Reflections: When you’re a redhead, you’re gonna get burned
July 9, 2010 in: Reflections on the River
Ignore my advice about everything else, but there are two things you really should take my word on: hemming pants and treating a sunburn.
Looking at this little black-and-white picture of me, that might not make sense. But if you saw me in person, the wisdom of experience would be evident. I am five feet tall with red hair and freckles. Or, as my dad calls it, a tan through a screen wire.
As much as I love summer, it can be a dangerous time for someone with a delicate redhead complexion. As a child, I was outside from sununp to sundown and
thought pink skin was perfectly normal. It was considered a badge of glory to have a burn so bad the skin peeled and we made it a game to see who could peel off the largest piece.
Carefree childhood doesn’t last forever. Now, I’m paranoid about protecting my skin. One study said the risk of skin cancer is largely determined by how much sun damage you had as a child. With such a head start toward skin cancer, I won’t even drive by a tanning bed. I wear sunscreen pretty much year round. My bottom line is SPF 30. There’s sunscreen in my moisturizer, chap stick, makeup and UV protection in my sunglasses.
Even so, sunburns still manage to sneak up on me. On a trip to Florida a few years ago, the rays were more intense than I was used to and inflicted a nasty burn – even on the tops of my feet. Vacation was then accompanied by nausea, headache, tender skin and the conclusion that if life is a beach, I should watch from an air conditioned hotel room.
Since then, even the slightest sunburn is very painful. Through trial and error, I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t to bring relief. This may contradict other advice you’ve heard. Feel free to follow that other advice if you want to impress the kids with lizard-like molting skin.
My plan of attack: Treat it early, treat it often. I’ll take the “blue goo” gel with me to the lake or ball park and put it on as soon as I get to the car. If your skin is pink, it is burned, there’s no need to wait for it to hurt to see how bad it is.
Use a treatment that has Lanacane in it – the generic name is benzocaine. The cool gel feels best. It also comes in aerosol spray, but that spray can really hurt when it zings against your sensitive hide. Put gel on immediately after you’re out of the sun. Then again in an hour or so. Then before you go to bed. Then in the morning after you wake up. Give the sunburn no quarter to hide.
During a mission trip to Panama, I got careless after a few days and received a bad burn on my upper arms and neck. At church that evening, the Indian women were concerned about my red skin. One woman touched my arm, then drew her hand back in shock.
“Caliente!” she said, the Spanish word for hot. She called her friends over and they took turns gingerly touching the redheaded lady’s arm that was as remarkable as the burning bush – on fire but not burned up.
Since becoming an international novelty, I’ve learned not to let my skin smolder like that. If you burned your hand on a hot pan on the stove, you’d put cold water or ice on it. The same advice holds for sunburn. Use cool baths, ice packs or whatever works to take the heat out of the skin.
My mom’s old-fashioned remedy is still one of the best. Use a cotton ball or wash rag to rub vinegar on the skin. This is acceptable if you don’t have plans to go out, because this cure lingers with a definite pickle scent. Why does vinegar take the sting out of sunburn? I don’t know, but it does. Sometimes moms know more than scientists.
Everyone says you’re supposed to put aloe vera on sunburn. You can do this and then when you go out in public and people ask the inevitable “Did you put aloe vera on it? You should use aloe vera on a sunburn,” you can tell them you did.
But it won’t take the pain out of the sunburn. Use aloe vera if you want to feel sticky, use vinegar if you want to feel better.
Even with the hazards of sunburn, it’s still worth it to get outside to feel the sun on my back and the breeze in my face. Sun exposure may be risky, but it’s much better for my physical and mental health than turning into a couch potato with soft, smooth skin.
I’ll venture out with a liberal sheen of sunscreen and keep the vinegar on deck, just in case.