Health · Home life · Word of the week

Word of the week: sunburn

We are back from our holiday in Spain, well looked after throughout our stay by my brother, who has lived there for most of his adult life. In fact, he has lived there for well over half of his entire life. It is nearly 36 years since he left London to set up home there. My wife, both children and I were all in the sun for long enough for each of us to experience a little bit of sunburn, despite the constant application of Factor 50. For the first time in over 20 years my shoulders got burnt, and my son’s shoulders burnt too, for the first time in his 14 years. It has evoked all sorts of sunburn memories.

The damage was done on the Feast of the Assumption (15 August), a public holiday throughout Spain. We spent over an hour in the sea before lunch, at the hottest time of day. We were all coated in Factor 50. After a most enjoyable meal, with my brother, his wife and members of her family, the children went back in the sea. My son’s shoulders were already turning red, so I made him wear a t-shirt while he was splashing around. His neck and face were fine, despite an extra couple of hours in the sun, but one little patch on his right arm was redder than the rest. We applied after-sun lotion that evening, and for the rest of the trip the many hours he spent in the water (in the sea, or at an open-air swimming pool) were at cooler times of the day.

Having spent less time in the water than the children, I was surprised to find that my shoulders burnt on that Feast Day too. The last time it happened was in the early 1990s. I swam with my niece, who was a few weeks short of her sixth birthday, to a little platform about 200m from the shore. She had her “burbuja” (Spanish for “bubble”) on her back, an unfamiliar-looking swimming aid. I hadn’t expected to spend so much time in the water, and hadn’t applied any sun-cream. If I had, it would probably have been no stronger than Factor 10, so I might have burnt anyway.

The first time I heard of Factor 50 was later in the 1990s, from a work colleague. He and his girlfriend travelled to Greece, wore long sleeves, covered their heads, coated their exposed skin in Factor 50, and returned to London the same shade of white they had been two weeks earlier. Throughout their lives our two children have also always had the same strength of sunscreen applied to their skin. Despite this, in 2011 our daughter, then aged 4, had a little touch of sunburn on her cheeks, and didn’t like it. She kept out of the sun for the rest of that holiday, but has been fine with it ever since.

The first time I was badly burnt was on my first visit to Spain, aged 18. An hour or two at the beach one June afternoon was enough to turn me a glow-in-the-dark shade of red, and it took fully two weeks for it to fade to a less noticeable shade of light brown. My brother made the same mistake. For that fortnight we wandered around that corner of south east Spain looking like archetypal fair-skinned tourists who don’t understand how the sun works. Back then very few people from the UK or Ireland took their holidays in that part of the world, so we stood out far more than we might do these days. Neither of us has made the same mistake again. It was, by a long stretch, the worst dose of sunburn that either of us has experienced.

For over 20 years, until this month, the only parts of my body that have caught too much sun have been my head and neck. I was caught short at an open-air mass in St Peter’s Square, Rome in October 1994. I had a hat with me but no sunscreen, and I follow the church’s convention that boys and men do not wear anything on their heads during mass after they have celebrated their First Holy Communion. It’s different for girls, and women. Parts of my scalp that had previously been covered with hair felt the effects of the sun for the first time, and I learnt that you can get sunburn in Rome even in October.

The same is true of Manchester in April, some years at least. In 2003 my wife and I travelled to Old Trafford for an FA Cup semi-final. Arsenal beat Sheffield United 1-0 and we were sat behind one of the goals, in bright sunshine. I had left all of my caps back in the car, not thinking that I’d need them. The previous year we had been at another Arsenal semi-final at the same venue (a 1-0 win against Middlesbrough) and I was further away from the action than at any game before or since. That spot, in the top corner of one of the side stands, is one of those places where the sun never shines, but behind the goal, for that 1.30pm kick-off, it was a very different story.

For the last couple of days we have been enjoying Spanish-style weather here in the UK, record-breaking temperatures for the late August Bank Holiday. We have mostly stayed out of the sun, and the various patches of red that we acquired in Spain have all mellowed to shades of light brown. No harm done.



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