Why I Stopped Tanning *PHOTOS
I've always been very fair-skinned. When I was in elementary school (grade school), I had a lot of friends and I did a lot of things outdoors with my friends like biking and playing, building forts. But as time went on, I really got into computers and gaming and reading and writing - and I didn't get outside much, so that kind of exacerbated my skin paleness.
Me on my 16th birthday. Yes, that's a Stallone cake.
I remember one time, I briefly overcame my body confidence issues and decided to wear shorts out in public. Not only did my brother humilate me in the store by calling me "Thunder Thighs", but several of my family members commented on how "blindingly pale" my legs were.
Needless to say, I didn't wear shorts much after that.
I also remember the very first time that I went tanning. It was in the months leading up to my grade eight graduation, and my aunt had encouraged me to go (what a bad influence - lol).
She always had such glowy skin, and I obviously sought that, having been the subject of many jokes about how fair my skin was. So, I started going tanning under her advice but by my own free will. Nobody twisted my arm and made me sit under UV lamps. That was my own poor judgment.
My first time was at a place called Fabutan. I recall walking in and smelling that after-tanning odour that I can still smell in my mind's nose to this day. You know the smell, it lingers on you until your next shower. It's a combination of the DHA in bronzers, and the chemical reaction taking place on your skin that produces this smell. The smell is predominantly caused by the breaking down of living organisms on the skin. Anyone who has used UV sterilisation equipment will be familiar with this smell. Either way, it's enough to make me feel nauseous whenever I walk into a tanning salon or have to stand near someone who has just gone tanning. Yes, the odour is so bad that even people around you can smell it.
(Embarassing moment: I once went on a date with a really cute guy who asked me if I had been tanning because he could "smell it". Gross!)
I can't recall how many times I went tanning for my graduation day, but it was enough to get a healthy-looking glow. I was satisfied with my first tanning experience. I felt beautiful - I had gotten an expensive dress from an up-scale boutique (which was a big deal for me at the time), and I had gotten my hair "done" for the first time ever - now I had this beautiful tan to go with it. I had the whole package and I felt like I was beautiful. It was a nice feeling.
When I got into high school, the pressure to fit in was suffocating.
My first year or two I was still a shut-in. So although I didn't tan (that I recall) for my first year of high school, I eventually went back. I stuck close to my old friends, and I made a couple new friends, but I also had a lot of people around me who didn't like me. I was a social outcast who wanted to be accepted by my peers. Of course I went back.
I only tanned sporadically through high school, usually in intervals. I would tan for a month, and then not for several more months. This was usually due to inconvenience (I lived far away from tanning salons), and price (while the tanning itself wasn't very expensive, I could never afford the lotions which were ridiculously priced). So I decided to trade in tanning for spray-on tanning products. I believe the product I opted for was Sally Hansen's Airbrush Legs Spray On.
I loved it because it was easy to apply, it didn't leave any noticeable streaks, and it gave me the tan I wanted. The results were visible immediately, so I was able to determine how much or how little was needed and if any areas were uneven, and I could wash it away at the end of the day if I didn't like it. However, it did get quite expensive using this product, as one container only lasted me one or two uses. Not to mention, it wasn't an all-over tan, as I only used it on my legs.
I stopped using it when one day, wearing shorts (big surprise), a high school peer walking behind me asked me if I was wearing nylon stockings because my tan looked "fake". She laughed at me while I was surrounded by my peers and teachers. I was mortified. Everyone was looking at my legs, and while nobody else was saying anything I could tell by their eyes that they were judging me.
So, I of course went back to tanning. I began to tan a lot, to the point where I actually burned my skin. Not severely, but bad enough to have me leave school with such severe itching that I had to see a doctor.
I didn't stop tanning, though. I went right back to it once the itching subsided.
At this time I also had a friend who applied self-tanner, or at least some kind of a product with a deep brozner. As I recall she was very conscious about the health effects of tanning and avidly spoke out about it. Nobody took her too seriously, mostly because we saw the results of self-tanner - her skin was orange and blotchy and it truly looked fake - even more fake than my spray on-tanned legs. Obviously it was fake - even my tan was fake (I didn't get it "naturally" or organically from the sun), but mine looked like a real tan (the skin I was born with) because it was a real tan (my skin did get darker). Nobody wanted to look fake. I certainly didn't, not after having been ostracized by a peer in the past.
