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Tips on Beaches, Tanning, and Sunscreen at Midlife

Tips on Beaches, Tanning, and Sunscreen at Midlife

Leah Nyfeler loved to roast in the sun, once upon a time. Didn’t we all? Read more from Leah on her blog.

The two of us floated in the crystal-clear turquoise seawater of Hawksnest Bay and talked about tanning.

Background: I packed two one-gallon plastic bags of sunscreen for our week-long getaway to St. John, USVI. There was the ultra sunblock for extra-sensitive baby skin (yes, even though I’m 53, I wear baby lotion) and some 30 SPF with special moisturizing action. My spouse, being male, demands some spray-on “dude” stuff, mainly for self application. Special lip balm to keep those crusty-crusts from blistering.

Multiple bottle, various kinds, copious amounts.

And my tube of dermatologist-approved tinted facial sunscreen? It went in my carry-on bag because I DO NOT go anywhere without that. Ever.

He and I used almost all of that sunscreen I’d packed over the course of seven days, full of hours on the beach and in the pool. In addition to applying a whole lot of lotion, we sought shade whenever possible (under trees, hats, and assorted cover-ups…often with a rum punch).

This, I recalled as we paddled about the bay, was not how we grew up. Then, nobody ever wore sunscreen.

We were teenagers in the “tanning oil” era.

Chasing the Farrah Fawcett Ideal

The summer after my senior year in high school involved some serious self improvement (at least, to my 1980-vintage teen mind). I dedicated a lot of time to bleaching my hair in the sun and working on my tan.

I imagine that sentence will strike younger women much as the gas station scene in The Birds hits current-day viewers (instead of, as Hitchcock intended, focusing on the menacing and deadly birds, we watch wide-eyed while the unsuspecting victim allows his gas tank to overflow — gasp! the waste! the ecological horror!). I spent hours gently roasting in the backyard, rotating between my front and back sides, slathered in lemon juice (hair) and Johnson’s Baby Oil (every uncovered inch of skin). There was no concept of “protection” from the sun’s rays. I was going for a California-movie-star look, as epitomized in 1976 (and for all time) by that ubiquitous Farrah Fawcett poster.

In fact, when I’d suffered from acne breakouts a few years earlier, my mother reluctantly took me to a dermatologist, who suggested that I spend more time in the sun. So I dutifully sat outside like a human sunflower, conscientiously turning my scrubbed face to catch the brightest light, as often as I could.

Fawcett was a Texas girl — big hair (ah, those wings!), bright teeth, and tanned, brown skin. In theory, I had all the right parts to achieve that same look. What I got more often than brown was burned. Painful, skin-peeling burned, from my toes to the part in my hair.

To this day, I associate summer with the smell of Noxzema. After long days, paddling about in the pond at my grandparent’s Illinois lake cabin, my cousin and I would slather ourselves in the popular cream; why, I don’t really know, as the producers have only promoted it as a facial cleanser (though much of the world seems to share our idea). Now, rather than treat my baked skin, I’ve chosen to avoid the burn altogether.

Taking Care of My Skin as I Age


I can’t reverse the harm I’ve done, but I can take better care of the skin I’ve got. The American Academy of Dermatologists has some good recommendations:

Moisturize. Skin over 40 produces less oil, so it’s good to replenish after a soak, bath, or shower. I like Neutrogena’s Light Sesame Body Oil.

Protect against UV rays with a broad spectrum sunscreen of SPF 30. Don’t forget to cover your hands and lips. I learned the hard way; after a burn in Bora Bora, I discovered Hawaiian Tropic Lip Balm with a 45+ SPF and have never blistered again.

Avoid smoking. In addition to the whole general cancer thing (which is bad enough), smoking causes the skin to lose elasticity and creates additional damage.

Rinse off. Be sure to remove chlorine and salt with a shower or rinse. Avoid over-cleaning the skin (skip drying soaps) and pat dry with a towel rather than rub.

Wear protective clothing. Our parents were right — a simple white T-shirt can provide shielding from the sun. Protect the scalp, cover the back of the neck. I carry a big scarf in my beach bag for draping, and I found a great cover-up at Athleta (worth the cost for stylish, comfortable, long-term 50 SPF protection). And who doesn’t love a fab beach hat?

In addition, I can impart some of my hard-won wisdom to my kids. When we go on our annual family beach trip to the Texas coast, I bring a gift. This year, my daughters received bottles of that lightly-tinted facial sunscreen I love; all kids gotten tubes of my favorite lip balm. Our family kicks back under umbrellas at the beach; we remind each other to reapply and rehydrate while there. And we wear hats and cover-ups (sometimes funny ones).

If my sun-and-fun memories involve Noxzema and Hawaiian Tropic Tanning Oil, I wonder what their summer trigger scents are? I’ll have to ask the next time I pass the sunscreen.

Leah Nyfeler

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