Pass the sunscreen?

Posted: Sunday, July 19, 2009

I am fairly sure I have not been tan since the late 1980s. Until now, that is. When I look at my arms, I am stunned with their color. The last time I looked like this, I had a curling iron. That is a long time ago.

Obviously, living in Alaska, which I have for a good while now, is not generally conducive to tanning. I generally accept this, don't worry about my paleness, and pop another vitamin D tablet.

In high school in the Midwest, getting tan was all the rage. I can still remember the smell of the tanning lotion, like a chemically enhanced coconut oiling up our skin. Some girls even considered the pursuit of a good tan their primary summertime occupation, and they judged new outfits on how the color set off their tans. I was never a good tanner; I was equally likely to burn, and I couldn't sit out in the hot sun for hours like some. Instead, I was more likely to be found in the water, bobbing around in an effort to stay cool, while having decidedly uncool skin.

But somewhere around when I was in college, we all traded our tanning lotion for sunscreen and we never looked back. After all, we learned, there is no such thing as a healthy tan, right? Why use SPF 10 when I could use SPF 30? That way no ray of damaging sun would even approach my skin.

When we traveled to Bali some years ago, I was the ever-vigilant one, never far from my next reapplication of sunscreen. And it worked. I boarded the plane back to Fairbanks looking like I had never left interior Alaska. And I was happy, and a little proud of my own diligence.

When my daughter was born, I became, if possible, even more vigilant. Somehow I believed if my daughter got a sunburn, even once, it would be proof of my substandard motherhood. Proof that I was not observant and cautious enough. Proof that I really had no idea what I was doing with this parenting thing. Oh, and that she would get skin cancer and look back on that one day, that one hour, when she didn't have sunscreen and blame me for her misery.

I lathered her up any time the sun even threatened to shine.

Over time, though, I grew suspicious about preserving our bodies in a chemical coating to make it look as if we don't experience seasons, to avoid something pretty natural. It started feeling unnatural, especially since we see so little of the sun here. So I began to loosen up a bit.

Now, I know many people think there is no such thing as a healthy tan, including many doctors. But, for us, getting a little sun feels pretty good. We get a little sun, then cover up, then move into the shade, and then, if necessary, use a little sunscreen. If we are on the water, the sunscreen might show up earlier. We listen to our bodies and when we feel the need, we take the next step instead of reacting early out of fear.

I read a bit about sunburn being related to skin health, and skin health being dependent on adequate fatty acid ratios, so we are doing a bit of experimentation with cod liver oil (I tell my daughter that kids have taken cod liver oil for ages, and none of them has died of grossness). I am happy to say the cod liver oil seems promising. And though I have had a mild sunburn this year, my daughter has not, so I can retain my non-outwardly negligent mom status, at least for now. And we can enjoy the sun in moderation in this unseasonable weather, and get a little tan.

• Marie Ryan McMillan is a parent and teacher in Juneau.

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