I remember I sat behind my friend in one class, and one day she wore her hair up and I could see the point on the back of her neck that she missed in applying the self-tanner. It was just a big, pale line staring back at me between two blotches of orange. And I thought to myself - why doesn't she just go tanning? And I think I even felt bad for her, as if she was making this choice to apply self tanner for some inferior reason, some reason that was somehow beneath me. Although I didn't understand why she chose sunless tanning at this time, I would come to understand it much later in my life.
In university I continued to tan a lot. More than I tanned before. My skin was very, very dark. I loved going tanning because, not only did it give me the colour I wanted, but I found it relaxing, almost therapeutic to lay in a warm bed for 5-20 minutes and just sleep. When I had a lousy day, I went tanning. Seeing my skin get darker was like a drug to me - I craved the tanning bed feeling and result.
In my 20s I started using high efficiency beds, beds with lower UVB and higher UVA levels, because I was led to believe this was somehow better for me - I would get a better tan, but I wouldn't burn! That eliminates almost all of the risk, right?
UVB radiation is what burns the upper layers of skin (the epidermis), causing sunburns. UVA radiation is what makes people tan. UVA rays penetrate to the lower layers, where they trigger cells called melanocytes to produce melanin. Melanin is the brown pigment that causes tanning.
That much is correct. However ...
Although they are less intense than UVB, UVA rays are 30-50x more prevalent. UVA, which penetrates the skin more deeply than UVB, has long been known to play a major part in skin aging and wrinkling (photoaging), but until recently scientists believed it did not cause significant damage in areas of the epidermis. Studies over the past two decades, however, show that UVA damages skin cells called keratinocytes in the basal layer of the epidermis, where most skin cancers occur. UVA contributes to and may even initiate the development of skin cancers. Tanning booths primarily emit UVA. The high-pressure sunlamps used in tanning salons emit doses of UVA as much as 12 times that of the sun. People who use tanning salons are thus 2.5x more likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma, and 1.5x more likely to develop basal cell carcinoma. According to recent research, first exposure to tanning beds in youth increases melanoma risk by 75%.
75%! What in the hell had I gotten myself into?
So, essentially a tan is what results from injury to the skin's DNA; the skin darkens in an attempt to prevent further DNA damage. These mutations can then lead to skin cancer.
So, it's not just about whether or not you burn, as I had once thought and touted - it actually matters how much exposure you have to these rays, and tanning bed exposure is exponentially higher than regular sunlight exposure.
While I really thought I was doing the healthy thing for my skin, in all likelihood I've increased my risk of skin cancer by 75%, if not more considering how long I've been tanning and the times I have burned. Skin damage from tanning is, afterall, cumulative.
Anyway, my tanning was out of control. I was going daily, or almost daily, for 15-20 minute sessions to maintain this tan, and was also going in high intensity booths for 10 minutes at a time.
And I was starting to notice the toll it was taking on my skin.
*Please note that this is not a photo of my décolletage. However, it is a fairly accurate depiction of how my décolletage looked at the time.
My décolletage area (the area on my chest) was becoming wrinkled - very wrinkled (and I still suffer some aging damage in this area today as a result). Anyone who is aging will tell you that this is one of the first signs of aging, and a dead giveaway of sun exposure and tanning bed use. That, and my hands had aged - another tell-tale sign of sun over exposure. My body always felt dry - I couldn't get out of the shower without slathering on a moisturizer, otherwise my skin would feel so tight and parched.
Not only that, the skin on my face was very, very oily and leathery and just ... well, it just looked aged. For someone who wasn't even 25, my skin felt like that of a 30-35 year old. While I was tanning to make myself look healthy and youthful, I was actually speeding up my own aging...
And yet I kept tanning. In response to these unsightly body changes I just started changing my skin care routine - I bought an Intima pillow (which I still use to this day, although for different reasons) because of my décolletage wrinkling; I started using anti-aging products on my forehead which was beginning to show fine lines, and I started moisturizing my body more, sometimes 2-3x a day.
