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Sunburn on a Cloudy Day

Sunday was overcast and windy. Still, we made plans to celebrate a good friend’s birthday so we were all sitting on the beach. I was covered head to toe. Spinster hat (a phrase coined by my friend because he says it makes me look like a spinster) on head. Towel over legs. Umbrella attached to chair. Just then a girl I knew walked by. My eyes were instantly drawn to her. In fact, I couldn’t help staring at her. She was burned to a crisp. I also couldn’t keep my mouth shut. “Wow, you are really burned.” She knew, she told me. “It’s from this morning. It’s so cloudy, I just forgot to put sunscreen on.”

It was something I would hear several times from several people throughout the day. It was cool and windy; the sun wasn’t shining. Everyone figured they were protected from a burn. And everyone found out they were wrong. It’s a common misconception, actually.

The truth: Skin-damaging UVA and skin burning UVB light penetrates clouds and will start damaging your skin pretty quickly. According to the World Health Organization’s Global Solar UV Index Guide, up to 80 percent of the sun’s ultraviolet rays can pass through the clouds. Add sand, which reflects 25 percent of the sun’s rays or snow, which reflects 80 percent of the sun’s rays, and you understand why you need to wear sunscreen on exposed areas every day — winter, spring, summer and fall. And also why some of the worst burns I’ve ever seen happened on ski slopes.

As someone who has type 1 skin — the American Academy of Dermatology has come up with six skin categories; click here to see which one you fall into — I am super, hyper vigilant when it comes to skin protection. I keep the blinds drawn (UVA rays can penetrate glass), I wear hats, I don’t step outside without sunscreen and I reapply often. Unfortunately, I got more than my fair share of burns as a child — many, many blistering burns. (Am I the only one who had my mom drape wet washcloths across my back and shoulders?) So I am at greater risk of getting skin cancer. And yes, as usual, this is why I treat my kids like the sun will make them disintegrate on contact.

To date, my big girl is nearly freckle-free. (She’s got a tiny dusting on her nose.) The baby is still completely freckle-free. Neither has ever been burned — thank goodness. I can report this because of the hyper-vigilance. They wear sun shirts rather than suits whenever possible. I make them wear terry cover-ups, hats when they’re not in the water. They get lots of sunscreen. Lots. I reapply every few hours, and try and get them to play in the shade even though they’re ‘blocked. I hope I am creating good habits that will follow them into adulthood. I think it will. They have been watching me put daily sunscreen on my face since they were born. The baby actually asks for her own sunscreen. The big girl gets slathered every morning before she gets on the bus. She gets why we’re doing it. She’s been hearing about the dangers of sun for a while, and the benefits of sunblock, too: better-looking skin well into old age.

What’s your sun ritual like? What’s your favorite sunscreen? I’m partial to Blue Lizard, which scores the best on the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep website. How about you?

One Response to “Sunburn on a Cloudy Day”

  1. Mary says:

    Hi Karen,
    Just found your blog today.
    I, too, sustained dozens of burns in childhood (wet washcloths, having to sleep nude because a sheet or clothes touching my body was excruciating, blisters, oh the blisters!) How did we not know? I used to put BABY OIL on my super fair skin, I might as well have gone out in an aluminum bathing suit!
    I slather my girl (she’s 3 ) in sunblock and I wear it everyday. I can’t make up for the past, but I’m glad to protect and teach my child how to care for her skin. We sing songs as we slather it on, and most of the time, it’s enjoyable.
    Good topic to cover.

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