Standing room only in search for perfect tan

Mary Braid finds fears at a tanning parlour confined to skin colour
All five booths were constantly occupied. Inside each compartment people stood naked, except for disposable goggles, bathed in ultraviolet light from state-of-the-art, upright tanners.

The obsession with an all-over tan gave the scene a hint of bondage. To eliminate the awful possibility of white underarms customers spent their six to 15 minutes with arms above heads holding ceiling handles.

By 4pm yesterday almost 100 people had passed through the Tanning Shop in the City of London. It was an average day and half the customers were men.

The chatter centred on the shared quest for "healthy, natural brown" skin colour. "That's not bad," said one dark-haired girl as she admired herself in the full-length mirror. The assistant was not satisfied. "We can do better," she promised.

Health warnings have not effected trade. It is pounds 5 for six minutes and the appointment book is bursting, winter and summer. Manageress, Annie Griffin-Peirce, says many customers complain they do not have time to go on holiday. "But they worry they don't look as successful as their tanned competitors."

Jules Greenwall, 30, in computer software, had popped in during a break. "I come here to look healthy," he said. "I sleep too little and drink too much. A tan makes me look better."

Mr Greenwall has been using sunbeds for six years. He ignores health warnings. "I smoke and drink. I am hardly going to worry about sunbeds," he said.

The uprights are popular. On conventional sunbeds you lie in your own sweat. Here, fans rotate as you toast. You can bring in CDs to relieve the boredom or accompany your tummy and buttock tightening exercises. Then it is suit back on, no time consuming shower and back to the office.

Glyn Newcombe, 22, and fellow commodities trader Joan Collins, 41, are having their first upright session. Ms Collins misses tanning in the garden. Mr Newcombe is fair skinned. He has used sunbeds before but burns where his skin touches the machine. He hopes the uprights will be different.

Jonathan Ricks, 22, a computer support officer, says the tanners have cured his acne. "Five months ago my face was a mess. I feel so much more confident now. Four of the five people in my office use sunbeds. It's safer than lying in the sun."

Banking clerk Nicki Bullimore, 22, is stunning. She has perfect skin but does worry. "I use plenty of cream and only use the tanner two or three times a month to keep topped up. I don't think that's dangerous."

The tan obsession has made Adam Mooney, the Tanning Shop's managing director, rich. He opened his first shop in Dublin in 1989. There are now more than 100 in the UK and he has expanded into Europe.

A sunbed user himself he says the latest health warning is "slightly sensational". He says customers are protected by well-trained staff. "Artificial tanning arrived 20 years ago and there has been no higher incidence of malignant melanoma."