I’m in line one Monday at Walmart—waiting to exchange an aquarium filter—when a man turns around and exclaims, “Boy, you got some sun over the weekend!” He says this while looking toward my neck and chest, which are red and visible in the short-sleeve V-neck shirt I’m wearing. But I hadn’t been to the beach in about a month.
This isn’t the first time I’ve heard something like this. It’s always a person—so far, always a man—who doesn’t know me and comments unprompted on the redness of my décolletage. The cumulative sun damage that I have there is usually visible because living in Florida, tank tops and V-necks are comfortable to wear in the nearly year-round heat down here. But that doesn’t mean I want to hear about it from random strangers—or anyone, really.
Despite the surprise I often hear from strangers, this kind of skin damage due to sun exposure is incredibly common. Ultraviolet light from the sun damages the elastin and collagen in the skin, causing it to sag and stretch. Sometimes photodamage like that also causes brown spots or wrinkles. And in my case, as is common in those with fair skin, that damage can also lead to permanent redness. Most of the time, my décolletage is light pink, but after a hot shower, a little stress, or even when I wear a red shirt, it can flare up and look darker red.
Not only are these comments annoying and prompt unwelcome assumptions about my beach habits, but they also hit home especially hard because I do actually have a history of skin cancer. So far I’ve had three basal cell skin cancers removed (basal is the least serious kind). I’ve had one taken off of my arm and two from my face, both of which required Mohs surgery and subsequent reconstructive plastic surgery. One was near my mouth, and the other was right on the tip of my nose. The cancers on my face required the short-term use of bandages and I didn’t look my finest for several weeks during recovery.
So needless to say, I’m acutely aware of the value of sun protection.
But hearing people say these things about my body makes me feel guilty or ashamed, like I’m not protecting my skin enough. It also makes me a little nervous. Skin cancer removal is practically a hobby in Florida, and these comments make me worried that docs may find something more serious on me down the road. Plus, the recovery wasn’t fun, and I’d obviously like to avoid going through it again if I can.
When I complain to people about the comments I get, they remind me that the important thing is that I (and my dermatologist) know I’m doing the right thing to protect my skin—never mind what Random Guy in Walmart says. And that’s true. Today I’m hypervigilant about applying sunscreen to my face, neck, chest, and arms daily and reapplying as needed. Using a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 and applying it to any skin exposed to the sun is recommended by the American Academy of Dermatology.
There are ways to manage the redness from cumulative sun damage, including a prescription retinoid cream, microdermabrasion, intense pulsed light, and laser treatments, the AAD says. But those treatments usually aren’t cheap. I may eventually start using a cream, but for now, I just live with it and continue to protect myself with the right clothing and daily sunscreen.
Ultimately, though, I know I can’t control what people are going to say about my décolletage. I’ve also weathered my share of strange comments and questions over a keloid scar smack dab in the middle of my chest. I guess you could say I’m used to the chatter. And what can I say? My skin is red there and likely will be a shade of pink or red for the rest of my life.
Yet I’d still prefer that my visible sun damage wasn’t treated like an intrusive-conversation starter. It is—like anything else about my body—no one’s concern but my own.
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