Photo: Courtesy of Maria Del Russo.
I can't remember a summer I didn't spend down by the beach. My family is a Jersey Shore family, and when we were "down the shore," my cousin Tara and I would spend our days sprawled out on the sand, working on our tans. We'd tie our bikini straps behind our backs so we didn't get lines, throw down our towels, and lay for hours in the sun — usually long after our parents packed up and went home. Whenever my mother, tucked under her massive beach umbrella, would offer up some suntan lotion, I'd scoff and tell her to toss me the oil. Some days, I'd skip the stuff altogether. I was a teenage tanner, and if frying myself were an Olympic sport, I'd be a gold medalist.
Truthfully, I never thought about the risks of so much sun exposure, because everyone besides my mother — who learned early on that her fairer complexion was no match for the sun — would lay out during the summer. There are photos from my teenage years that include my two brothers, my father, and all of my friends, and we're all the same burnt-red, slightly orange color. It was a way of life. If we were going on vacation, I'd get a base tan at the salon so I wouldn't burn. If I did happen to get a little red? No worries — in a few days, it would fade into a gorgeous, golden-brown. And, the more I tanned, the better I felt, so I just kept on bronzin' all summer.
Dr. Craig Kraffert, board certified dermatologist and president of Amarte, says this vicious cycle is pretty common. "There are endorphins that are released during sun exposure," he says, noting that the main users of tanning salons are young girls. And, it makes sense. Ladies, think back to the most awkward, most uncomfortable, and least confident phase in your life. Was it, perhaps, your teen years?
They were for me. Call it the trials of growing up, but I was never the confident teenager I wished I could be. And, truthfully, the only things "wrong" with me were the normal moans and groans of adolescence: I was too gangly, boys didn't like me, and my face was covered in pimples. Tanning was a way for me to control the way I looked. It even helped make my acne go away. "One of the big motivators for adolescents to tan is acne control," Kraffert says. "Teens who are acne-prone see that staying tan keeps their breakouts at bay, so the cycle continues." But, tanning is actually a false cure. Sun exposure dries your skin out, which makes it produce excess oil. So, while you may be blemish-free for a while, once that excess sebum starts flowing, you're back to square one.
Photographed by Ruby Yeh.
I'm not exactly sure when I decided to kick my tanning habit, but it was probably somewhere around the summer of 2011. I had a summer internship, but I'd spend my weekends down at my family's beach house. I kept breaking out in these itchy, prickly blisters on my hands and feet when I was out in the sun. The only time I felt a bit of relief was when I set up camp under the umbrella with my mother — and started slathering on the SPF. I later found out that this was sun poisoning — my tanning obsession had gotten to the point where I was literally poisoning myself.
My college internship was in the beauty department of a popular magazine, and I was given an assignment to research how to get your perfect, safe glow using self-tanner. Through my research, I started coming up with all of these facts about how awful unprotected sun exposure was for your skin, especially when it came to anti-aging. "What motivates people as much as, or more than, the risk of getting skin cancer later in life is the aging aspect," Kraffert says. "Sun exposure is the main cause of aging of the skin — it isn't age." People who tan obsessively will start to see rapid aging — including wrinkles and sun spots — in their hands, faces, and forearms.
Call me naive, call me immature, but the aging thing is what scared the crap out of me the most. I'd heard about the dangers of skin cancer for years, and had known people who had lost parents to the disease, but, like most teenagers, I felt totally invincible. It's not going to happen to me, I thought. But, once I heard that my tanning habit might make me look 40 when I'm 30? That's when I put the brakes on.
Kraffert says that the earlier you stop tanning, the easier it is for your skin to bounce back. "The sun damage is cumulative, but there are reparative processes in the body," he says. "However, some of the damage remains." The best thing you can do is to quit the tanning bed and start wising up to SPF while you're still young. It's also a good idea to start scheduling dermatological exams — something I do once a year. That way, if you catch something, you can take care of it quickly.
I still love to spend time in the sun, especially if there is a beach involved, but I'm smarter. I always wear SPF on my face (whether it's alone or in my BB cream), and try my hardest to remember to put it on when my extremities are exposed. I still set up shop on the sand, but I've been enjoying a bit more time in the shade. I'm not a complete convert, though, and sometimes I'll forget, but it's all about awareness and making smarter choices. And, I've been lucky to not have any brushes with skin cancer or early aging, but I stay on top of it.
Teenage Maria may have thought tanned-to-perfection was the ideal, but now that I've grown up a bit, I've gotten a little more comfortable in my own skin. It may be sometimes-pale and sporting the occasional zit, but it's healthy, and it's mine. I'd pick that over a tan any day.
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