When my brother was eleven he fell asleep in the sun. And the sun took him for all his money. When he woke, his arms were red sausages pulsing at the seams. A few days later, like a piece of fruit sweating in heat, he grew blisters from head to toe, including the bottoms of his feet. He dripped and oozed and peeled and winced his way through weeks of cold showers and no sheets. He shed a very painful layer of skin, forensic evidence of his own forgetfulness to put on sunscreen. Can you be charged for negligence to your own person? Of course, back then, in the 70s, people were slathering on coconut oil and roasting like little suited-up turkeys. Now we know the risks of UVA and UVB and so we wear big hats under big umbrellas and chase the kids down with the high-octane sunscreen. But even in all our carefulness, we might still be getting it wrong.
1 | You're buying over 30 SPF
My husband likes to think of himself as a professional in sun protection. He categorizes by body part and activity. If you can be a hoarder of just one thing, he is a hoarder of sunscreen, nothing below SPF 75 for his delicate self. It turns out that, yes, even sunscreen is a racket. The higher the SPF the higher the cost. But it's not going to keep you any safer. In fact, anything over SPF 30 is a waste of money. You will not get more bang for your buck because all sunscreen does not protect against all types of radiation and it all wears off in almost the same amount of time, no matter what the blurb on the label may claim. So, save yourself a buck or five and get the lower stuff instead.
2 | You're waiting less than fifteen minutes after applying before you get in the sun
If someone five houses down whispers the word, "pool," my kids hear it and are running down the street. Which makes it all the harder to get them coated in sunscreen and wait the appropriate length of time before they hit the water. But the case remains, it's always better to give the sunscreen time to work its magic before jumping in the pool…even if it means fifty minutes of deep-breathing for you and screaming for them.
3 | You're not factoring in both UVA and UVB rays
In case you didn't already know, SPF stands for "Sun Protection Factor." So, in theory, SPF 15 means you can run around in the sun 15 times longer than you could without any protection before getting sun damage. Except it doesn't exactly work that way. Because most sunscreens usually only protect you from UVB rays – the kind that lead to burning, when UVA are actually the ones that can lead to skin cancer. So, look for "broad spectrum" sunscreen that has protection from both.
4 | You're forgetting the nooks and crannies
I have a wicked cross-hatching of tan lines across my feet that will not go away. Though I remember to cover every other inch of my body, the feet escape me. Now all my Jesus sandals have given me a nice basket weave. Chances are you're lathering yourself while you're lathering the kids. If so, don't forget your feet, ears, bathing suit line, and back of neck…all the places you don't notice in the mirror but will become glaringly obvious when they turn neon red and then shed flakes when you move. Ew.
5 | You're forgetting to reapply
Just because it says it's suitable for the pool/sand/beach/ocean/sport does not actually mean it's going to last through two diaper chances, three life guard time outs, and sand volleyball. Sunscreen is not a wetsuit. It can still wash off as time goes on. So, reapply no matter what the SPF and no matter how much your kids whine about it.
6 | You're spraying without rubbing in
I hate goop on my hands. I think the pottery scene from "Ghost" is gross and I don't like Pinterest activities that create any kind of Floam, slime, or playdough. Which is why I always buy the spray-on sunscreen. We spray and spray until the kids are running through it like the rinse cycle at the car wash. Spray all you want – you still have to rub it in. I learned this the hard way by coming home from the inaugural pool opening striped red and white like a summer candy cane. No matter the type, make sure you rub it in just like lotion to get the skin to absorb it. Face your fear of the goop factor.
7 | You're expired
We have a bin in our medicine cabin that's probably poisonous. Every single Neosporin tube and antacid and liquid Tylenol is crusty and a different color than it was intended to be. Sunscreen, it turns out, has an expiration date. And you actually need to look at it. Luckily, it's not just going to stop when it hits that "use by" date, but it will lose effectiveness. So, check the tube and ditch the stuff that hasn't seen light since 1993. No matter how you do it, any sunscreen is better than none. And it's certainly better than the Hawaiian Tropic oils we used to slather on. But if you're going to get out there, you might as well get the most for your time and money and do it up right.
I now know there are steps I can take to change how I think, to find the true me again. That is why I am going to take better care of myself this year. In fact, that’s the only resolution I care to make. For both my own health, and as an important example to my kids, this year, I'm resolving to practice a kindness that starts from within.