sunburn.

Cons: The Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Academy of Dermatology all say UV tanning beds are just as harmful to the skin as the sun.

Cost: A 30-minute session starts at $5 and can run to $25 or more, but it varies by place and whether the user has purchased a single session or a package of sessions.

Sunless Tanners


How they work: Almost all of them incorporate an FDA-approved chemical called dihydroxyacetone, or DHA. When applied to the skin, DHA absorbs into the dead cells on the skin’s outermost layer and reacts with the amino acids to turn those dead cells brown, or tan.

Pros: Sunless tanners do not damage the skin. When successfully applied, they often look just like the real thing. They are widely available at both drugstores and department stores and come in a variety of formulations: lotion, mousse, gel, aerosol. The user also has control over the shade of tan and which body parts will be covered.

Cons: Most users have to experiment with several brands and formulas before finding one that works well for their skin type. Successful application takes practice. Some formulas rub off or stain clothes. The tans tend to last only a week. Most sunless tanners do not include sunscreen.

Cost: $5 to $100 per bottle, depending on the brand. If professionally applied at a beauty spa, it can cost upward of $100.


Spray-On Tans

How they work: Available in tanning salons, beauty spas and fitness centers, spray-on tans are also sunless tans, using DHA to darken the skin. But instead of applying the tanner by hand, the user stands in a booth where it is sprayed on by a machine.

Pros: Spray-on tans do not damage the skin. They are also the quickest tan in town, taking less than a minute to apply. The tan is uniform all over the body, so there aren’t any tan lines, and the shade can be customized.

Cons: They last only a week and most do not contain sunscreen.


Cost: Starts at $25 per session, though prices vary depending on location and whether the user has purchased a single session or multiple sessions.

Airbrush Tans

How they work: Airbrush tans are sunless, using DHA to brown the skin. They are applied with an air compressor and airbrush, or turbine and air gun.

Pros: Airbrush tans do not damage the skin. When successfully applied, they often look just like the real thing. Home airbrush kits are widely available at drugstores; professional models are available through specialty retailers. Professionally applied airbrush tans are also offered at many salons. The user has control over the shade of tan and which body parts to tan.


Cons: Depending on the tanning formulation, it may rub off on clothes. Application can be difficult at first. Airbrush tans also take a lot of time to dry. They last only a week and most do not include sunscreen.

Cost: Home kits cost $20 to $30; professional equipment ranges from $150 to $3,000.