A girl's sunburned skin is dotted with giant suns.

Sun Damage at the Age of 11? Yes, It's Possible.

Last updated: September 2022

I am a fair-haired, pale-skinned green-eyed adult who knows what UV rays do to the skin. In the 80s, I was a fair-haired, pale-skinned green-eyed sixth grader on vacation in Florida with my family who wasn’t told to reapply sunscreen and stay in the shade during peak hours.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is how I came to acquire a mass of freckles across my shoulders. This crop of freckles goes by another name–sun damage.

“That summer”

We weren’t beach people, and that summer was our first opportunity ever to spend several days at the beach. To say we were ill-prepared is probably a humorous understatement. Combine that with the fact that it was the 80s and virtually no one was concerned about sun-safe practices, and you have a recipe for disaster. Several things stand out about that summer, and all of them involve sunburn.

The smell of aloe vera

I remember all too well the smell of aloe vera gel. We may not have been rich with SPF, but we managed to get our hands on aloe vera gel, and it’s a triggering smell for me to this very day. My sister and I slept in twin beds in the same room, and I distinctly recall lying wide awake all night afraid to move for fear of the skin on my shoulders splitting wide open.

The peeling stage

We were in Florida long enough for my shoulders and back to transition into that ever-so-fun peeling phase. Sunburned skin tends to blister and then peel, and it will peel in sheets if left unmoisturized. These large chunks of dead skin I can still see as clearly as I am seeing these words appear on my screen. It was a feeling I don’t think I will ever forget--my first sunburn and the first time I ever peeled my own skin from my body. I know–it’s a bit much, but facts are facts. Sunburn is a terrible experience, especially for a kid.

Freckles

I had always had a few freckles across my nose and cheeks, but the ones that appeared across my shoulders were of a different variety. The delicate little spots on my face paled, literally, in comparison to the large brown spots that showed up as soon as the dead sunburned skin was shed. Freckles weren’t seen as a sign of anything sinister in the 80s, so I thought nothing of continuing to expose my already damaged skin and did so intentionally for years–many years–following that summer.

The mark of a childhood sunburn

Little did any of us know the repercussions of not protecting our skin in the 80s. We knew it didn’t feel quite right, but I don’t think a single person associated the word cancer with sunburns.

What happened to me that summer was no one’s fault, but the simple fact that it happened greatly increased my chances of developing melanoma–and I did.

In my 30s, I was diagnosed with melanoma followed by basal cell carcinoma and then squamous cell in my mid-40s.

Things have changed since I was a sixth grader, and things have stayed the same. You did not misread. Information about the dangers of overexposure to the sun is everywhere. Sunscreen is readily available, and advocates who have been there and done that are spreading the word about skin cancer and how to prevent it.

One thing that has not changed? Sunburns are bad news, point blank. Even one can change your life.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The SkinCancer.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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