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Woman with sunburn standing on the beach with vibrant sun

Sunburn: A First You Want to Avoid

We have so many firsts in our lives - first words, first day of school, first date, first car. Every one of them is memorable in one way or the other. Some, however, are painful and leave lasting impressions. One we don’t always think about as we grow and change is that first sunburn. Almost everyone you know has had a day of indulgence in the sun and overdid it to the point of a burn. Many of those sunburns happened in childhood. Mine did.

Family beach days with little sun protection

Always fair-skinned, I can easily recall the first time I experienced a true sunburn. I was 11 years old and staying on the beach in Florida with my family. The lure of the ocean and the breezes coming off the Atlantic all combine to make one very deceiving set of circumstances. I am sure at some point my parents urged me to reapply sunscreen, but the 1980s aren't exactly remembered for the emphasis placed on sun-safe practices. We spent all day on the beach running back and forth to the water and snacking under a beach umbrella. I couldn’t swim, but I made a day of it pretending I could and engineering my own makeshift sandcastle and moat while my family relaxed.

My first bad sunburn

It wasn’t until late that evening that my younger sister and I began to feel our day in the sun catching up with us. If you have never had a severe sunburn, it’s practically impossible to understand the kind of pain described by those who have been so unfortunate. The tightening of the skin, the burning and stinging that come with the slightest movement, and the heat that continues to emanate from your very being - sunburns are their own brand of misery. Every move I made hurt. Sleeping was almost impossible. We were toasted through and through.

Sunburn aftermath

It took a couple of days for the stinging to subside after my mother religiously applied lotion to our reddened skin. Our shoulders had taken the brunt of the sun’s rays that day on the beach and were the first area to begin peeling. All of this was new to me. Even though we lived in West Tennessee and endured hot and humid summers, I had never been exposed to the sun long enough to sustain a hard burn like this. The beach had been my downfall - that and the lack of sunscreen education. I can remember peeling flakes of skin from my shoulders and back only to discover a crop of freckles had formed underneath. Before that vacation, I never had a freckle on my back or shoulders. Today, those first freckles are with me still.

The connection between sunburn and skin cancer

Organizations the world over have studied the relationship between sunburns and the development of skin cancer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that enduring sunburns as a child or teen can increase the chances of having a basal cell carcinoma or melanoma diagnosis later in life.1 In their word, I wholeheartedly believe. My first burn was certainly not my last as I went on to try and tan my skin by laying out in the sun as a teen and burned my fair skin repeatedly. I added fuel to the skin cancer fire by using tanning salons in college, too. I have had basal cell carcinoma three times and a mole that turned out to be melanoma.

Passing on the sunburn lessons

There are no do-overs. I can’t go back and reshape that day and hit the sunscreen hard and heavy. I also can’t make amends for the burns I gave myself by laying out in the sun. I can, however, keep a close eye on my skin and note any new spots or changes in moles and use sunscreen on a daily basis now. In addition, I can teach my own children the importance of sun-safe practices and try to save them at least one disappointing first.

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