Back in March, my daughter had a week off school for spring break, so our family decided to spend some time with another family in Port Aransas, a small fishing town on the southern coast of Texas. We packed our minivan and made the four-hour drive from Houston, arriving at a great little beach home. The sun was out, the sand was pristine and our location had all the makings of a perfect little beach holiday.
There was just one issue: The weather was cool – at least cool by my definition. You see, I’m from the Caribbean: I’m used to beaches where the temperature is, at a minimum, 85 degrees. In early March in Texas, the temperatures were hovering at barely 70 degrees, so while my English husband and daughter braved the bracing water of the Gulf of Mexico, I sat on a beach chair, wrapped in a cover-up to keep away the chill.
And here’s where I made a serious mistake.
I’m black, with a medium-to-dark complexion. I’ve only had two sunburns in my entire life, and they were both extremely mild, caused by spending 12 hours in the blazing Caribbean sun in Trinidad.
Sitting there shivering in the early spring sun, I didn’t think it was possible to get a sunburn, especially when we weren’t planning to be outside for long. In fact, I spent most of those three hours on the beach that day nagging my husband, who is incredibly fair and burns easily, and repeatedly slathering sunscreen on him. My daughter, who has my complexion, was playing near the reflective waves, so I did put a bit of sunscreen on her. But me? I was wearing a cover-up! It was cold! I was fine.
We decided to pack up around 4 p.m. that day, as the sun was beginning to set and the temperature was dropping. Our families made our way back to the beach house and had a quiet night in, with the kids watching videos and the adults sitting on the covered porch until long after the children went to bed. Finally, at about midnight, we went inside.
My husband, Marcus, looked at me strangely.
“What?” I said.
“You. You’re – well, you’re red. I think you caught some sun.”
I looked in the mirror and shrieked. I was scarlet. It was the first time I’d ever had a sunburn this severe. About an hour later, the pain flooded my face and chest. The next morning when I woke up, my face was swollen.
“I’m a giant tomato!” I wailed.
My husband, to his credit, didn’t give me too hard of a time about it. “Yes, but you’re my tomato,” he said, carefully kissing my forehead.
“You are like the poster child for climate change,” said my blonde friend, Maile, incredulously. And then, having had a lot of experience dealing with the sun in her past, she took me under her wing.
I spent the rest of the vacation slathering aloe gel all over my face and neck and planting myself well under the beach umbrellas we had brought. Thankfully, I didn’t blister, though a few days later the skin on my face and chest did peel. (It wasn’t pretty.)
Months later, I mentioned this sunburn to my father, who is even darker than I am.
“Oh, I burn a lot, too,” he said. “It started happening when I got older – I think my skin just became more sensitive. I don’t go anywhere without sunscreen and a hat anymore.”
The experience was such a lesson for me: I had assumed that the melanin in my skin would protect me – even in direct sunlight – as long as it wasn’t too warm. I’ve since learned my lesson and now wear sunscreen every single day. And so, learn from my mistakes: Take care of your skin, friends, no matter what color you are.
When she isn't sharing tips on StyleUnited on how to add more awesome to your life, you can find Karen on Chookooloonks.com. She's on a mission to prove to you that your life is filled with different, unique moments of beauty, starting with her book, The Beauty of Different. Her work can be seen on Babble.com, TEDx Houston and USA Today.