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A Place in the Sun Tanning salons: The pale winter sky sends thousands into a coffin-shaped box for a midsummer glow, even though their dermatologists advise against it.


Vanity never sleeps.

In these dark days, there is fluorescent light for all in the world of artificial tanning.

"We will tan both sides at once!" reads an ad in the Yellow Pages, full of pages of tanning salons such as California Rays, Lookin' Good, Sun Your Buns and Tan Line. Winter is their hot season. Bring us your fair-skinned, your pale.

"You never been on a tanning bed before? asks Andi Miller at Fantasy Tan in Cockeysville. Andi tans her 20-year-old body for 20 minutes each day. Her grandfather owns the place. "He has a good tan." So does she. And no tan lines, she says and we trust.

"Your first visit is free."

Lead on, Andi.

To its regulars, tanning salons are pit stops in the marathon race for trying to look and feel good. It's a $2 billion a year business in sun-worshiping America, where 25,000 tanning salons must be running up whopper electricity bills.

People bound for the tropics get a "base tan" so they don't ruin their big trip by getting sunburned. Business types get a "boost" before they go to work in the morning. For $6 a pop, college students can look like they spent the weekend in Fort Lauderdale -- or look like they spent time in a Fort Lauderdale tanning salon.

Tanning salons promote "The Positive Effects of the Sun" and beam about a range of purported health benefits. But for many dermatologists, the tanning business is the anti-Christ. The medical community says the last thing people need is more exposure to sun or simulated sunlight. A tan is a sign the skin is damaged, andhis could lead to increased chances of skin cancer, doctors say.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a 34 percent increase between 1973 and 1992 in melanoma -- the deadliest type of skin cancer. "Because it is a direct threat to the public's health," the American Medical Association reaffirmed its recommendation to ban use of tanning beds for anything but medical use.

"The usage of tanning parlors is by a public that does not have knowledge of the risks," the AMA said. Again, the issue is skin cancer.

Regardless of the risks, people love to snuggle up in a good tanning bed.

"It was so nice. I fell asleep," says Katherine Kuser, after a session at The Florida Room, a Roland Park tanning salon mostly catering to young women. Ms. Kuser, a fair-skinned, Loyola sophomore, has been here five times this month to spend 15 minutes in a tanning bed. "We're going away, and we don't want to get burned in Cancun."

To palefaces, a tanning salon is a mysterious place. Face it, it's unnerving to go into any place where you pay money to go back into private rooms with private beds.

The tanning equipment, literature and language are all foreign. In the lobby of Fantasy Tan, a brochure goes on and on about something called Heliotherapy by California Tan. Simulated sunlight reportedly can help everything from jet lag and PMS to seasonal depression and psoriasis, says the brochure.

The tanning products include something called Step One Maximizers -- "electro-chemically charged liposomes containing maximum strength Vitatan target the tanning source for fast delivery of the building blocks for your spectacular golden brown tan."

"Follow me," Andi says.

She opens the door to a tanning room all dressed in white. The tanning bed (shaped like a coffin) has 48 fluorescent bulbs surrounding a hard, plastic platform fitted with a baby headrest. Fresh towels, a canister of Wet One's and a pack of weird sunglasses are provided. The Drifters' "Up on the Roof" is piped in.

When Andi closes the door, you have three minutes to lie down inside the pod, which will start automatically. Take off whatever clothes you want -- keeping in mind certain body parts have never seen the light of day, nor should they.

Now, get situated and lower the hatch. Your worst fear (BEING LOCKED IN SMALL PLACES) is over because the hatch doesn't close all the way. You can peek outside the mother ship and eject yourself if you believe the machine is really a tool used for the next Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Place the red, armless goggles on your eyes. No one is watching you. This is not a beach.

The tanning bed purrs to life; the blue lights shower you, and the fans at your head and feet rev. Commence "tanning." Don't look into the light! Don't look into the light! You're afraid to move at first. Gingerly turn your head to the right; see a control panel with confusing symbols. Pressing the wrong button could jettison the pod from the mother ship.

Tanning beds have a certain odor. It's not the smell of burning flesh or hair. No, it's more like the smell of a stove-top cleaner at work. It's hard to describe.

Relax. This isn't a CAT-scan or a Stanley Kubrick movie. Turns out there's more elbow room in here than you thought. One of those buttons turns down the fan. You are starting to feel cocky and toasty.

Suddenly, the tanning bed shuts down and your six-minute tanning session is over. Who knows how much time you have until Andi comes back; you can't be seen half-naked and with red goggles on. Open the hatch and climb out. Naturally, there's a full-length mirror. Your skin does have a different color, but is it tan? Does it really look "good"?

"Tan" doesn't seem to be the right word for this artificially produced skin color. It's definitely not a sun tan. "You get a different color out in the sun than you do in here," Andi says.

After six minutes on the tanning bed, your skin color is -- whatever you want to call it. It's hard to describe.

"I know what you mean," says Kim Phillips on a cold, gray Friday. She doesn't have a good word for it, either. She's finished her weekly, 20-minute session at Fantasy Tan. Her skin doesn't look exactly tanned, but she feels it's safe and she feels good.

"I just zone out in there," she says. "I think my husband would have a fit being closed in like that."

This tanning business started for the 39-year-old Towson woman last year before her 20th high school reunion. "I wanted to look good." Simple as that.

She'll be back next week for another 20-minute boost. Right now, she's got to be going. As her car pulls out of the parking lot, any paleface can see that the sky is starting to clear a bit.

It's still cold, but the sun is out.

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