White is so last season. When the rainy spring leaves us pale Portlanders begging for an instant tan, we've got four choices—assuming you don't want to bask in a carcinogenic ultraviolet glow of a tanning bed.

You can apply an over-the-counter self-tanning product, roll around in a vat of Cheetos, or spend a little more to get an airbrush tan or a spray-booth tan at a salon.

To figure out the better deal between the two industrial-sounding salon choices—where the hell am I, a damn car-detailing shop?—I decided to visit one that put me in a booth for a spray and one where an actual person airbrushed me. But first, I did a little research and ran straight into a faux-tan controversy.


Fake tans have come a long way since Coppertone's Quick-Tan lotion emerged during the 1960s in response to health concerns over too much sun exposure.

The high-end cosmetic tan industry arose in the late 1990s and broke into two camps: Airbrushers applied tans to customers with spray guns; automated spray booths offered a more private version of the same process. I feared both would leave me lookin' like Tony the Tiger.


Most spray-on tans contain dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a simple sugar compound found in beets and sugar cane that combines with a cosmetic to stain dead skin cells, giving the owner of those skin cells that golden-brown look.

The federal Food and Drug Administration, which approved DHA in 1977 for use in lotions and creams, recommends that people protect their eyes, nose and mucous membranes from exposure during spray tanning.

"DHA should not be inhaled, ingested, or used in such a way that the eyes and eye area are exposed to it because the risks, if any, are unknown," said Dr. Linda Katz, director of the FDA's Office of Cosmetics and Colors, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, in the November 2003 issue of FDA Consumer Magazine.

But the FDA leaves it up to the states to regulate the spray-tan industry.


In May 2004, state regulators voted to require certification of airbrush tanning, but not of automated booths.

Michael Snook, chair of the Oregon Board of Cosmetology, says precautions "would be just as important for a spray booth" but that the board certifies only practitioners such as barbers, hair stylists, manicurists and, in the case of tans, airbrushers who directly apply the spray tan.

Last year, the Oregon Legislature passed House Bill 2105, which requires airbrushers to become certified by completing a 500-hour course at an approved beauty school. Airbrushers will be required to provide mucous membrane protection for customers and keep records of adverse reactions.


Debbie Ethell, owner of Tigard's Illumination Tans, is leading her fellow airbrushers' resistance to those certification requirements.

Ethell is ticked that airbrushers must shell out $2,000 for certification when competitors who run self-serve tanning booths are required only to "educate" their customers about how to avoid inhalation of the spray solution.

With Ethell's frustration ringing in my ears, I went to a self-serve Mystic Tan booth at the Pearl's Urban Tan (1135 NE 9th Ave.) to see just how much education it offers, then to Ethell's shop (18120 SW Lower Boones Ferry Road) for a comparison.

The self-serve

The website for Mystic Tan (www.mystictan.com), which has 23 booths in the Portland area, suggested I wear goggles and protective lip balm when I stepped into the booth. I wasn't offered either of these protections for my $20 spray. Instead, the desk clerk advised me to hold my breath in the booth and to apply a barrier cream to my hands and feet to make sure the tan looked right.

I was on my own after being shown how to operate the booth. I stripped and put on a shower cap so my brown locks didn't get sprayed.

The booth, about a third larger than a shower stall, was cold. And I had difficulty hearing the taped instructions with the hairnet over my ears. As the booth filled with a tanning-compound cloud, I got anxious and began taking quick breaths. Then I remembered I wasn't supposed to breathe. But holding my breath for about a minute was tough. I really wanted to get out when I realized I'd forgotten to apply the barrier cream. But I knew if I stopped before getting the full-treatment, I'd have a half-tan like Ross on that episode of Friends.

When the jets stopped and the air cleared, I didn't look tan. The clerk told me my skin would darken overnight if I didn't shower.

I didn't shower, and I went to bed with my throat feeling scratchy. The next morning, the scratchy throat had subsided and I was relieved to be slightly tan, instead of orange. But my skin retained a chalky odor, even after a shower (Mystic sells a product called Mystic Fresh to fight this smell). And I also found that the spray-on stuff (like the airbrushing later) tended to give my clothes and sheets a tan, too.

As for my not being offered any protection at Urban Tan, Mystic spokeswoman Lynaia Lutes says Mystic sells its booths to retailers, and that Mystic doesn't have the authority or manpower to police all its 3,800 sites worldwide. An unidentified employee at Urban Tan says they have goggles and nose plugs but only give them to customers who ask.

Getting the Brush

At Ethell's Illumination Tans, I didn't feel like I was getting a car paint-job like I did in the booth at Mystic. Then again, the expense for this airbrush was $60, three times that of my visit to Mystic.

Yes, it felt weird having to stand virtually nude in front of Ethell, a stranger to me before that encounter. And I still smelled that now-telltale-to-me chalky DHA stench.

But Ethell applied the tan more evenly during my 30-minute appointment, and she used a technique that created shadowing more similar to that of a natural tan.

Ethell provided protection plugs for my nose and goggles for my eyes, but I found I didn't need them because she warned me each time before my face would be sprayed. That meant I knew when to hold my breath for a couple of seconds.

All of the spray was blown away with a handheld dryer as soon as it hit the air, and then sucked out through a ventilation system. When I removed the thong, a drastic tan line was apparent right away. Like the earlier spray-on tan, it lasted about five days.

My Conclusion

No shade of gray here. If you're not going to buy an over-the-counter lotion (or a hundred bags of Cheetos), ante up the extra cash and time for the airbrush. You'd do it for your car, so why not your own chassis?