As a child, I never got stitches. I never broke a bone, either. Like many uncoordinated, unathletic bookworms, the probability of bodily injury was low. However, one place I loved to read books in dweeby solitude was the beach. As a result, a serious sunburn was one physical affliction with which I became intimately familiar. I have vivid memories of sitting backwards on a kitchen chair, topless and screaming bloody murder as my mother applied aloe to my burns and wondered how it all went wrong. It's not that she didn't put sunscreen on me — it's that I loathed the process, and after that first dip in the ocean, I'd avoid the reapply at all costs. Somehow, it never registered that this quiet protest and my repeated sunburns were related.
As a teenager, I actually considered my summer sunburns a point of pride. When people recoiled in horror at the sight of the blisters on my shoulders or the flesh peeling off of my nose, I'd act as though the damage was no big deal.
"To be honest, I can't tan unless I burn," I'd say. "So I burn first to start the process of tanning — you know, as like, a base."
The only thing that eases the pain of acknowledging my flawed, disturbing logic — and subsequent full-body charring — is the knowledge that I'm not the only one. I asked friends, readers, and colleagues about their own experiences with lackadaisical sun protection and burns, and they all had a story to tell about the time they thought they could outsmart the gigantic nuclear furnace in the sky.
"My worst sunburn occurred during my eighth grade field trip to Six Flags," Dyana Buttacavoli-Miller, a beauty publicist, tells me. "I wore a tank top and shorts but didn’t apply sunscreen or even wear a hat (idiot), and was in the sun for at least eight hours. By the time I got home, I was in so much pain, I could barely move. The next day, I woke up with tiny blisters full of fluid all over my shoulders."
"I was 17, and my cousin and I wanted to get to the beach super early to beat traffic and the lifeguards," Bustle Jr. Art Director Brit Phillips says. "I started my day with some tinted moisturizer... thinking this 25 SPF tinted moisturizer would last me [all day]. I had second degree burns on my face, and I was peeling from my hairline all the way down to my jaw."
Even those who packed a responsible bottle of Banana Boat for certain occasions learned the hard way that the beach wasn't the only place you could get burned.
"Growing up in Florida, I was used to slathering on SPF at the beach and before heading out on a kayak," says Beth Thompson, who now works for the American Cancer Society. "However, I didn't have experience with walking around outside for events like festivals or street markets. When my friend, Sara, invited me to go to the Maxwell Street Market in Chicago... after a few hours perusing the booths at the market, I was crispy. I used my front-facing camera to check on my makeup... that's when I saw the clear white line of my pineapple-shaped cross body bag over my sunburned chest."
While many might assume that terrible sunburns are the inescapable consequence of youth, many grown adults still find themselves off of their sun protection game from time to time. Mindy Scott, director of development at CARE USA, recently visited Ecuador. One the last day of her trip, Scott sat in an outdoor hot spring on a high mountain — a choice that would ultimately lead to an unfortunate outcome.
"Even though it was cool outside, I applied sunscreen to make sure I didn’t burn. I forgot that I was 10,000 feet closer to the sun than my normal sunbathing experience," Scott explains. "What seemed like a relaxing day before my journey home turned out to be a very uncomfortable night, followed by an even more uncomfortable flight home. I found myself smothered in aloe, taking cold showers, wearing tube tops in the winter in Chicago — anything I could do to allow my skin to heal and not come in contact with anything else."
It's not just fair-skinned women with these experiences, either. Women of color — specifically, black women with medium and darker skin tones, have their own horror stories. For them, the misconception that "darker skin can't burn" was part of what led to their sunburn horror story.
"I live on the west coast of Florida, and every summer as a child I would go stay with my uncle and his wife — she was white — in Miami," Brittany McNair, a banker based in Sarasota, tells me. "My aunt loved the beach... we stayed for hours in the Miami heat and never once did she put sunblock on me. Once we got home and I took a shower, she was shocked, confused, and horrified to see that my skin was so dark and burned that she burst into tears. She had no idea that I could get sunburned."
Kelly Augustine, a plus size fashion blogger and influencer, also finds there's a lot of disbelief about SPF within communities of color.
"It's true that lots of people of color don't think we need sunscreen," Augustine tells me. "In my experience, anyway. Growing up, I was never taught that I need to be protected, which was surprising because the elders in my family are from down south and definitely should know better."
Augustine has also had a serious sunburn or two.
"One of the worst sunburns I've gotten was actually a burn mustache," she says. "It hurt so much — above my lip was never somewhere I'd think would get a sunburned until it happened... it stung to the touch and was so raw, it hurt to apply lip balm, drink and eat!"
As cringe-inducing as each one of these stories is, it hardly compares to the harshest reality: According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, more people are diagnosed with skin cancer each year in the United States than all other cancers combined. In fact, one person dies of melanoma every single hour. Peeling skin and SPF regrets aside, the threat of severe consequences from sun exposure is real — which is exactly why Bustle is committed to helping you protect yourself from it.
This summer and beyond, we'll be sharing stories about the best SPF products you can buy right now, how to find sunscreen you actually want to wear, and how women of color can protect themselves from the sun. In addition to the personal stories here, we're also sharing insight on what it's like to actually get skin cancer — and how tough it is to treat. We're doing all this in the interest of helping our readers to educate themselves and make informed SPF and skin care choices before stepping outside. After all, haven't we been burned enough?