Recently, my teenage daughter headed out to the beach for an afternoon hanging out with friends. Maggie shares my prone-to-burn fair skin. I had offered protection by putting sunscreen on her before she left, but being 14, she refused. So I handed her sunscreen and reminded her several times not to forget to put it on. Ask a friend to help, I suggested as she ran out the door.
About five hours later, she returned … with a sunburn. Slathering aloe on her stinging shoulders and back that night, I suggested she bring my beach umbrella with her next time. “But Mom,” she insisted. “No one uses umbrellas. They just lay out on their towels and tan.”
Inside, I died a little. So much for all those years of applying and re-applying sunscreen on my kids, researching which kinds were the healthiest and trying to instill good habits for whenever they were outside, sun or no sun. With that one little sentence, it was as if all my efforts had flown out the window. I remember being 14. I remember lying out in the sun slathered with baby oil or some coconut-smelling suntan lotion with the least amount of SPF possible. I also remember some very serious sunburns. In my senior prom photos, you can see my red shoulders.
But the truth is, the sun is no joke. Not protecting our skin leaves us vulnerable to skin cancer, which can be deadly. About 90 percent of non-melanoma skin cancers and 86 percent of melanoma skin cancers — the most serious — are associated with exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. Meanwhile, studies have shown that using sunscreen can greatly reduce the chance of getting melanoma and less dangerous squamous cell carcinoma.
Those of us in our 40s remember childhoods of not worrying about the sun. We got sunburns and dealt with it, and by the end of the summer we had nice golden tans. But fast forward years later, and we’re trying to cover up discolored spots on our faces with makeup and visiting the dermatologist to have suspicious moles zapped off or sometimes cut out. And you better believe we’re now slathering on the sunscreen, using SPF 50 or higher even though we’ve been told SPF 30 should be enough.
But if you spent your teen years worshipping the sun, all is not lost. Studies have shown that despite a commonly held belief that the majority of our sun exposure occurs by age 18, it’s actually adulthood when the sun can cause the most problems. Spending more leisure time outdoors — on the golf course or just walking around the neighborhood — means it’s ever-important to protect your skin. So wear a hat and sunglasses. Cover up with a swim shirt or rash guard. Hit the beach or the pool when the sun’s rays aren’t as intense.
And please, don’t forget the sunscreen.