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I started tanning in high school. I was in pom-poms, so I had to expose my paler-than-most legs to the entire world all winter long. In the late 1980s, this was a social offense—no one was pale, let alone as pale as I was. I begged my reluctant mother to let me tan, haranguing her until she agreed to let me use my own money for a little time in the fake bake.

I loved it. I loved the relaxation. The light. The warmth. I loved how I looked and felt. It made me seem slimmer. Makeup and hair looked better. I could wear all kinds of clothing that before would have exposed too much pasty glow. Being tan seemed to make everything better.

It was the beginning of a semi-addiction. In the summer, I laid outside on a foil blanket for hours. In the winter, I bought the biggest tanning packages and got every dime’s worth—I was there so often, the tanning salon operators and I became personal friends. Sometimes I’d even tan outside and in a tanning bed on the same day.

I ventured into “safer” territory for a bit, trying that spray-on QT product. (Remember that?) But when it flaked off of my legs in orange bits on a trip to Florida, I turned back to the sun—or the bulb, as the case were—and never looked back.

After 24 years of burns, sweat and dollars and hours devoted to maintaining the deepest color my pale skin could muster, I decided it was time to stop. I turned 40, and the effects of my sun worshipping were evident: brown spots on my hands; a funny texture on my legs; the most horrifying wrinkles around my eyes. No amount of lotion could fix it, either.

Vanity had compelled me to begin tanning, and vanity was now compelling me to stop.

Don’t get me wrong—I worried about skin cancer, too. I know people who’ve had it; one of my best friends underwent treatment, and even my sister found a scary spot. I had a patch of actinic keratosis (a premalignant lesion) removed from my forehead, leaving an ugly sore for a couple of weeks. Thankfully, I was already in the habit of visiting my dermatologist once a year for a mole scan so that he could catch that. As a fair-skinned, blue-eyed Caucasian, I’m at highest risk.

So I’ve been tan-free for almost a year now, minus a quick hit in the sun on vacation last winter. And I miss it. I miss the warmth, the light, the relaxation. I miss how it made me look—slimmer and more vibrant. Sometimes, when I walk by the door to my former tanning salon, I’m tempted to stop in for just a quick visit to the high-intensity bed.

But I’m learning to love Jergens sunless tanning lotions. I’m learning to choose clothing and makeup colors based on my fair skin. I do realize that it’s not trendy anymore to be super tan; in fact, it’s about as dated as poofy bangs. (Praise God both looks are out.)

And I’m truly grateful that, as I finally begin to appreciate and care for my skin, there are tools to help restore it. I’ve been introduced to the wonders of SkinMedica. The brown spots on my hands thus far have succumbed to IPL. The HydraFacial, peels and a Clarisonic brush are erasing a few damaged layers on my face…and perhaps even exposing and eradicating more actinic keratosis.

My skin’s health has new meaning for me now that I’ve crossed the threshold of 40. And it’s intricately tied to my vanity. Because I’ve seen the “after” pictures of skin cancer victims, and the wrinkles on older associates who have worshipped the sun themselves, and it’s not pretty.

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