Catching Sprays | Outdoors & Recreation | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Catching Sprays

Insider information on getting that outdoors look


Published April 14, 2004 at 4:00 a.m.

Bonnie Datillio is pointing a gun at my face. "Okay now," she says. "Close your eyes."

We're standing in a dark room, the shades pulled down against the sun. Outside, the traffic on Route 15 hums by, oblivious. I am standing, mostly naked, on a blanket that's been laid down to protect the carpet. I can feel the polar-fleece fibers between my pallid toes. Datillio pulls the trigger. I hear a sharp blast and wince at the shock of moisture on my forehead and cheeks.

"Good, good," she says, inspecting her handiwork. "You just needed a little bit of color to perk up your complexion."

Most folks go outdoors to get that, well, been-outdoors look. But if you'd rather not weather the actual elements, you could opt for a cosmetic alternative: spray tanning. More and more salons in the area offer it as an option.

Datillio works with a bottle-green spray gun, which she waves some distance from my arms and legs, spritzing me as she would a houseplant. On the floor, a square, squat air-compressor honks as it transforms viscous brown tanning goo into a rust-colored mist that thickens the air before settling on my skin. The spritzing and the honking and the waving conspire to elicit an even, sunless tan from my polar pallor.

Spray tanning grew out of spray-on makeup application in the late 1990s. Since then, it's taken off. Automated, car-wash-style tanning booths are the most common spray-tanning service. The Mystic Tan -- one of several patented spray booths -- delivers the official tan of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders. Datillio prefers the hands-on method, as customer confusion in the walk-in spray-booths can result in an uneven tan -- a dermal disaster famously spoofed on an episode of "Friends." Compared to the spray booths, which can cost a salon as much as $50,000, Datillio's equipment is minimal.

"This is completely different from what I've been doing my whole life," says Datillio, who majored in dance at the Boston Conservatory of Music, toured for 13 years through Las Vegas, Chicago, Miami and on Broadway, and taught dance for 25 years at UVM. She declines to disclose her age, drawling, "I'm over 21. I danced disco at the Sheraton. You do the math."

Datillio says she got her first spray-on tan when she was in Florida with her mother -- a breast cancer survivor who "never goes out in the sun" and urged her daughter to follow suit. Since spray tanning promised the bronze without the bake, Datillio decided to give it a go. She liked the experience enough to open her own spray-tanning salon. Bon-Tan opens this weekend in Essex Junction.

"We see the sun so rarely here in Vermont," she says. "The sun picks me up, and this kind of gives a lift too; you get a glow." More importantly, you get the sought-after color without increasing your risk for skin cancer.

If I'd lived in this country before the 1920s, I wouldn't have blanched at my winter whiteness. Blanc was chic; a tan was considered unladylike, an indelicate indication of coarse sensibilities or -- horror of horrors -- outdoor labor. Trendsetter Coco Chanel accidentally popularized the cooked look when, in 1923, she emerged tanned from a Cannes-to-Paris yacht trip. Since then, as activity under the sun lost its declasse connotations, tan-building has become a seasonal occupation; a perennial indication of wealth, leisure and, ironically, health. It wasn't until the 1980s that sunlight was linked to skin cancer. In spite of widespread awareness of the connection today, we remain very much a nation of sun-worshippers.

A tan is the body's response to DNA damage wrought by the sun's ultraviolet radiation. There are three types of ultraviolet radiation: UVA, UVB and UVC. All three contain high levels of energy that penetrate and change the structure of cells. UVC -- the most dangerous -- is absorbed by the Earth's atmosphere. But as a result of ozone depletion, UVA and UVB rays come through with fewer impediments. When these rays penetrate the skin, they inevitably damage cells --the production of melanin, which imbues skin with color, is a reaction to that. But too much exposure to solar radiation can negatively impact melanin-producing cells to become "melanoma," the deadliest form of cancer.

If being spritzed like a houseplant seems, on the face of it, like an absurd way to acquire skin color, it looks reasonable when compared to other tanning options.

Tanning salons, long-seen as safer than outdoor sunbathing, are looking less healthy these days. Although sun beds and lamps were thought to be safer than sunlight because they emit only UVA radiation, research has linked UVA rays to mela-noma, As early as 1994, the American Medical Association called for a ban on tanning equipment for non-medical purposes, but the Federal Trade Commission declined to institute it. And the approach remains popular. In 2003, the nation's 25,000 salons brought in a robust $5 billion.

Other tanning options are also fraught with potential health hazards. Tanning pills, for example, work by saturating your body with canthaxanthin, approved by the FDA for use as a food coloring. In high doses, it turns your liver and brain, as well as your epidermis, orangey-brown. Too much canthaxanthin can upset your stomach, cause severe itching, welts and hepatitis, and lead to the formation of vision-damaging crystal deposits in the eyes.

The most common chemical for externally applied sunless-tanning products is dihydroxyacetone, or DHA, a plant-derived colorless sugar. It reacts with keratin protein in the outermost layer of skin to produce color, which can range from orange to brown. The first fake-tan cosmetics containing DHA in the 1960s imbued skin with a distinctly yammy hue, and incautious application can give the would-be bronzed body a mottled appearance. DHA is non-toxic, is not absorbed by the skin, and wears off -- with the sloughing of dead skin -- in about a week. Datillio's tanning goo contains a mixture of DHA, a bronzer that imparts superficial color for instant gratification, as well as aloe, skin moisturizers and conditioners.

Of course, no one has to tan. White skin is 'in' in much of the global South and the Far East, where major cosmetics companies make a killing selling bleaching and melanin-inhibiting creams. Wired magazine recently reported that in Japan, Sanyo markets cell phones with antennas that turn blue to alert the user that UV radiation is present. Perhaps not surprisingly, pallor is most popular in places where dark skin is naturally prevalent. And trying to stay white can also be hazardous to your health. Many pale-face compounds hearken back to the days when women used powders laced with lead to lighten their complexions; some cosmetics contain mercuric ammonia and hydroquinone which, as one FDA official in Thailand described, gave women "blackened and thinned skin" and mercury poisoning.

I'm not interested in acquiring an artificially alabaster complexion, but neither do I want to cultivate cancerous skin cells. In other words, I want the color without the cancer, and according to the American Academy of Dermatology, no tan is safe.

When I leave Datillio's salon, my skin is still pretty pasty. It will take several hours for the DHA to completely react with my skin. I spend the rest of the day indoors at Capitol Grounds, where I read the paper in the sun by the window (glass blocks UV rays) while casting surreptitious, disapproving glances at the people frolicking blithely outdoors without sunscreen. That night, after my shower, I check out my tan-lines with some relief. I'm a few shades darker than I was in the morning, and, happily, I look nothing like a yam.