At this point, I hadn't yet gotten acne and I also wasn't moisturizing my face after tanning.
So - OK, I thought, this will solve everything and I won't have any more problems.
So on my merry way I went, tanning along.
At one point, my skin got so dark I almost don't even recgonize my own skin, now looking back.
Looking at this photo makes me cringe, and feel very uncomfortable.
This was at a time when I was working outdoors and had to wear shorts as a part of my uniform, and so of course having to have my legs out for all my coworkers to see made me feel inadequate, so I tanned like crazy.
Periodically I would stop tanning, again because of time or money. Sometimes I would go months without tanning, but usually when my tan faded and I started to become pale again I would go right back to it.
When I did get acne, or started getting regular pimples, I started going tanning again hoping it would clear up my skin - because I noticed it did help. Why? Because it dried up my skin, of course. But - tanning also made my skin oilier because of the fact it was being dried out, and so what made my acne better in the short-term, also ended up making my acne worse in the long-term. But I was convinced that my skin needed the sun, or the UV rays, to keep clear.
I was, in part, kind of correct. Studies have shown that phototherapy, although with blue or red light therapy (not the sun), has been shown to improve acne.
Either way, I tanned frequently and consistently right up until my wedding, in November of 2014. I wanted a beautiful tan for my wedding day, but once it was over, I decided I wouldn't tan anymore. And I haven't. It's been just over a year since I've been to a tanning bed, and I will never - ever - go back.
As someone who lives pretty far from the equator, where we don't get a lot of sun (especially in the winter), and some 3/4 of us are vitamin D deficient, I know how important vitamin D is. But is vitamin D from tanning really sufficient, anyway? Do the benefits of vitamin D from the sun outweigh the risks of UV damage? Obviously total sun avoidance isn't the answer; it isn't feasible, nor is it healthy. Sun avoidance can also result in skin cancer, afterall. What's important is practicing safe sun exposure, which means wearing sun blockers like long sleeves, hats and sunglasses - or sunscreen.
I personally opt to take a vegan D3 supplement (at the request of my doctor after my blood work showed my levels were very low even while I was tanning every day!), and practice safe sun exposure. In the winter, I couldn't get enough sunlight if I wanted to - so I tend to rely more heavily on my supplements during the winter. During the summer, I use sunscreens and blockers, and try to spend a couple minutes outdoors unprotected, plus use my D3 as a supplement to that.
I stopped tanning for a good year after my wedding. A year after, I started looking like a corpse again. Bless my natural skin tone, a delightful transparent chalky colour.
My self-consciousness about my fair skin did come back, and it's been a battle to learn to love myself the way I was made, fair skin and all. I had contemplated going back to regular tanning a time or two, but I fought those urges off. I wanted the colour, I just didn't want the skin damage. What's a girl to do?
So one day, I went back to the tanning salon - but for a different purpose - for sunless tanning.
The manager at one of the tanning salons I frequented, a very nice gentleman, suggested that I try it out when they first got it in a few years ago. I didn't want to, mostly because I had a negative view of spray tans (re: my friend from high school's orange tan). But as time went on, more and more people were going in these spray tan booths, and the technology was getting better and better. What was once an orangey, blotchy tan was now a gorgeous sun-kissed glow - without the sun.
Even though I saw the technology improving and saw how beautiful these spray tans could be, I still avoided it because of my skin issues. Even though it's been a while since I've had severe acne, I still worry about using anything on my skin, and coating my skin with a product felt like a bad idea. A recipe for disaster. So for a long time, I never tried it. I let my skin fears get the best of me.
But one day I was just fed up with how pale my skin felt - I felt like it washed me out, I always looked sick when I didn't wear makeup, and I had an event coming up that I wanted to look my best for. So ... I thought, why not?
I decided to try it out. I figured it couldn't do any harm; if it caused me to break out, I would just stop going. Simple as that.
It was wonderful, and not at all like I had expected.
I had been worried that it would break me out as I mentioned before, but if anything, it may have even improved my skin with a little added moisture and nutrients. My skin was glowing and healthy-looking - and it didn't leave me with the dry, leathery, huge pore look that tanning beds did (seriously).
