The two of us floated in the crystal-clear turquoise seawater of Hawksnest Bay and talked about tanning as teenagers.
Background: I packed two one-gallon plastic bags of sunscreen for our week-long getaway to St. John, USVI. There was the ultra sunblock for extra-sensitive baby skin (yes, even though I’m 53, I wear baby sunscreen) and some 30 SPF with special moisturizing lotion. My spouse, being male, demands some spray-on “dude” lotion, mainly for self application. Special lip balm to keep those crusty-crusts from blistering. Multiple bottles, various kinds, copious amounts.
And my tube of dermatologist-approved tinted facial sunscreen? It went in my carry-on bag because I DO NOT go anywhere without that. Ever.
We used almost all of what I’d packed. Seven days, full of hours on the beach and in the pool. In addition to a whole lot of sunscreen application, we sought shade whenever possible (under trees, hats, and assorted cover-ups, often with a rum punch).
This, my friend Holly and I recalled, is not how we grew up.
Nobody ever wore sunscreen.
We were teenagers in the “tanning oil” days.
Chasing the Farrah Fawcett Ideal
The summer after my senior year in high school involved some serious self improvement (at least, to my 1980-era teen mind). I dedicated a lot of time to bleaching my hair in the sun and working on my tan.
I imagine that sentence will strike younger women much as the gas station scene in The Birds hits current day movie viewers (instead of, as Hitchcock intended, focusing on the menacing birds, we watch wide-eyed while the unsuspecting victim allows his gas tank to overflow — gasp! the waste! horror!). I spent hours gently roasting in the backyard, rotating between my front and back sides, slathered in lemon juice (hair) and Johnson’s Baby Oil (every uncovered item of skin). There was no concept of “protection” from the sun’s rays. I was going for a California-movie-star look, as epitomized in 1976 (and for all time) by that ubiquitous Farrah Fawcett poster.
In fact, when I’d suffered from breakouts a few years earlier, my mother reluctantly took me to a dermatologist, who suggested that I spend more time in the sun. So I dutifully sat outside like a human sunflower, gently turning my scrubbed face to catch the brightest light, as often as I could.
Fawcett was a Texas girl — big hair (ah, those wings!), bright teeth, and brown, brown skin. In theory, I had all the right parts to achieve that same look. What I got more often than brown was burned. Painful, skin-peeling burned, from my toes to the part in my hair.
To this day, I associate summer with the smell of Noxzema. After long days in Illinois, paddling about in the pond at my grandparent’s lake cabin, my cousin and I would slather ourselves in the popular cream; why, I don’t really know, as the producers have only promoted it as a facial cleanser (though much of the world seems to have the same idea we did).
Protection from the Sun as I Age
I can’t reverse the harm I’ve done to my skin, but I can take good care of what I’ve got. The American Academy of Dermatologists recommends I:
Moisturize. Skin over 40 produces less oil, so it’s good to add moisture after a bath or shower. I like Neutrogena’s Light Sesame Body Oil.
Use gentle cleansing products. Avoid those that contain alcohol or scents, which cause further drying of the skin.
Protect against UV rays with a broad spectrum sunscreen of SPF 30. Don’t forget your hands! I learned the hard way to cover my lips; I discovered Hawaiian Tropic Lip Balm with a 45+ SPF while in Bora Bora and have never blistered again.
Avoid smoking. In addition to the whole cancer thing, smoking causes the skin to lose elasticity and creates additional damage.
Rinse off. Be sure to get chlorine and salt water off the skin with a shower. Avoid over cleansing and pat with a towel rather than rub.
Wear protective clothing. A simple white T-shirt can provide shielding. Protect the scalp, cover the back of the neck. I carry a big scarf for draping at the beach and found a great cover-up at Athleta (worth the cost for stylish, comfortable 50 SPF). And who doesn’t love a fab beach hat?
In addition, I can impart some of my hard-won wisdom to my kids. When we go on our annual family beach trip to the Texas coast, I try to bring a gift. This year, my daughters received bottles of that lightly-tinted facial sunscreen I love; all kids received tubes of my favorite lip balm. Our family kicks back under umbrellas at a beach. We remind each other to reapply and rehydrate. We wear hats and cover-ups (sometimes funny ones).
If my sun-and-fun memories involve Noxzema and Hawaiian Tropic Tanning Oil, I wonder what their trigger scents are? I’ll have to ask.