Gimme a smile: Sunshine on my shoulders

..gives me sunburn

We’ve had an incredible run of sunshine these past few weeks. I’m starting to get used to seeing the sun every day, a rare treat for us rainforest dwellers.

When I was a kid growing up in Florida, the evening newspaper actually guaranteed sunshine. If a day went by when the sun didn’t shine at all, the evening paper was free. This happened maybe a handful of times during my childhood. Every other day counted as “partly sunny.”

All this sunshine inevitably led to sunburn.

As a redheaded, fair-skinned native of Florida, I’m an expert when it comes to sunburn. As a child I soaked up my fair share of sun, without benefit of sunscreen.

When I was a kid, sunscreen was called zinc oxide, a thick white substance with the consistency of clown makeup. You glopped it on your nose, which then stayed white for the next three weeks or three hundred face washings, whichever came first. No one ever applied zinc oxide to any skin surface other than the nose. If you wanted to protect any other part of your body from the sun, the accepted regimen was to slowly build up an immunity to sunburn through strategic tanning sessions in your backyard lounge chair before hitting the all day picnic at the beach.

Come to find out, redheads don’t tan. Ever.

Slow, steady doses of sun exposure only led to darker, more numerous freckles and low-grade sunburn in my case. For me, the only method of sun protection was the dreaded swimming shirt.

No teenage girl wants to wear an extra-large t-shirt over her swimsuit at the beach. It isn’t natural. Mom wasn’t looking, so I ditched the t-shirt at the church picnic at Ft. Desoto beach. During the prime sun hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., I swam and played and reveled in the glorious Florida sun.

I think that was the worst sunburn of my life. I remember my back and shoulders blistering and peeling. It only got worse when I spent the afternoon playing with my friend in our secret hideaway in the middle of a patch of brambles. I had a tank top on to spare my shoulders the friction of sleeves. I guess I didn’t think about the friction caused by crawling under the scratchy branches. I looked like a snake shedding its skin by the end of that fateful afternoon.

My shins hurt so bad from the sunburn that I had to wear knee socks to bed because I couldn’t stand the whisper touch of the sheet on my legs.

The skin on my scalp peeled off, making me look like I had big flakes of dandruff caught in my hair.

Worst of all, I had to wear the dreaded swimming shirt to swimming lessons at the pool every day for the rest of the summer — plus zinc oxide on my nose.

Fast forward to the present — I live in Juneau, where the sun seldom shines. Sunscreen now comes in SPF numbers up to 100 (you may not know that SPF stands for “some poor fool,” a reference to the poor saps who think they can bask in the sun without using sunscreen. Kids, don’t try this at home).

Sunscreen is hard to come by in Juneau in the winter. You don’t normally find it displayed next to the snow melt and Yaktrax in the grocery store. It’s a classic case of supply and demand. Who wants to buy sunscreen in the winter when they live in a rainforest?

I once encountered a bottle of sunscreen in the store that was past its expiration date. The poor bottle had sat hopefully on the shelf all those lonely months, waiting for someone to buy it, until it quietly expired in dusty isolation.

I’m a good customer for sunscreen these days. I haven’t had a blistering sunburn in years. I feel like a fool slathering on sunscreen when it’s raining outside, but I wear it faithfully, every day (just about). And yes, I do wear a t-shirt to swim in when I go to the beach in Florida on vacation. It’s the best sun protection I know.

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