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Get ready for the new Bronze Age - buffed, beautiful skin is summer's essential accesory

Updated:
Blame it on Rio.

When model bombshell Gisele Bundchen flew home to Brazil just before the spring collections, she came back as tawny as a lion. Her golden, girl-from-Ipanema skin, mane of hair and bikini-beach curves proceeded to steal every show from Ralph Lauren to Michael Kors.

That is, until Carmen Cass, Maggie Rizer and a host of other runway beauties turned up bronzed and burnished, too.

After years of fashion pallor - and indisputable evidence linking sun exposure and everything from wrinkles to cancer - a tan was suddenly one of the hottest looks on the runway.

Whether all those golden glows came from the beach or bottle, we couldn't say. And that's the best news of all.

With a full complement of cosmetic bronzers, ever improving sunless tanners and even new salon techniques, getting what once was misnamed a "healthy glow" needn't mean baking your brain along with your skin.

Fearless Self-Tanning

The only truly safe route to an all-over tan, self-tanners have often fallen short in the aesthetics department.

The first generation of modern self-tanners hit big in the 1980s. Though a vast improvement over Coppertone's trailblazing 1960s entry, QT (for Quick Tan), which looked about as natural as orange paint, they still had kinks.

The chemical reaction that caused the uppermost layer of skin to darken in response to the active ingredient dihydroxyacetone (DHA) also created a mildly unpleasant smell - temporarily but annoying. The products were hard to apply evenly, typically requiring several hours to take effect and then revealing a patchwork of missed spots, streaks and excess color on thick-skinned areas such as knees, elbows, hands and feet.

Color was an issue, too: The telltale tinge of orange was a fake bake's dead giveaway.

Today's sunless tanners aren't perfect, but they're a whole lot closer. They smell better (like everything from kiwi to lavender), glide on more smoothly (thanks, dimethicone) and offer truer, browner color. Some even include skin-pampering moisturizers and SPF agents.

The new breed STs, as they're short-handed, come in a variety of forms: Oil-free sprays and gels are great for oily skins.

Tinted products give an instant glow and also help act as a guide for even coverage. Water-based mousses and foams go on fast - no stickiness, no drying time.

Finding the right product for your specific needs almost always requires some experimenting, especially when it comes to color. Some formulas, such as Estee Lauder's latest, use fruit acids to lower skin's pH and reduce the orange tint that can occur when DHA reacts with highly alkaline skin. Others, such as Neutrogena and Clarins products, combine DHA with erythrulose, a newer ingredient said to give a faster start and longer-lasting results.

Varying the amount of active ingredients also affects the relative deepness of the color, and allows companies to label products accordingly. Beware, though: One brand's "soft-medium" may be another's "deep dark."

If you are serious about self-tanning, check out www.sunless.com, a 3 1/2-year-old consumer-oriented Web site devoted entirely to sun-free tanning. In addition to step-by-step application tips and in-depth reviews of dozens of products, the site has a lively message board where tan seekers discuss topics ranging from the relative merits of DHA and erythrulose, to using blow-dryers to speed the drying process.

Self-Tanning, Step-By-Step

Step 1: Shower or bathe. Exfoliate using a washcloth, body scrub or loofah, concentrating on dry or rough spots, which tend to grab color. Shaving has both fans and foes: If skin is sensitive, it's safer to shave in the morning and apply self-tanner at night.

Step 2: After drying, allow yourself and the room to cool off (you don't want to be sweating). Add ordinary lotion or moisturizer to all areas that are thicker skinned: knees, elbows, knuckles, tops of feet. This will help dilute the self-tanner and keep those areas from getting too dark.

Step 3: Wear latex gloves, available in most drugstore first-aid departments (about $6 to $10 for a box of 50). Most experts recommend applying STs in a circular motion to avoid streaking. You'll need help covering your shoulders and back, so either enlist a friend or get handy with a sponge paintbrush. One to two ounces of lotion should be enough to cover your entire body. Don't apply self-tanner to heels, sides of feet or toes.

Step 4: After finishing the body, apply ST to your neck, ears and face. (You may need a different product, especially if you have oily or problem skin).

Step 5: Remove gloves and use a makeup sponge to smooth a bit of self-tanner on back of hands.

Step 6: Let everything dry for about 15 minutes, then put on an old, loose T-shirt or robe. "If you can wander around naked or half-dressed for an hour, well and good," Sunless.com advises. Color should reach maximum darkness in about four to six hours.

Goofs: Correct too-dark spots by buffing lightly with a loofah. Add color to too-light areas by daubing on tinted self-tanner with a makeup sponge.

Maintenance: Color should last from three days to a week. Help maintain it by moisturizing daily and avoiding swimming or other prolonged exposure to water.


Tans-in-a-tube as rated by Sunless.com

Banana Boat Sunless Tanning Mousee(Soft Medium Blend and Deep Dark Blend), $5.49 at Eckerd Drug. "the best overall supermarket/drugstore brand by a mile"

Au Courant Instant Sunless Tanning Spray $24.99, call 1-800-682-1623 or order at www.aucourant.com. "best overall special-order product"

Neutrogena Sunless Tanning Foam $8.39 at Ulta. "'a fast drying, non-sticky' application that 'beats Banana Boat Mousse hands down when it comes to smell'"

Estee Lauder SuperTan for Face $18.50 at Nordstrom "best department store product"

BeautiControl Sunlogics $14.50 to order at 1-800-232-8841 (toll free) "color is 'solidly medium and solidly brown' and product 'gets to be on the short list of sunless tanners that smell great ... with a light, harly-there scent that works well on both men and women"

Origins Summer Vacation $15 "color is 'quite dark' and product 'has a pleasant aromatherapy smell that men will find acceptable, maybe downright pleasant'"


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