Seen at the Wedding: Sunburn

My sisters and I grew up spending August at the Jersey shore, and we had more than one sunburn bad enough so that our skin peeled. Our mother used Coppertone on us, but the sunscreen formulation was not anywhere near as effective as it is now. And, we were outdoors, on the beach, in and out of the ocean all day long. I have cousins who were lifeguards, in the baking sun from May 30 through Labor Day, who’ve had so much cancerous skin removed from their faces that their entire appearance has changed.

People who live in tropical climates, like Nassau and Panama and Dubai — where the men offering camel rides to tourists on the beach are covered head to toe in flowing light colored robes — are careful to guard themselves from too much sun exposure. They are flabbergasted at the way we lie out in the sun, actively inviting the skin damage that comes with that bronzed look.

Around the various pools in Nassau and along the sand of Cable Beach, I saw several people with really bad sunburns out for a second or third or fourth day of exposure. I know what they’d say if I asked, because people have actually said this to me in Panama: “I’m only here for X days and I want to get my money’s worth.” 

Having warm sun on your back and shoulders really does feel good, and not only physically. Most of us are notably happier when spring arrives and we have more sunny days than cold and gray and gloomy ones. But the damage sun inflicts on our skin is real. Sunburn is painful: hot, angry, red, too tender to touch. We used to put a product called Noxema on ours; it was a goopy white cream that went on easy and cooled our angry skin and at least made us feel better, whether or not it sped up healing.

Getting sunburn upon sunburn upon sunburn is a really bad idea. A bad sunburn can make you feel ill, and increases chances of developing serious conditions like melanoma.

There are lots of things available now — better sunscreens, swim shirts to wear in the water, wide floppy hats, clothing with sun protection already in the fabric — that allow us to be out in the sun without incurring the negative effects. That people don’t use them, and continue to bask in the sun like  my lifeguard cousins did in the 1950’s, boggles my mind.


4 thoughts on “Seen at the Wedding: Sunburn

  1. Growing up we did the same thing laying in the sun and covering ourselves with baby oil then noxema. Our Celtic skin burned. By the time I finished college I’d had many bad sunburns but I learned that sun was bad for my skin. My parents had many cancerous lesions removed.
    I wear the maximum sunscreen now and hats. It’s nice to look tan. So, when I go to a tropical place on vacation I get a spray tan and use tanning cream along with sunscreen. My contemporaries who continued to sunbath are now wrinkled.

  2. I remember my mom sunbathing in the backyard and at some of the Albany area lake beaches… and using a sunlamp (which I believe is now illegal) in the winter as well! Once it became known how bad this was, she did stop, but she was well into her thirties. I remember going to summer camp and getting sunburns, but never did take up sunbathing. Fortunately she did not get skin cancer and I am ok so far. Not so a good friend of mine who was a sunbather in her youth and an avid runner all her life. She developed an aggressive form of skin cancer and died a horribly painful death this past July.

    It just makes me mad that we are so often sold ideas about what is and is not “good” for us, based on fashion or profit. Another friend who died of lung cancer began smoking during World War II and remembers advertising which showed doctors smoking and saying it was good for you! She did quit, but just not in time to avoid the damage. Another friend developed ovarian cancer and passed away, attributable to taking estrogen during menopause. I remember a doctor offering me estrogen pills (which I refused, thank goodness) after my surgery.

  3. for Katie: I hadn’t even mentioned the wrinkling thing, which is real. I too have a friend who has sunbathed all her life, and although she’s younger than I am, her skin is creased and leathery. Quite awful. Do they still make Noxema? 🙂 I too wear sunscreen and a hat now, although I’m not a big fan of hats. Have to keep the sun off my face.

  4. for Sharon: My mother’s youngest sister had the same experience — started to smoke in the 1940’s when, as a single parent, she returned to work. They were told it made a woman “more sophisticated.” Dotty stopped smoking eventually, but 35 years later she died of COPD. Supposedly the lungs heal when you stop, but hers didn’t. Terrible way to die.

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