‘I need a tan — now,” said Tara, flopping on my couch and gazing out at the cool, cloudy afternoon. “No, I need it yesterday. I just found out Jay will be at the wedding on Saturday.” (Jay is Tara’s ex-boyfriend.) “We haven’t seen each other since last summer. I want him to notice me and wonder if he made a mistake. I need last summer’s tan. And I don’t want to look like I’ve been dipped in bronzer, either.”

“Tell her to get sprayed,” said my friend Bernice. “You know — with an airbrush gun. It’s all very professional now.”

Kari at Beauty Kliniek in La Jolla (858-457-0191; beautykliniek.com) told me to think of airbrush tanning as “a sunless suntan. The active ingredient, which is FDA-approved and very safe, is called dihydroxyacetone, or DHA. The solution causes a chemical reaction with the amino acids in the skin, so that it acts like a stain. Everyone’s skin reacts a little differently, so everyone’s skin looks a little different afterwards. But it’s very natural looking — not the horrible orange color from so many years ago. We have a lighter color and a darker color. They can be mixed together; the technician helps you decide what’s best for you.”

Getting a “sunless suntan” starts in the dark, the night before you visit. “You want to scrub really well with an exfoliant to get the dead skin off,” said Kari. “We also ask you to shave your legs and not to put any lotion on your body before you come in.”

Once you arrive for your appointment (reservations are required), “You go into a dressing room and disrobe. You can get the tan naked, or we can give you disposable undies to wear.

“The technician sprays a fine mist over your body using the airbrush gun. We also use soft paintbrushes to help ensure an even application. They brush it into your ankles and elbows, and you get a consistent, smooth color in your peaks and folds from head to toe.”

The whole process takes “about 45 minutes. They spray for about 20 minutes, and then you need to stand there and let it dry for about 15 minutes. And you can’t shower or go out into the sun for at least eight hours. We give you an extender to apply the next day — it’s a lotion that’s got 3 percent DHA — the same as what’s been sprayed on you. It gives a boost of color, so that, as you start to fade out, you get a nice, even fade. It also hydrates your skin.

“The tan lasts about seven to ten days,” concluded Kari. “Most people get it done once a week. The first appointment, which includes the glycolic exfoliation, is $85. Follow-ups within seven days cost $45.”

Melanie at 20/20 Skin in Sorrento Mesa (858-450-9191; 2020skin.com) said that the airbrush tanning solution “darkens your skin tone a couple of shades.” She also noted that “some areas may wear off quicker than others; areas where your skin is rubbing against your clothing. When the tan starts to fade, you can use a loofah in the shower to lighten areas and tone down the difference.” The cost of an airbrush tanning session at 20/20 is $45.

Carolyn at French Twist Salon downtown (619-237-6197) has been working with sunless tanning solution for a year. She said that she had “figured out a mix of dark product and premium product that gives the best results. The combination gives a beautiful color; I’ve used it on a bunch of different skin tones, and from the feedback I’ve gotten, everyone is happy with it. I’ll spray the body once with a fine mist and then go over it again lightly. I’ll use a barrier cream for certain parts of the body — palms, elbows, knuckles, and feet. Since some areas of the body are darker than others, the cream helps even things out.” One session at French Twist is $40; a package of five sessions is $175.

I spoke with Dustin at Platinum Tan in La Jolla (858-455-0909; platinumtanusa.com). “We have all kinds of tanning here,” he explained. “We have regular tanning beds [prices vary], Mystic Tan [$30], and airbrush tanning [$39]. The beds tan you by using a bulb that delivers UVA and UVB light, just like the sun. I use the beds most often myself because I think it’s the most natural looking. But I also use the Mystic Tan — it’s good for when you need a tan right now. You just come in, go into a room, and push a button. You get sprayed up and down and then turn around and get sprayed on the other side. The only difference with an airbrush tan is that you have a technician doing the application. It’s a more even application. It’s popular with bodybuilders, who want to have every muscle on their bodies visible when they go into competition.”

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