As a kid, during the summer months my skin perpetually existed in three distinct states: burn; blister; or peel.
This was before suntan lotions had SPF ratings. SPF actually stands for Sun Protection Factor, a standard that really should more accurately be called I Wish I was Born an African American to Why Wasn’t I Born an Albino?
Growing up in sunny Orange County, we often spent the day at the beach. Even though there were four of us kids and we were just a year apart, my mom managed to coat us all with Coppertone to keep us from burning. Yet an 11:00 am to 5:00 pm shift of building sand castles and collecting shells in the hot Southern California sun turned us all into lobsters. It was a miserable trip home with all of us sweaty and sandy and feeling the effects of first degree burns covering 80 percent of our bodies.
Before the magical natural use of aloe vera, everyone used Solarcaine, which felt cool when it was sprayed on, but I’m not sure if it actually did anything.
We winced a lot and walked around with our arms partly outstretched, and it was difficult to fall asleep on sheets that suddenly seemed unbearably rough as sandpaper. We observed the places where blisters appeared – our noses, our backs, our bellies. Once when I was 13 and my bosoms were blossoming, a one-inch wide and two-inch tall sunburn blister appeared directly between the two larger sprouts. My mom nicknamed it my third boob.
Eventually the blisters would pop – either as a natural progression of healing, or more likely because we decided to pop them ourselves as a science experiment to see what lied underneath the bubble (always something gooey and gross).
In a few days, the neon red color would start to fade and our skin would begin to peel. This was my favorite part. And I don’t mean favorite as in a favorite stuffed animal or a favorite ice cream flavor. I was literally obsessed about peeling skin. As we watched television, we’d take turns sitting astride each other’s butts and peel our sibling’s backs. My brother and sisters and I would have contests on who could tear the longest peel. Sometimes we’d save the peel as if it was a prized souvenir. To this day I love to peel things – wallpaper, glue, hangnails. I really should look into a 12-step program for my peeling disorder.
From May through September, my nose was one permanent scab. I wore zinc oxide, which for a short time seemed cool because that’s what the foxy lifeguards wore on their noses, but looking back, I think I more resembled a failed mime.
In my teens, I switched from Coppertone to Hawaiian Tropic in an effort to attain the perfect tan. It was an impossible dream. My Irish/Scotch/Finnish lineage guaranteed that the only thing brown on my skin would be my freckles. I dreamed that one day I’d get so many freckles that they’d blend together and become a true tan, but it wasn’t meant to be.
Hawaiian Tropic was later discarded for pure baby oil as I deliberately fried myself in the sun. Once I got past the burn-blister-peel cycle, I actually acquired an honest to goodness tan one summer, but it proved to be way too much work. It required riding the bus for an hour to Newport Beach and lying all day with my fingers outstretched so I would tan in between them, and turning every 20 minutes like a rotisserie chicken to maintain and even color. The bus ride back was an hour and a half, and an hour of it was standing room only with my bottoms full of sand, carrying my towel, beach chair and baby oil, and hoping that I wouldn’t blister.
Thankfully I started a long line non-stop jobs and didn’t have the time to work so hard on my tan. Looking back, I am truly grateful for this calamity as it’s the principal reason my skin isn’t wrinkled like a prune today.
These days I wear sunglasses and a hat outdoors. My daily moisturizer and lip balm both have built-in sunscreens, and I coat my kids in SPF 70 whenever we’re outdoors for any extended period of time. My almost 16-year old Emily has beautiful porcelain skin, and she wants to keep it that way. My daughter Mary has the most adorable freckles, but any time her pediatrician sees them multiplying, the doctor reprimands me like a bad dog, so I try to keep her coated as well.
My son Jake is so white he is nearly translucent. I don’t know if they make SPF 100, but if they do, it would be because they had Jake – the whitest boy in America – in mind when they created it.
Last week we went camping at the beach with my sister Tammie, who is to this day a bona fide sun worshipper. If she was matched with a Sherwin-Williams paint chip, she would be French Roast. Tammie wore her SPF 2 cooking oil while I plastered on the SPF 50-70 variety of creams, sprays and lotions. And yet, somehow I was burnt to a crisp. Not blister-burnt like the old days, thank goodness, but burnt enough to have it smart, and red enough to need regular coatings of aloe vera.
But now I have mixed emotions. I want my skin to heal and go back to my 21st century acceptable pale complexion.
On the other hand, I’m dying to peel my back.
Maybe I should look into those Peeler Anonymous meetings.