“I’m so pale.”

If my teenage self was a doll that came with a set of five phrases, pressing a button in my back would produce that sentence.

During my time in high school in the late ‘00s, most girls (and some guys) held memberships at local tanning places. It was like a gym membership but the EXACT opposite of being healthy and taking care of yourself. Disturbingly, lots of gyms still have tanning beds for members to use.

If not yearly tanning packages (like me) we at least bought a monthly package in preparation for a prom or semiformal. We tanned every day as an after-school ritual without ever putting on sunscreen. We examined our skin on the drives home from our fake-bakes, lamenting our tans weren’t as deep as we wanted. I knew girls who had memberships at two different salons so they could tan twice a day.

In the summers, baked outside in the sunshine for hours. We never wore sunscreen for fear of not getting tan enough. We got lots of sunburns and instead of learning our lesson, we made excuses.
“I always have to burn first,” we said. “Now that I have a base, I’ll tan the rest of the summer.”

We were addicted to it and it’s not like we were ignorant. We heard of all the hazards of exposing naked skin to concentrated, harmful rays, but we didn’t care.

As a teenager, you never think your decisions will catch up with you. At 27, my need for sun-kissed skin a decade ago tackles me each morning when I spot the deep, horizontal wrinkle on my forehead, as well as the faint line that lies just beneath it and two soft, vertical indentations in between my eyebrows. The latter fade as the day goes on but as long as I age and lose volume, that skin won’t bounce back as quickly. Laying in the sun or in a tanning bed unprotected did nothing but speed that process up.

Right now I’m lucky because wrinkles are the most superficial of the effects of too much sun exposure. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, 9,500 people in the United States are diagnosed with skin cancer each day, and “nearly 20 Americans die from melanoma every day.” The academy estimates that, in 2019, 7,230 deaths “will be attributed to melanoma.”

This is the start of a miniseries about sun protection including how to choose a sunscreen, decoding ingredients, what to do after too much sun and, if you’re interested, how to achieve a level of bronze without ever stepping in the sun.

The first rule? I don’t leave my house without sunscreen. No matter the season, I wear it. And you should, too.