“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. I knew girls who had memberships at two different salons so they could tan twice a day.

We craved golden, tan skin and always wanted to look darker. “I’m not even getting anything,” we would say to each other, examining our skin on the drives home from our fake-bakes. We reeked like burnt skin and artificial coconut from the lotions we used to achieve a deeper tan.

In the summers, we “laid out” — which meant baking outside in the sunshine for hours. We never wore sunscreen for fear of hindering ourselves from being the bronzed goddesses we could be. We got lots of sunburns and instead of learning our lessons, we made the excuse, “This was my first burn and now I’ll just tan the rest of the summer.” If it was cloudy for a few days, we had that trusty tanning package as backup.

School began in late August and the cycle would start all over again.

It was like we were addicted to it. Our skin grew darker each time but we wanted more.

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

Once, before a 20-minute session, I tweeted: “Increasing my risk of skin cancer.”

I’m so ashamed of it now.

As a teenager, you never think your decisions will catch up with you. About four years ago, I got serious about sun protection. Maybe too little too late but I had to start sometime.

At 26, 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.

I think some color looks good on me but now I use spray tans, tanning foams, lotions and other means of fake baking that require zero time in the sun. And guess what: it works just as great with no damage required.

Right now I’m lucky because wrinkles are the most superficial of the effects of too much sun exposure. The American Academy of Dermatology states 9,500 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with skin cancer each day. According to the AAD, “on average, one American dies from melanoma every hour. In 2018, it is estimated that 9,320 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 should you, too.

Do You have tips for sun protection? LET ME KNOW AT GMAZUR@TIMESSHAMROCK.COM, @GMAZURTT ON TWITTER OR @MISS.GIA.M ON INSTAGRAM.