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Don't let the sun catch you tanning

I am a member of the baby oil generation. Half a century ago, we spent our summers at the pool, slick with a kind of fluid magnifying glass that turned our skin red, then brown.

You wouldn't have been caught dead without a suntan back in the day. And you were in a hurry to get it done so you would spend the rest of the summer glowing in your sundresses and your two-piece bathing suits.

There was an art to "laying out," as we called it. We were so focused on rotating our exposure to the sun — like rotisserie chickens on a spit — that we barely paid attention to the boys.

I started early. My three sisters and I (born within five years and driving our mother completely nuts) were spreading our towels next to hers on the grass before we were in grade school. It was her way of getting everybody, including her, a nap. Social Services would have come calling if a mother did that now.

These days, I visit my dermatologist as if she were a girlfriend. She puts on her weird magnifying glasses and scans every inch of me for signs of skin cancer. I never leave her office without getting two or three keratoses frozen with liquid nitrogen. The pre-cancerous spots are usually on my face. But this year, they were on the backs of my hands.

My husband is even more fair than I am. His sportswriting life has meant so much time in the sun that he might as well be a professional golfer. He will come home from something as simple as getting a flu shot with a couple of dangerous-looking spots frozen on his face and hairline, too.

It turns out that sunscreen — which was not in wide use when I was out there broiling — can not only prevent cancer, it can delay the aging of the skin. Sadly, that train has left the station for many of us boomers.

A new study done in Australia, where the sun is very intense, and reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine showed that those who used generous amounts of sunscreen daily had fewer wrinkles and less sagging skin than those who were less diligent.

Kids, are you paying attention?

Sunscreen sales are more than $1 billion a year, but we don't use it correctly. We don't apply it heavily enough or often enough. We think it is waterproof even though it is not, and we don't reapply it after taking a dip. We use spray sunscreens even though they don't work nearly as well and can get into our lungs and our children's lungs. And we don't understand than it can take 30 minutes to an hour before an application of sunscreen begins to provide protection.

This is just one more thing that we rush through, failing to read the instructions, and we render the sunscreen we do use almost useless.

I cling stubbornly to the notion of an early summer tan. I tell myself it will make me look younger or healthier or fresher. I am fair, and my skin can look blindingly white. I need a tan.

A few years ago, I tried tanning salons instead of the pool. More efficient coverage and less time invested. Then I got stuck in a tanning bed when a storm cut the power to the salon. That will cure you faster than any public service warning, I can tell you.

My 20-something daughter is smarter than me in so many ways, and she doesn't tan anymore. She gets spray tans if she has a special occasion for which she wants to glow.

But I am old school, and stepping into a paint booth seems too weird for me. I garden and let the sun catch my cheeks and my limbs where it can. I know. I should be wearing hats and shirts and long pants. But what is the point of gardening if you don't look like you did?

Skin cancer rates continue to climb and, like everything else, this will hit us boomers hard. When all those rotisserie chickens come home to roost.

Susan Reimer's column appears Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at susan.reimer@baltsun.com and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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