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.