Hard Lessons in Sun Protection

We all have self-care reckonings from time to time. We look back at an old photo or wake up with our overly bleached hair in a pile on our pillow (true story) and realize we weren’t taking the best care of ourselves. For me — and I’m sure a lot of you —I wish I could go back in time and take sun protection more seriously.

I’m a millennial, raised in the height of the MTV era, so you can probably guess what I looked like in high school: low-rise jeans, thin-ass eyebrows and a dark, orange tan. Always. All year long. BTW I grew up in Michigan. Who did I think I was fooling? I spent far too many summers roasting in the sun and every other month of the year baking in a tanning bed trying to look like Christina Aguilera during the Dirty years (cringe).

While I ditched the tanning bed in college, I still didn’t take sun protection seriously beyond applying a minuscule amount of BB cream with SPF. I patted myself on the back and pretended that was enough throughout most of my 20s.

Then I moved to Asia and my relationship with the sun and being tan started to change. The women in Japan have no interest in being tan for aesthetic reasons and cultural ones that I’m not qualified enough to really dive into. Some of the best sunscreens on the market come from Japan and South Korea to help women achieve and maintain a pearlescent appearance. There are UV-shielding clothing lines and some serious visors. You can’t find self-tanning products in stores or online — I couldn’t even get them shipped there.

So, I started embracing my pale and realized it didn’t matter that much to me. I even grew to like my natural skin tone. Do I still love the look of being tan? Yes, guilty. But I spent three predominantly pale years in Japan and left much more conscious of how much damage I’d put my skin through going out into the sun unprotected. I wanted the same flawless look as the women in my neighborhood.

But the true reality check came when we moved back to the states and I went to the dermatologist for my first ever full-body check. I’d just turned 30 and read that was the time to start getting my moles looked at annually. I’d seen new ones pop up, mainly on my chest, over the years, but I still didn’t really think much of it.

An hour later, I left the appointment with a follow-up scheduled for a biopsy. A week or so later, I had stitches in my chest and left a third appointment shell-shocked to learn that one odd-looking mole on my chest had been pre-melanoma. Had I let it go any longer, it could actually have been deadly.

Over the next couple of years, I had several more spots removed. My skin didn’t handle the stitches well and scars easily, so now I have keloids — two on my chest and one on the back of my arm — that I get injected annually with cortisone to keep them from swelling up and becoming itchy. Lasers might fade them but they’ll be there forever, rippled, red grooves in my skin to remind me of the one skincare rule I refused to follow for so long: wear sunscreen.

I was furious. I’d been going to the dermatologist since middle school. I was the girl who’d had a three, six or 10-step skincare routine practically my entire life. I thought about my skin more than anyone else I knew and what did I have to show for it? More imperfections. I wish I could say there weren’t some embarrassing sunburns after that, but old habits and all that.

Last summer, we took our first true vacation in years. No laptops, ignored our phones and just relaxed. We spent most of the day outdoors and for once I diligently applied and reapplied my sunscreen all day long. My last screening had been good and I didn’t want any more scares or scars. And sure a shit, palm to face, no sunburns. No peeling. I still got a little tan but I made a far more concerted effort to enjoy the sun as safely as I could.

I wish it didn’t take until my 30s — with sun spots already showing on my forehead and cheeks and those new scars — to change my mind and my habits, but hopefully it means I can avoid any future problems.

Here are some helpful tips for sun protection:

  1. Reapply sunscreen every two hours or after swimming or sweating.
  2. The amount of sunscreen you use to cover your body should fill a shot glass.
  3. Try different formulas until you find one suitable for your skin type. If it makes you break out on your face or body, you won’t stick with it. I mainly use this for my face and this for my body.
  4. Wear sunscreen indoors or out — UV rays are not blocked by windows. I noticed the top of my forehead was getting darker from working beneath our skylight!
  5. Purchase a refillable travel bottle or a mini size of your preferred sunscreen so you can carry it with you more easily.
  6. See your dermatologist annually for a body check and keep an eye on your moles and freckles year round. Those I had removed were not symmetrical and the worst one was a brown dot with an orange ring around it.

You only get one round with the body — the skin — you have. Taking care of it the best you can is worth the time and investment.

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