It was the perfect day for putting on a bikini, smearing on the Bain de Soleil, and baking poolside under a July sun in the suburbs.

But, the 49-year-old career woman drove instead to a small shopping center on Lee Highway in Fairfax County. There she entered a private room, turned the radio to a Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra station, and basked for an hour in an ultraviolet purple haze.

Like many area residents, she wants a summer tan, and she's getting it from indoor tanning lamps. No biting insects. No getting stuck in ocean traffic, with children jumping up and down in the back of the station wagon.

"Do you know how long it takes to get a tan at a pool?" she asked.

There are about 30 tanning salons in the Washington area, and despite the concerns of many physicians that tanning lamps may cause skin cancer, there are hundreds of hard-core enthusiasts who would rather pay to tan at a shopping center than get one for free outside.

"I feel better with a tan," said Cerphe Colwell, 35, of Reston, a radio announcer and a tanning customer. "For me, growing up in the 1960s, tans were kind of a status symbol of one kind or another. I guess they still are."

"I guess vanity sends me to a tanning salon," said Pat Kozar, 33, a hairdresser from Rockville.

Many tanning salon clients won't discuss their color. They say that would be like telling the world the natural color of their hair or which plastic surgeon did their nose.

"Some of them, not even their husbands know they go to a tanning salon," said Karen Brutsche, manager of The Suntan Shop in Reston. "They'll wear a sunsuit, so they have marks, and they try not to look too tan."

Salon owners say their customers acquire tans that look natural and come without the risk peeling or blistering. Some claim that indoor tanning is less damaging because the tanning lights emit mostly ultraviolet-A rays, which tan, not the burning ultraviolet-B rays.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, however, warns that suntan salon users should wear protective goggles and that clients on medication should consult their physicians because certain drugs are photo-sensitive and tanning in a salon may cause an adverse reaction, said spokesman David L. Duarte.

A spokesman for the American Academy of Dermatology cautions that, among other things, overexposure to suntan salon rays contributes to the development of skin cancer in laboratory animals. "There are no known beneficial effects of sun exposure or of tanning booths to human health," he said.

At the Tee Shirt & Tanning Touch in Fairfax, where members pay a $100 annual fee plus $5 each session, 60 to 75 suburbanites daily find the no-sand-in-your-suntan-oil experience. The salon has a mix of customers -- construction workers looking to rid themselves of T-shirt marks, housewives, waitresses, body-builders, college students and lawyers.

"We get a lot of lawyers," said Sandy Rawlins, 35, the owner. "Some keep their business suits on and just do their face and hands. Then they go right to trial, and they say it gives them a competitive edge."

At the Home Sweet Home tanning salon in suburban Rockville, where maintaining a year-round tan costs $360, the clientele is about 90 percent female, said owner Jerry Cullinane.

"You have your young executive types -- the movers and shakers," he said. "Mainly, executive secretaries. A lot of dental hygienists.

"Women that do use the tanning bed are in your upper category," he said. "If they were in a beauty contest, they'd do well."

Sue Pucher, a 38-year-old body-builder from Annandale, says she needs a total-body tan for competition. "It shows the cuts more," she said. "The definition of the muscles."

Duncan MacKercher, 24, a body-builder from Fairfax City, suns outside for fun, but when he's trying to acquire a serious tan, he visits an air-conditioned salon. "I don't sweat as much as I would outside," he said. "Yeah -- and no bugs, either."