CHICAGO Elizabeth Walsh's co-workers were perplexed when she showed up at the office with her usually porcelain "Irish skin" suddenly a lovely shade of golden brown.
"It was like I'd been on a three-week vacation," says the 25-year-old Chicagoan, who hadn't been in the sun at all and eventually fessed up.
She's one of a growing number of paler-skinned Americans who are stripping off to get "spray-on" tans at their local salons and spas.
Some do it before hitting the beach or taking vacations in warmer climates so they don't stand out. Others are corporate executives, looking for any way to spiff up their image in a competitive job market.
And many are getting their faux tans for special occasions. Walsh, for instance, got hers before wearing a strapless dress at a recent wedding.
Dan Roth, co-owner of three tanning salons on Chicago's ritzy North Shore, is among those in the business who've had a slew of teens come in for spray-on tans before their homecoming dances this fall.
The fake tans last about a week and are seen as a year-round and healthier alternative to baking in the sun or using tanning beds.
"It's a phenomenon is what it is," says Roth, whose Almost In Florida salons have been offering the service for about 18 months.
An annual survey done by The Spa Association, a large trade organization, confirms his notion.
So far this year, the survey found that demand for spray-on tans is up 67 percent compared with last year, accounting for nearly $1 million in sales in the United States.
"This relatively bizarre ritual is only going to become less expensive and more widespread in the years to come," says Melinda Minton, executive director of the association, based in Fort Collins, Colo.
Some salons charge as much as $60 for a spray-on tan. But according to the survey, the average price is now $15 per session and as little as $12 for regular users.
Minton estimates that, already, there are about two dozen companies that sell spray-on tanning equipment among them InstaBronze, Scentual Sun and Mystic Tan, the "official tan of the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders."
Spray-ons also have been featured on such TV shows as "Friends," "Miss Match" and "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."
Kyan Douglas, grooming expert on "Queer Eye," notes that many people men included are becoming less shy about admitting they get spray-on tans.
"Everyone's hip to the fact that we all do things to accentuate our looks and it's much more accepted," Douglas says.
Celebrity magazines noted, for instance, that actor Adrien Brody was sporting one when he accepted his Academy Award for his role in the movie "The Pianist."
Douglas says it's also becoming increasingly trendy to avoid the ill effects of ultraviolet rays making spray-on tans that much more socially acceptable.
Dermatologists are thrilled.
"If it makes people feel better and keeps them out of the tanning beds, I'm all for it," says Dr. Suzan Obagi, director of the Cosmetic Surgery and Skin Health Center at the University of Pittsburgh.
Getting a spray-on tan takes anywhere from a few minutes to half an hour, depending on how it's done.
In some cases, people stand in a booth and hold their breath as the tanning solution is mechanically sprayed on their skin. Often, people wear paper hair covers and blocking lotion on areas they don't want tanned, such as fingernails and feet.
At other salons, a technician with an apparatus that looks something like an airbrush applies the tanning solution.
Some people opt to wear bathing suits, even though it means they'll still have tan lines. "It depends on if you're comfortable being completely nude in front of another person," Walsh, the Chicagoan, says with a laugh.
The active ingredient in most spray-ons is dihydroxyacetone, a sugar that reacts with the outer skin cells and dyes them. "It is entirely harmless," says Dr. James Spencer, vice chairman of dermatology at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York.
But both he and Obagi caution that spray-on tans do not provide protection from the sun so sunscreen is still necessary.
And not all customers have been happy with their spray-on tans.
Erin Kenny, a 26-year-old New Yorker, has tried the booth method twice.
One time, her hands and feet turned out too dark. The next, she says "it was so streaky and uneven that I had to stay covered up for weeks."
She plans to try the airbrush method. But if it doesn't work well, she'll give up: "I would rather look white than like a freak."