Yes, I have been pale all my life. In my younger years, when I longed to be that tanned, golden haired southern beauty that I grew up admiring, I would cook myself for hours (in reality I probably only made it 20 minutes) in the intense Georgia sun before my skin turned bright pink and painful. As my skin finally cooled and peeled, I would hope against hope that underneath would be revealed a glowing bronze. My delusions went on for quite some time until I ultimately came to grips with my genetics and decided it wasn’t worth it.

While I have become comfortable in my own skin, others seem to be having trouble. In college, someone once said to me, in front of what seemed a sea of other poolside sunbathers, “You’re even whiter than I am!” Even in the last couple of years, I have had two people, whom I consider to be pretty good friends, say the following thing to me… “Oh my gosh, you are so pale!” It is true. I am a fair skinned, freckled, strawberry blonde. Yet, I take offense at their proclamation. It is not said with admiration, as in “Oh my gosh, your skin is so milky white!” Instead, it is stated in such a way that one might imagine them averting their eyes, hand over face, as if they may suffer blindness if they look at me too long.

I say be proud of your skin, whatever hue it is! Take care of your skin. Relish in the uniqueness it gives you!

Perhaps I’m being overly sensitive. Maybe their proclamation stems from a genuine concern for my health and wellbeing. In the past, the wealthy worked to maintain an alabaster complexion as ruddiness and tanned skin betrayed the life of a laborer. Today, having a tan suggests a person has had the opportunity to engage in leisure-time activities. These friends must be worried that I’m working too hard, that I need a respite from a life of toil indoors that is keeping my skin pale.

These comments, though perhaps not intended to hurt my feelings, but certainly not meant to flatter, have prompted me to ask the questions: When did it become fashionable to be tanned? And why are we willing to risk our health for it? While other times and other cultures have valued skin with a creamy, dewy glow, the opposite is true in America today. In addition to tanning in the sun, we now have the ability to bronze our skin with spray tans and bronzers. If I am to look on the bright side, I suppose I should be thankful that people no longer have to bake themselves in ultraviolet light to achieve that desirable bronze.

Now, I am not suggesting that I don’t have concerns for my skin or that I am above vanity. I always thought acne went away after 20 but it came back with a vengeance after 40 for me. Consequently, I now use two acne creams. I also have an eye cream, a fine line and wrinkle cream, a spot reducer, and a sunscreen (of course). I aim to have youthful looking skin for as long as I can so I’ve got a lot of work to do. But at least, I won’t have to try and take back the wrinkles and leathery skin that too much sun exposure produces. And I won’t have to spend hours and dollars at the Dermatologist’s office, screening for the cancers that tanning causes.

So, to all those out there who are similarly fair skinned, I say be proud of your skin, whatever hue it is! Take care of your skin. Relish in the uniqueness it gives you. To quote one of my favorite children’s books called “I Like Myself” by Karen Beaumont,

“Inside, outside, upside down, from head to toe and all around, I like it all! It all is me! And me is all I want to be … No matter if they stop and stare, no person ever anywhere can make me feel that what they see is all there really is to me.”

Now, your friendly public service announcement from Dr. LaSalle…

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States. The American Cancer Society estimates that there will be more than 73,000 cases of Melanoma, the deadliest of skin cancers, in 2015, resulting in nearly 10,000 deaths from the disease. And guess what? It is almost entirely preventable! No, I don’t recommend that you lock yourself or your children inside this summer. We need some sunshine to help make Vitamin D, a hormone that aids our immune system, our bone heath, our mood, and much more (you can also get this in capsule form to ensure you are getting adequate doses – talk to your doctor about what dose is right for you). We need to get outside and get exercise and breath the fresh air. What you can do, however, is be smart about the sun. As long as you follow a few important tips, you’ll go a long way to protecting yourself and your loved ones from skin cancer.

Important Tips for Skin Care

  • Do NOT use tanning beds. Tanning beds cause cancer! Some states are now putting an age limit on tanning bed use without parental permission because of increased rates of Melanoma in persons who use tanning beds from a young age.

  • Try to stay in the shade. You’ll decrease your chance of burning and you’ll stay cooler to boot!

  • Wear protective clothing. Many swimwear companies now make beach wear that has an SPF rating. And don’t forget a hat with a wide brim and preferably a dark non-reflective undersurface. There are more skin cancers found on the head and neck area than almost anywhere else on the body.

  • Wear sunglasses. Melanoma can hide in even minimally sun-exposed areas, like the eye, so keep those sunglasses on! They help prevent cataracts and those pesky wrinkles you get from squinting, as well!

  • Apply sunscreen properly. And then reapply! Sunscreen should be applied according to instructions on the bottle. Many brands recommend applying at least 15 minutes prior to sun exposure. Don’t forget that swimming, sweating, and toweling off can remove sunscreen so remember to reapply after these activities and if you are going to be in the sun for more than 1.5-2 hours.

  • Pick a sunscreen that blocks UVA and UVB rays and is SPF 30 or higher! Anything under SPF 15 helps prevent burns but doesn’t prevent cancer.

Now get out there and enjoy the sunshine … safely!

Gretchen LaSalle
Gretchen LaSalle is a part time Family Physician, full time mother and wife, and spare time writer. She lives with her husband and two sons in Spokane, Washington. Learn more about Gretchen!