Forget sunbathing. It's fashionable to fake it, reports Olivia Stewart-Liberty
Fake Tans are back. There isn't actually a lot of choice in the matter: not only is the sun responsible for premature ageing and skin cancer, but now there are rumours that sun protection creams permanently damage the skin's natural defences. There's no doubt that a suntan is a vital part of most people's summer, and with the sun strictly out of bounds, the only option for those unimpressed by "pale and interesting" is to fake it.

Fake tan has not had an easy time of it, saddled as it is with a laughably orange, streaky, darker-on-the-knee reputation, and stuck with die-hard associations of naff 1970's disco divas. Yet sales have been steadily increasing over the past three years, with this year promising an all- time record. Shelves are bulging with mousses, sticks, creams, oils, sprays, powders and gels.

Leading the way are beauty editors at women's magazines. Polly Sellar, at Vogue, who has "been to countless conferences on tanning" says that 80 per cent of the wrinkles on today's streets are due to exposure to the sun. "There's no such thing as a safe tan," she says. "Any colour at all is permanent damage." She wears sun protection factor 15 around the clock, and for a bit of colour favours a spray-on bronzer. Similarly her assistant, Carmel Allen, who's just back from a two-week beach holiday. While Allen does acknowledge that there is a certain pleasure in sunning oneself, she claims to have spent the whole fortnight under a heavy lacquer of factor 20, deepening her tan nightly in the tranquil surroundings of her holiday apartment. And even The Face includes in its August issue a fake tan fashion shoot.

The fake tan has been around for a while, a spokeswoman at Boots insists, even the Romans were at it. Dihydroxyacetone (DHA) hit the market in the 1950s. Heralded as a godsend it replaced the walnut juice and herbs which had been favoured for centuries. While forays were made into creams and pills which stimulated the production of melanin, DHA ruled. Throughout the Sixties and Seventies, it was the chosen apparel of many a pop star's wife. It was cheaper than a holiday, and even cheaper than stockings: if you could go a full summer without tights, you were sure to be a few shillings up. And even that man with the year-round tan, Tom Jones, was rumoured to top up at night.

Today's fake tans are still based on DHA, which stains the top layer of the skin. The colours are better, the "come up" time shorter, and all in all, it's much easier to con people. Because, while a fake tan is undoubtedly a la mode, it is definitely a faux pas to be seen sporting one. Everyone in-the-know acknowledges that while technology means that today's fake tans are much of a muchness, what's letting users down is the application. A streaky past has meant some people would rather bare lily-white flesh than suffer a patchy disaster. Laura Craik, fashion editor at The Face, blurts out "God, no" at the mention of the word. "I've never met anyone who didn't look like streaked wood chip. They've always missed a bit, a heel or a knee or something. I'd rather be white." Beauty parlours are well aware of "fake tan fear", and so now offer a new service, demand for which has tripled this year: the full in-house body application, regularly for the very rich, or once for the wary novice, to show the path to an even application.

Recalling past disasters - ruined sheets and clothes, the terrible smell, the predictable morning tears upon discovery of whole patches of pearly white, the gruelling hours in the shower with the pumice stone, the fluorescent hands - I put some calls through to some of London's top salons. They all offered a complete fake tan application, a service for which demand has been on the increase over the past four years. Across the capital this summer, salons claim to be applying an average four tans per weekday, eight at weekends.

Prices vary from pounds 20 to pounds 70, and each salon claims absolute superiority for its product. But one thing did become clear - it's the application which generally lets fakers down, with the back, the hairline, the knees and, particularly, the elbows being the blackspots.

Bridget Lewis, 27, from Kentish Town, started using fake tan last year. She spends an average of pounds 30-a-summer on the stuff. "I burn in the sun,'' she says. "I just do the bits that show." Drama student Clare Wille, 23, swears by Vichy and says the fact that all her friends go fake too is down to fear of wrinkles. While men are adamant they don't use it, sales assistants at both Boots and the Body Shop say they're constantly surprised by the number of men buying instant tanning creams over the counter.

And so it seemed, I was set to be the only prematurely aged individual around as, at the first glimpse of the sun, I'm out there on my back, basted and wrapped in tin foil, for a top roasting. I was less than excited at the prospect of switching to DHA, so I took my body to the Clarins Studio in Covent Garden for a professional top-to-toe body bronze. With hindsight, I would not recommend this treatment to the shy. No sooner was I through the door than I was told to strip completely, and slip into a pair of "disposable salon pants." In a desperate bid to be clothed, I tore the first pair in a hasty attempt to put them on backwards. After this fiasco, I lay back on the bed, and covered myself with thick layers of Clarins towels. Although limbs were extracted one by one from beneath the stacked towels, the main torso was extremely embarrassing. Having a complete stranger massage your body all over three times (exfoliation, moisturiser, fake tan) wearing nothing but paper knickers, takes some getting used to. I was then left alone and naked in the mirrored room for 20 minutes to come to terms with my shame, while the cream was absorbed. I wasn't even allowed to sit down. The tan took three hours to appear, and I was thrilled to eventually watch my blotchy thighs retreat beneath a banana shade of tan. It was a chance encounter with an ex-boyfriend that clinched the merits of DHA for me. Not only did he ask where I'd been, but concluded our encounter with the words: "You look a real babe."

8 Clarins Studio, Covent Garden, London (0171 379 l 225), pounds 30; Top to Toe Beauty Salon, London NW5 (0171 482 1770), pounds 15 (Bring your own bottle); Harvey Nichols, London SW1 (0171 235 5000) pounds 34.