A Redhead’s Guide to Surviving the Sun

For this natural redhead, a trip to the Shore is no day at the beach.

Illustration by Betsy Everitt

As a natural redhead with fair skin and freckles, I’ve only ever known two shades of tan: white and red.

Growing up in Bridgewater, I took summertime trips to Seaside Heights and Ocean City. At the beach, I’d marvel at all the bronzed skin flaunted around me—feeling red with envy. All I wanted was for my own skin to be a shade darker than the sand. Was that too much to ask?

It’s not that I’ve never tried to get a real tan. My genetics simply won’t allow it. In high school, I once switched my hourly application of sunscreen to an hourly application of coconut-scented tanning oil, thinking I’d leave the beach golden and glistening. Instead, I went home redder than a boiled lobster, with blistered shoulders and sun poisoning. I sounded the alarm, and aloe vera lotion came to my rescue.

I now understand just how careful I need to be under the sun. Studies have shown that redheads are at least 10 times more prone to developing melanoma than people with other hair colors—something I learned after having my first precancerous mole removed at 19.

These days, my beach days are limited—not because I don’t like the beach, but because it doesn’t like me—though that doesn’t stop me from occasionally enjoying the ocean.

When I head down the Shore, I make sure I’m well equipped. Here’s my survival kit for a day in the sun: sunscreen that is SPF 70 or higher; lip balm with SPF 30; a wide-brimmed hat (for shade to protect my face); a large beach umbrella (for shade to protect my body); a long-sleeved, chiffon shirt (for more protection); and extra towels (to hide under once the inevitable sunburn sets in). That’s all in addition to the beach towels, chairs, cooler, sunglasses and books everybody else must lug. Oh, and black swimsuits are completely off limits. Darker colors only attract my enemy, the sun.

If this all sounds like a giant hassle, that’s because it is. Other people may equate beach days with relaxation and recreation, but for me, preparing for a trip to the Shore is a chore. You know, like doing the laundry.

On an average beach day, I last a few hours before I feel desperate for shelter. I’d be happy to pass the time swimming in the ocean, but the sun’s rays still penetrate the water, and there’s no shade to be found. And the saltwater washes away whatever UV protection remains on my skin.

By the time early afternoon rolls around and I’ve reapplied sunscreen for the fifth time, I’m about ready to call it quits. I’m certainly not going back into the ocean just to slather lotion on again.

I may never be the bronzed beach babe I always dreamed of becoming, but that’s okay. My pale skin doesn’t make me any less a Jersey Girl. I’ve learned to be content with waving at my friends and family from beneath my shaded throne in the sand. They may all tan, but I still have something they don’t. I’m a redhead, after all.

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