Forever chasing the sun and its dangers | Ask Erin

Soaking up summer rays safely - File Photo
Soaking up summer rays safely
— image credit: File Photo

I can pinpoint the exact time when I became obsessed with having tanned skin.

It was spring break my seventh-grade year, and it seemed like every single classmate of mine was vacationing in Florida or Hawaii or somewhere tropical. For me, I spent the week at home in Kansas City — hardly the Coppertone beach scene my friends were experiencing.

I knew friends would return to school with tanned complexions and peeling noses. And I dreaded standing near them. I knew next to their caramel color, my pale skin would shine like the glow-sticks we used at the roller rink.

And I wasn’t about to stick out.

So I did what any self-respecting 13-year-old girl would do. I collected my babysitting money and walked down to the corner drug store. I plunked down my hard-earned cash for a tube of tan-in-a-bottle lotion, better known now as a sunless tanner.

This was the 1980s and there wasn’t much of a market for this type of product. I don’t remember having many choices, though I’m fairly certain I purchased the darkest shade I could find ­— no time to waste! I needed my “I’ve been to Jamaica” tan in less than 24 hours. (Can you see where this story is going?)

I walked home with my extra-super dark tanning lotion and snuck up to my room to let the magic begin. I spent the rest of the evening applying and reapplying handfuls of the foul-smelling lotion.

I constantly checked my reflection in the mirror, hoping to see a tanned Erin smiling back at me.

By bedtime, I still didn’t see any results and went to sleep discouraged with my lack of bronzed skin.

I don’t remember the exact words my dad said to me when he came in the next morning to wake me for school, but I remember his shocked voice when he saw my orange-streaked face. And my hands.

Oh, my hands.

I read and re-read the instructions on the back of the lotion bottle, and nowhere did it say to wash my hands after applying the lotion.

I have never forgotten that hue of orange. My hands looked like they had spent spring break immersed  in vats of Cheetos. And try as I might, no amount of scrubbing was removing their day glow shade.

I embarked on this mission to fit in with my tanned classmates, and now I resembled a streaky carrot.

I was able to hide most of my tan-gone-awry under long sleeves and pants, but my face and palms were a different story. As much as I wanted to wear a ski mask and gloves to school, I figured those garments would attract just as much attention as my unusual skin tone.

I spent the next few days at school sitting on my hands and hiding behind my hair, waiting for my “tan” to fade.

I’m sharing this story because even this embarrassing account didn’t stop me from seeking out tanned skin, no matter the price.

College days were spent on rooftops, covered in baby oil and lying on aluminum foil to attract more sun rays. For vacations, I always sought the sunshine. No amount of sun seemed too much for me. I burned. I peeled. I tanned.

And although the sun helps to provide so many good things for us (food and energy come to mind), it can be very damaging to the skin.

According to the American Cancer Society, more than 2 million cases of non-melanoma skin cancer are found in this country each year. Melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer, accounted for about 68,130 cases of skin cancer in 2010.

And I should know — I’ve had some skin cancer scares myself. My body is riddled with scars where pre-cancerous moles have been removed.

The shining sun in our corner of the country can seem like a novelty, especially during these first few weeks of warm weather. But please don’t forget your sunscreen, hats and other protection.

And if you long to resemble someone who has spent a week in the Caribbean, and you too find yourself in the drug store aisle examining the plethora of the much-improved sunless-tanners, don’t forget this important step.

Wash your hands.



The FDA recently issued new regulations regarding sunscreens. Only those with a sun protection factor of 15 or greater can state they protect against skin cancer when used as directed. Those with a lower SPF must print a warning label on the bottle, letting consumers know that the product has not been shown to prevent skin cancer.

According to The Skin Cancer Foundation, here are some guidelines to protect you from the sun’s powerful rays:

Seek shade, especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the sun is at its strongest.

Cover up with clothing, a broad-brimmed hat and UV-blocking sunglasses.

Slather on the sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before going outside.

An average-sized adult in a bathing suit should use about one ounce of sunscreen (enough to fill a shot glass) per application. Apply every two hours, or more frequently after swimming or excessive sweating.

There is no such thing as a healthy tan.


— Ask Erin is a feature of Kitsap Week. Have a question? Write Ask Erin, Kitsap Week, P.O. Box 278, Poulsbo 98370 or email

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