I hate summer. Truly, I do. But unlike most people who utter those words amidst sweltering heat, humidity, and mosquito bites, I have something more to worry about. My bigger problem is that I’m among the roughly 10% of the general population with a little-known condition: I am allergic to the sun.
I first discovered my condition 20 years ago, when I came back from a school trip to the U.S. with red spots all over my face and arms. At that time, the itching and pain wasn’t as intense or annoying as it has gradually become over the years. However, my teenaged self-esteem took a hit when one of my friends, with the tact and delicacy that is typical of most teenagers (especially ones with great complexion), scrunched up his nose and said, “Eww. What happened to your face?” My vanity prompted me to make an appointment with my family doctor right away. That was when she told me simply, “You have a photosensitivity, or an allergy to sunlight. And it’s odd, considering that you’re Asian.”
Although photosensitivity is not common, indeed, what is particularly ironic for me is that I was born in a sub-tropical country, and lived there for the first four years of my life. You would think that I would have developed some kind of natural tolerance of, if not complete immunity to, the sun. But the human body is a mysterious thing, life is unpredictable, and photosensitivity does not discriminate against races. Immigrating to this cold country with less sun exposure did not remove this condition that had been simmering under my skin.
In truth, what I most likely have is polymorphous light eruption (PMLE), as revealed last spring by a new dermatologist. I say “most likely” because my dermatologist isn’t so sure (there are several sun allergies with similar physical symptoms), and isn’t so much concerned about pinning an exact name to my condition, as he is about making sure that I establish coping strategies. High-SPF (hard-to-find 60) sunscreen, long sleeves, and minimizing exposure to the sun are some of the solutions. For some people with PMLE, increased exposure to sunlight and UV light can desensitize their reaction and gradually decrease their suffering. Unfortunately, I’m not one of those people, so I must still strive to avoid the sun.
Although it is sometimes referred to as “sun poisoning”, the condition is merely irritating, and not as dire as it sounds. When exposed to the sun unprotected, we PMLE-afflicted acquire a bright rash, which then develops into red, itchy spots, then blisters, and then subsides within a few weeks to a white, dry patch. Picture a sunburn, crossed with a bad case of the chicken pox. We may look splotchy and uneven all summer long, and possibly for the next year. We cope better in the fall and winter, and develop a sense of dread around mid-spring. We are not more predisposed to skin cancer.
I have coped relatively well with this condition all these years, remembering to take care of myself some years better than others. The summer when I was planning to get married, I applied sunscreen religiously, not wanting my wedding photos to show marred skin. My skin was perfect. Three years ago, I was careless: went out in skin-baring summer clothes with very little sunscreen, and ended up with white scarred knees that took two years to fully heal. Last year, after a carefree Caribbean vacation (where perhaps the sun is stronger and the effects more powerful?) I suffered red, itchy skin for weeks afterwards, and almost regretted the whole vacation.
But with coping comes acceptance, and I have learned to approach the sunny seasons differently. Like a vampire, I try to stay in the shadows and avoid the sun as much as possible. I’ve developed a love of night-gardening, and the wonderful solitude that comes with being outside from dusk until nightfall. I’ve discovered that ruffly bikinis are fine for indoors, but long-sleeve swim shirts and swim leggings are just as attractive—and much more practical—on the beach. (In fact, it makes me look like one of those Olympian swimmers, with their expensive LZR racer suits.) I’ve accepted—and am still trying to convince my husband—that sungloves aren’t as uncool as they sound; just think of them as driving gloves, sans driving. A few years ago, I even discovered UV-protective clothing and fabrics, and now have at least one more line of defense against my enemy.
It didn’t matter if I had a name for my condition until only recently. However, it is now nice to not feel so alone, and know that I’m not the only one going out with two layers of sunscreen and too much clothing. And even though I will look like the most covered-up person on the beach and be mildly teased about it by my husband, at least I know that I will be safe. If there’s something I’ve learned over the years, safety is more important than vanity.