Why I Regret Tanning in My Teens and 20s

When I look back at photos of my teens and 20s, there are lots of cringe-worthy trends I happily went along with.

Bodysuits, muddy-looking lipstick, these weird brick-like sandals that are inexplicably back in fashion, overalls – if it was in a Delia’s catalog, I probably had it, or at least co-opted the look with cheap knockoffs or whatever I could score at the thrift shop.

I can look back at these images and smile at the memories, but there’s one trend I followed then that I wish I could take back now. I loved being tan, and in the 90s, it was all the rage to pair your baby tees and slip dresses with that “healthy” glow.

The author in the early 2000s with a tan
A Florida trip in the early 2000s was preceded by trips to the tanning bed.

We were sold a myth that getting tan in a tanning bed was a safer way to pursue the sun. Not knowing how damaging it could be, I was given permission to tan at the age of 16. I was hooked. I loved that my pale flesh could take on a darker hue in a few toasty sessions in the tanning bed. I’d get a tan before I stepped foot on the beach during spring breaks and pump up the intensity as big dances approached, wanting to look great in my dresses.

I look back at that tanned skin and wish I could have appreciated and embraced my natural color. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, “using indoor tanning beds before age 35 can increase your risk of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, by 59%” and “even one indoor tanning session can increase users’ risk of developing melanoma by 20%, squamous cell carcinoma by 67% and basal cell carcinoma by 29%.”

That “healthy” look I loved? It was damage at a cellular level to my skin. It’s put me at higher risk for a potentially deadly skin cancer and after watching family members go through treatment, that’s not something I want. There’s a spot on my forehead that’s been biopsied twice. So far, it isn’t cancerous, but it also hasn’t gone away and is a daily reminder to do better. While I can’t go back in time and change my youthful mistakes, I know now how to protect my skin moving forward.

  • I wear sunscreen every day, year-round. I also opt for makeup that contains sunscreen for an extra layer of protection.
  • I see my dermatologist every year for a full-body skin scan and checkup. I also keep an eye on my moles and “problem spots” for any noticeable or sudden changes.
  • I limit my time in the sun, especially when UV rays are at their worst between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. If we do plan a beach day, I try to reapply sunscreen often.

There is good news on the indoor tanning front. Efforts to reduce teen tanning appear to be working, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2009, 15.6% of adolescents reported tanning in the last year. By 2017, only 5.6% of teens said they did. Rates for adult use have also been steadily declining.

The author with her two daughters
Embracing the pale on Mother’s Day 2018.

As a mom to two young girls with the same fair skin I have, the increased movement toward accepting the skin color you were born with is welcome. If they ever come to me lamenting their lack of a tan, I will honestly tell them they’re the most beautiful girls I’ve ever seen. But since I’m their mom and they won’t believe me, I’ll explain that beauty ideals that come with a potentially deadly cost are never worth pursuing.


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Photo credit: mammamaart

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