I was born with fair skin. That's a nice way of saying, I am very white (pale, alabaster, ghost-like). I was teased mercilessly as a kid, which is saying a lot given I spent my early childhood in Oregon.
If there's one place in the world you'd think it's safe to be pasty, it's Oregon.
In the 1980s, this wasn't the case. I was called "Casper." I was told to 'get some sunshine' (again, I'm not sure people realized we lived in Oregon). I was mocked when I wore shorts.
Things didn't get better for me when I moved to Texas. Texans weren't as hurtful in their mocking as they seemed genuinely confused.
Why didn't I just go to a tanning bed?
Did I dislike the sun?
Did I need to eat more vegetables or meat?
Do the veins in the back of my legs hurt?
I tried everything. I prayed (hard). I used self-tanning lotions (and smelled like sweet urine for years-on-end). I went to tanning beds (once at the request of a boyfriend, who sweetly offered to pay if I'd just try it).
Nothing ever helped. The most I got was red, and it was a lobster sort of red, puffy and swollen and blistered.
I once met a friend for lunch. We'd been friends in college, and to be honest, he'd had a fairly big crush on me throughout our entire undergraduate years. He was cute and sweet and not my type. A few years after graduation, we met at a swank restaurant in Dallas for lunch. I was beyond excited to see him and catch up.
He was already seated at the table when I arrived. I walked toward him, and when I sat down, he said, "Wow. You'd be totally gorgeous if you'd just get a tan."
My sister once told me I could give my boyfriend a Valentine's gift of a nude photo of myself....to use as a nightlight.
The list goes on. I cannot tell you all how many times perfect strangers have come up to me in public places and said, "You'd be so pretty if you had a tan."
I'm talking about the ATM at the mall and the check-out line at the grocery store, to name a few.
I was pretty sure I'd never be actually beautiful because there was nothing I could do about my skin, so I resigned myself to almost-pretty.
Then, something changed.
I went to China.
During my two years living in a far-flung province on the road to Tibet, Chinese people continually complimented my skin. Over and over, they thought I came from a wealthy family and strong lineage because of the whiteness of my skin. Of all the compliments I ever received in China (there actually weren't many), my skin was always top of the list.
Apparently, not every place in the world values a spray tan and blond hair (I'm looking at you, Texas).
Those years in China didn't make me feel better about being fair-skinned; they made me realize that beauty is utterly subjective. Truly. It's easy to say that, but it's really hard to believe it or see the reality of it in American society.
Last summer I took my kids to meet friends at the pool in Arizona. I arrived and promptly put on a hat and caftan, to which my son asked, "Why are you wearing a tablecloth?"
The friends began needling me a little.
Why don't you get some sun? Why don't you wear a bikini? Why don't you get a little color?
I laughed along and, though it was tedious, took it all in stride until an hour later when another friend arrived. She was laughing at something on her cellphone. The other friends got a bit nervous. The women then showed me what she was laughing at. The other people had been taking pictures of me with their cell phones and texting them out.
I am 42 years old, and that shit still hurts.
But....thanks to those two years in China and travel in other parts of the world, I didn't go home and pray to wake up with a tan or buy special lotion or throw out all of my shorts.
I chalked it up to people, even grown adults, being silly.
The irony of that day at the pool is that I'd been playing with some little bump that had appeared on my arm a few weeks prior. It wasn't big. I figured it was probably just a little lesion or something that would go away. As the weeks passed, it didn't go away. It was the size of a small eraser head. I picked at it, and it bled, and everyone told me to stop picking at it and it would go away.
We moved over that summer, and as we drove cross-country, that bump kept bothering me. Everyone told me not to worry. It was nothing. Stop picking.
Are you a hypochondriac?
When we finally got settled here in NC, I went to a dermatologist who agreed it was likely nothing but biopsied it anyway. A few weeks later I got the call it was squamous cell carcinoma. I had to have the bump removed and frozen, repeatedly, until all of the cancer was gone.
I left the doctor's office with 12 stitches. TWELVE.
The past ten years or so I've been pretty good about sunscreen, but that little run-in with skin cancer has me downright diligent.
I've tried many sunscreens over the years, some quite expensive and others from the drugstore. To keep my skin not just looking good but hopefully cancer-free, this is what I currently use:
Although I've linked to Amazon, I actually purchase it at Walmart, locally. This is one of the primary reasons I use this brand; I can find it here in town. I've used a handful of other brands, and my favorite is available only if I order it online or go to the mall an hour away. I've found that if I depend on ordering online or driving an hour, I'm far less likely to restock in a timely manner.
Here's what I like about this sunscreen:
1. It is free from parabens. I'm not sure if parabens are as harmful as some people argue, but I also am not sure they're not, so I try to steer-clear if at all possible.
2. It's cheap. I think my bottle is around $15.
3. I don't react to it at all. My eyes don't burn. My mouth doesn't start burning. My skin doesn't itch.
4. It leaves my skin looking a little more moisturized.
Here's what I don't like about this sunscreen:
1. It takes some work to get this rubbed in, and if you're not careful, you can see a sheen of white around your eyebrows or hairline.
2. It's still expensive, as drugstore sunscreen goes (though nothing compared to other brands I've used).
3. It doesn't have any other skincare enhancers. This is just basic sunscreen.
I've tried other drugstore brands, and I have allergic reactions to almost all of them. For that reason, before I started using Blue Lizard, I tried MANY sunscreens. Drunk Elephant (reaction). Neutrogena (reaction). Creme de la Mere (no reaction but good lord, who can afford it?). Dermalogica (made me break out). CeraVu (reaction).
Here are my other two favorites.
1. Kate Somerville Daily Deflector Moisturizer Broad Spectrum SPF 50 + Anti-Aging Sunscreen - this is amazing. I'd use it daily if I could get it locally and if I had an unlimited budget. It's $48 per bottle, but it's light as a feather and actually improved the appearance of my skin. I had no allergic reaction (and I react to a lot of KS products). It was almost like a primer, which was lovely.
2. La Roche-Posay Anthelios Face Sunscreen - I used this for a long time. It's more reasonably priced at $30. I gave it to my daughter recently, as her skin is also sensitive and was reacting to the Neutrogena I'd purchased for her. Also, I've had several dermatologists recommend this brand of skincare across the board. It goes on evenly, is thinner than Blue Lizard (though not as thin as Kate Somerville) and wears well under make up.
I guess the La Roche-Posay is the middle ground here. It's expensive but not outrageous. It has a lovely texture. It's highly recommended. But it's also hard to find locally and doesn't last as long as the Blue Lizard.
So, depending on your budget and accessibility, these are three options I've found work well, don't cause reactions in sensitive skin and all contain zinc.
I know many women who tell me they don't need sunscreen because their moisturizer has sunscreen in it. I'd maybe not go down that road. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, we need 2 shot glasses of sunblock daily for our exposed skin, a nickel-sized amount for our face alone.
Every dermatologist I've seen has said: wear a separate sunscreen.
I can't imagine having 12 stitches across my face and am hoping beyond hope and crossing fingers and toes that doesn't happen. The scar on my arm is bad enough and likely a result of riding horses for years without bothering to put sunscreen on my arms, only my face.
As I get older, I am much more confident in my skin - literally. I don't care so much that my legs are white. I'm not trying to change anything. I think society is changing a little bit, too. I don't get quite so many comments on needing to get some sun or looking 'sickly.'
I wish anyone who has any hangups or insecurities could find a country where those hangups and insecurities are revered - and go there. It's such a soothing feeling to know that an individual's opinion, even an entire society's opinion, can be wrong. :)
Now, put on your sunscreen.