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Coming Clean: How to Fix Sins of the Past

OK, so some of us did think we looked cool lighting up Merits in the high school parking lot. And who didn't on occasion resort to baby oil to push that tan along? Thankfully, those youthful indiscretions can (mostly) be undone.

You Smoked

But only with a glass of wine. Or a beer. Or, fine, at every party you ever attended ...

The Damage

Even secondhand smoke has been shown to cause heart disease, lung cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which is why occasional smoking is also suspected of doing harm. "A single cigarette can impair blood vessels, and even very little consumption will cause early signs of emphysema on MRI studies," says Norman Edelman, M.D., chief medical officer of the American Lung Association. And although blood vessels return to normal after a single cigarette, scientists believe that after repeated exposure, alterations can become permanent. Worse yet, mild emphysema cannot be undone.

The Recovery

"When a smoker quits, the acute airway inflammation subsides, but the thickening of the airways [chronic bronchitis] and the destruction of fine tissue in the lungs [emphysema] don't heal to any significant degree," Edelman says. That's why it's crucial to avoid secondhand smoke and air pollution, and to eat an antioxidant-rich diet for overall lung health. One study found that people who ate a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, oily fish, and whole grains had better lung function than those who consumed a lot of fat, sugar, and processed foods. You might also try sauna therapy -- a small study from 2003 found that regular practice of it improved blood vessel function in people with lifestyle diseases related to smoking. If, however, you have any warning signs of lung disease, such as chronic cough, shortness of breath, coughing up blood, unexplained chest pain, or chronic mucus production, see your doctor.

You Baked

And spent long days outside, and rarely applied sunscreen. Sometimes you even used foil.

The Damage

Not as much as you think. Although many people believe that 90 percent of skin damage is done by the time they're 18, it's actually between 18 and 23 percent, says Sheri Feldman, a dermatologist in Beverly Hills, California, and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the David Geffen School of Medicine, at UCLA. That early exposure, though, especially if it entailed repeated burns, could be sufficient to cause premature skin aging and skin cancer, which can take years to appear.

The Recovery

Get your skin checked by a dermatologist every year. "If caught early enough, most skin cancer can be cured," Feldman says. Then, to correct aging damage, apply a nighttime product with glycolic acid, tretinoic acid, or retinol (all of which promote collagen and elastic-tissue formation), and with antioxidants such as ferulic acid or vitamins C and E. Most important, continue the sunscreen habit, using a broad-spectrum product with SPF 30 or higher. Other preventive habits include sipping green tea--studies have found that two to three cups a day may protect the skin from the sun's rays -- and loading up on antioxidants to bolster the skin's internal UV defense. (Pomegranate juice, blueberries, and acai oil are all good sources.) Or pop a supplement called Heliocare, says Feldman, who takes it twice daily. It's made from a South African fern that has antioxidant properties and may offer sun protection.

You Permed

Or straightened or dyed, or otherwise processed your hair to within an inch of its life.

The Damage

Because hair follicles are alive, hair growth could be affected. "Frequent and long-term use of chemicals for color and straightening can cause irritation to the follicles and may ultimately reduce their ability to regenerate," says Wilma Bergfeld, senior dermatologist and codirector of dermatopathology at the Cleveland Clinic, in Ohio, and member of the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel, which analyzes data on cosmetic ingredients. "Also, heat and traction can result in hair breakage, and, over time, strands may not grow back." Even worse, some salons are still using straightening products that contain high concentrations of formaldehyde, a carcinogen that can cause breathing problems, rashes, and itching.

The Recovery

Talk with your stylist about alternative treatments for straightening, waving, or coloring your hair. Then use conditioner or a volumizer regularly to strengthen and moisturize hair fibers. If you continue to straighten your locks, check to make sure your salon is using a formula that doesn't contain formaldehyde or methylene glycol (essentially, another form of formaldehyde). A 2011 investigation by the Environmental Working Group, an advisory organization, found that although 15 of 16 brands of chemical straighteners claimed to contain little or no formaldehyde, tests showed they contained substantial amounts. Finally, ask how the salon is dispersing fumes. "They should be ventilating with fans," Bergfeld says.

You Yo-Yoed

Careening from crash diet to binge to crash diet, your weight forever bouncing up and down.

The Damage

Short-term, extreme diets -- especially ones that involve little or no protein -- deprive the body of nutrients, depleting energy and causing problems with focus and concentration. As a result, your health, productivity, and relationships may suffer. Long-term, your weight could be in jeopardy. "When you regain lost weight, which typically happens on these diets since you usually go back to your old eating habits and don't continue an exercise program, you gain mainly fat mass," says Kathy McManus, R.D., director of nutrition at Brigham and Women's Hospital, in Boston. In addition, increased fat boosts your risk for health conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

The Recovery

Ditch the crash diets. "They only make you feel deprived," McManus says. If you're looking for weight loss, a nutritionist- or doctor-approved cleanse may be a good way to kick it off. Then aim for a safe goal of about one to two pounds a week, knowing that you might not always lose that much. Establish healthy eating habits that you can follow for life: Add fresh fruits, veggies, and lean protein to your diet; have smaller meals; and eat only until you're full. And step up the physical activity to push your metabolism into overdrive.

See five inspiring women come clean about their own bodily sins.

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