You know how you feel when you put makeup on - like your skin looks even, and glowy, and beautiful, and you just wish you could wear makeup all the time because you feel like a stone-cold fox? That's how I felt after my first spray tan. It was like I was wearing makeup that wouldn't wash away at night. It covered up all my little imperfections and uneven skin tone for a prolonged period; it was like wearing a really great foundation all day every day, except it wouldn't clog my pores.
Being fair-skinned has its fair share of disadvantages, and an uneven skin tone is one of them. When your skin is irritated or red or uneven or inconsistent in any way, it shows a lot on fair skin. I think that's why I enjoyed having the spray tan so much, because it made my skin so much more even. It completely brightened up my complexion. I felt like I always looked refreshed when I woke up, and even when I looked sloppy I still looked put-together.
It was like I had gone to Cuba and gotten a killer all-over gorgeous glowy tan!
The cons of a spray tan are that it doesn't last very long - about a week, with proper care. However, this can also be an advantage, especially if you chose the wrong colour, or you didn't exfoliate properly (whoopsie).
Another disadvantage is the fact that even though it goes on very consistent on your face, legs, arms, etc., it can be a little bit blotchy on the hands, neck, belly, and any area that you don't thoroughly exfoliate.
I feel like the pictures don't quite do it justice.
If you don't properly prepare for a spray tan it can make your hands look dirty, and a good spray tan doesn't fade easily, even with rigorous scrubbing, so you have to make sure your body is properly exfoliated. Also, I was told to turn my palms up so that they wouldn't get any tan (even though I used a blocker on them), and I of course didn't listen, so the first time the palms of my hands were very orange. The second time they weren't as bad, although I think I needed to use more blocker.
It does take a bit of time and effort to "prepare" your body for a tan, which includes a thorough body exfoliation (although, again, this could be seen as a plus, as it ensures you're taking good care of your skin!). It also requires a bit of perfecting the technique - a little trial-and-error to find what works best for you and your skin.
The first time I went, I also accidentally used a bronzer that I wasn't supposed to use right away (apparently I have a really hard time listening), so it made my spray tan wayyy too dark. Plus, because I used it right away I couldn't wash it off my hands, so my hands were extremely orange for the first few days. I was supposed to apply it (with gloves) several days later. But it was a learning experience.
The spray tan, I find, fades well, too. The only place it doesn't fade well is on my hands, so I need to work on perfecting that.
Regardless, spray tanning has been huge for me. I found myself seeking out mirrors and wanting to admire my skin for a while any chance I got - knowing that I could get a beautiful, even glow without harming my skin with damaging UV rays. Like I said, it was like I was wearing makeup all the time, and it made me feel very confident.
Using tanning beds for me was a way of feeling beautiful, a way of scapegoating my own self loathing. I covered up my problems instead of facing them, and learning to handle them. I didn't like the pigment of my melanin because I was conditioned not to - I hated being pale, because I was surrounded by ideas of beauty, none of which were pale - I was surrounded by people commenting on how pale I was as if it was a bad thing. And over time I learned to hate it. I tanned because it made me feel pretty. It made me feel normal. It made me feel accepted.
And I know that I am still coping with those self image issues, because I still feel the need to be darker, I still wish that I had darker skin, and I still go for spray tans. But I'm working on it. I can go months at a time without going for a spray tan, and I don't look in the mirror and hate my skin the way I used to. I embrace my fair skin more now than I ever have. And the important thing, I think, is that I stopped doing harmful things to my body in an attempt to get there, and I think that's huge.
My health will not be sacrificed for my vanity. And that's all that matters to me. So I may still be a little insecure about my fair skin, so I may still strive for an ideal standard of beauty. But at least now I can own it. At least now I know that I don't need to be tanned to be beautiful - that beauty comes in all shades, and that we shouldn't do harmful things like tanning or skin bleaching to acheive the colour we are told we should have. We all need to learn to love the skin we're in, and I'm not going to lie and tell you I'm there, because I'm not. But I'm closer than ever, and I hope that you can all get a little closer to loving yourself after hearing my story with hating the skin I was in.