If I could buy tan in a bottle ...

In Florida in the summer, being "without tan" is looked at by many as an affliction -- an embarrassment. Pale people are unworthy of being seen in public. Pale people should hide inside their homes until fall or, better yet, just move away, maybe to someplace like the Midwest.

I am pale as a means to be subversive. It is my silent protest against the superficiality of tanning. (OK, I also burn as easily as a match.) I don't want to bake like a chicken all day on the beach. I don't want peeling red skin, sand in my crotch or, worse, skin cancer, all in the name of "fitting in."

Still, there is a way to appease the masses and still not open up one's self to potential illness. As with most afflictions these days you can buy a quick and easy solution: Instant Tan. These wares are peddled at almost every major department store cosmetics counter and drug store. In the name of science and public service, I offered up my body as a guinea pig. Here are a few essentials one must know (and which no high-end cosmetics clerk will tell you) before fake-baking:

Three words: Exfoliate, exfoliate, exfoliate (but not with that really expensive product). Every salesperson, box, tube and pamphlet all emphasized the need to remove dead skin before tanning. They said that's the only way to eliminate the unsightly streaking appearance that occurs when the self-tanner latches onto rougher skin -- like that around the knees, elbows and feet. Of course, when I suggested to one counter salesperson that I could just use my dime-store loofah, I was immediately reprimanded. "No, no! Loofahs are bad. You just have to buy our Body Sloughing Creme." I did as I was told. I followed the directions. I still tanned in streaks.

Face tanner is face tanner, and body tanner is body tanner, and never the twain shall meet. Face tanning requires a gentler touch. This, of course, is because you can always wear long sleeves and long pants to cover a horrid body job; it is more difficult to mask a face gone awry.

Yes, you will spend more money, but if you must tan, buy the two products. Face tanners are much less concentrated and therefore provide much more subtle results. You can't afford not to buy both -- and you will thank me for it. Having a face that makes you look like a human orange is really not attractive.

"True-to-life" color is a relative term. In the movie "Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," the happy-go-lucky Oompa-Loompa people were alive. Does that mean their bright-orange hue was "true-to- life"? I think not, but that did not stop my self-tan from turning a shade reminiscent of my favorite childhood movie. All of the products did what they said they would -- they changed the color of my skin -- but not to anything resembling natural.

When they say the color "will deepen over the next few hours," what they really mean is that just when you think your tanning is a success, it keeps mutating and changing like a rabid beast. I decided to apply my tan in the evening. Little did I realize how "deep" the tan was "deepening" in the soft-white evening light of my apartment. In fact, I was quite surprised with the subtlety of my tan. But in the harsh, fluorescent light of the office the next day it was all too easy to see that my legs had "deepened" overnight to a dark, streaked, orange mess.

Wash your hands ... no, scrub them until they bleed. When tanning to look natural, you must make sure that the tanning lotion doesn't invade parts of your body that are not intended to get sun: the armpits, the soles of your feet, the palms of your hands. Orange or brown palms are a dead giveaway to the almost humiliating practice of self-tanning. Wash up like Lady Macbeth. Remember, this stuff "deepens." You may think your hands are clean, but five hours later you'll discover they're not.

In the final analysis, I found self-tanning to be way more trouble than it's worth. All the scrubbing, washing, applying, rinsing and waiting added up to nothing more than an unnatural, darkened hue to my natural fair skin. Some people said the "sun" looked great on me, but let's be honest: I looked bizarre. I knew when I started this experiment that there was a reason I stayed pale, and now I remember it; on me, pale just looks better.

Lancome Flash Bronzer (suggested price $23.00)

(suggested price $23.00)

A very light gel formula that goes on almost clear and works very gently. Don't use too much; it will make your face look a lot darker than you think. But this stuff doesn't work in a "flash" like it says it does. It really takes a couple of hours to see results. Most natural look of any self-tanner I tried.

Eckerd Sunless Dark Tanning Creme (suggested price $5.99)

(suggested price $5.99)

This gunk worked exactly like the super-pricey department store brands. Yes, it also turned me a sort of faded-bruise color, but for the price, I expected it -- and that price meant I liked this lotion most of all. If you're going to have a bad self-tanning experience, you should not have to go broke in the process.

Estée Lauder Self-Action Sunless Supertan (suggested price $25.00)

(suggested price $25.00)

My left leg looked dirty after using this product. After the first day, it faded into an awful Pig-Pen brown. And because I forgot to work the lotion into my ankles, I was left with a white "sock" between my calf and foot. That contrast speaks to the effectiveness of the coloring, but I felt this tan was anything but super.

Clinique Self-Sun For Face (suggested price $9.50)

(suggested price $9.50)

The self-tanner for those afraid of commitment. I like this because I didn't have to use scientific measurements to get things right. If you put too much on, just wash it off and start again; there's no "magic ingredient" that actually changes the color of your skin. It's just a bronzer that goes on smooth for a look that is somewhat natural.

Lancome Self-Tanning Mousse (suggested price $23.00)

(suggested price $23.00)

Mousse is fun. It makes a cool noise when you squirt it. It gets everywhere. It is foamy. It glides on easy. It is hard to get off your hands. It stays on long. Too long. It makes lots of pretty shades of orange on your skin. It makes you look like an orange sherbet rainbow. I love mousse!


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