It Only Took One Sunburn to Ruin My Face Forever

What started as a normal burn turned into something permanent—and it could happen to anyone.

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In some ways, my skin never stood a chance. I went to high school on the Jersey Shore in the early '00s, the height of the tanning craze. Remember when ostensibly pale blonde celebrities like Christina Aguilera, Jessica Simpson, and Paris Hilton painted themselves a bronzed orange before every red-carpet event? My friends hit the tanning beds multiple times a week, but I abstained. I didn't want to wind up all wrinkled before I was 25—or you know, get skin cancer.

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Ten years post-graduation, I've got an arsenal of SPF in my bathroom and giant floppy hats in my closet. I am never wearing just a bikini at the beach. I'm that carefree gal wearing long sleeves, sunglasses, and a hat while sitting under an umbrella. Hot stuff.

Until, that is, one lazy afternoon in July 2013. I sat in the sun a bit too long and got a sunburn. Not particularly remarkable at the time—sometimes, despite our best intentions, we still get a little red. And this one wasn't even that bad; it was just enough of a burn to make me feel hot and itchy, and gave me reverse raccoon eyes from my sunglasses. (You know the look.)

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I took the usual steps: cooling aloe vera gel, extra moisturizer in the morning and at night, and sitting on my hands to keep from picking and peeling. Only the burn didn't go away. 

Three weeks later, panic started to bubble up. The sunburn wasn't going away at all. In August, I was a bridesmaid and had to coat my face in foundation to even try to approximate an even skin tone. This step would soon become a normal part of my morning routine.

That burn was two years ago. Now I have permanent brown patches on my cheeks and forehead.

That burn was two years ago. Now I have permanent brown patches on my cheeks and forehead. If I'm not wearing makeup, and sometimes even when I am, people comment on my "tan." They ask,  "Did you just get back from vacation?" No. No, I did not. And I have this frustrating, permanent "mask" to show for it.

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In my before-and-after, you can see what I mean—notice the lines around my eyes in the second shot?

Yeah, so could the dermatologists I visited in an effort to finally get back to where I started. Here's what they had to say.

Doctor #1: Dr. Neal Schultz, Park Avenue Skin Care

Diagnosis: Dr. Schultz took one look at my face and had a diagnosis: melasma. "Melasma and chloasma are both caused by estrogen, which sensitizes your pigment cells into becoming hyper-reactive, in the pattern on you see on your cheeks and forehead. It often happens in pregnancy, which is why we call it the 'pregnancy mask,'" he said. He asked if I happened to be pregnant, to which I responded, UM, NO, I'M NOT, SIR. "One bad burn, and it's there forever," he explained. "The sun can darken this faster than we can bleach it, so we want to be extremely careful about sun protection." He was somewhat pessimistic about my prognosis, and that I might need to try bleaching, chemical exfoliation, and peeling treatments. While I pondered that, he gave me a sunscreen with physical (mineral) UV protectors instead of chemical ones. It turns out that my morning moisturizer with SPF 30 wasn't cutting it. No 2-for-1 products, he warned. 

Advice: Wear serious sunscreen in rain, sun, snow, and indoors, and reapply throughout the day. Get ready for skin battle. 

Doctor #2: Dr. David Colbert, New York Dermatology Group

Diagnosis: I had an interesting chat with Dr. Colbert about something I haven't given much thought since social studies class in seventh grade: my ethnic background. "Um, white? European?" I said. "No, what countries exactly?" he pressed. I rattled off the list—a little Italian, a little Irish, some Polish, Serbian, German—and he observed that those Irish roots may be overpowering the others, leaving me with Type I skin. As in, as pale as it possibly gets, as you can see the scale from the Melanoma Foundation here. That pale hue + being in the sun that day + plus my use of birth control (the estrogen again) made me an ideal candidate for lasting discoloration. It's actually surprising it hasn't happened sooner.

Advice: Go off birth control. Use relatively gentle exfoliating pads and a serum with glycolic acid each night. Try prescription bleaching cream.

Doctor #3: Dr. Stafford Broumand of 740 Aesthetics & Med Spa

Diagnosis: I was by far the most nervous for this appointment. We had discussed my case ahead of time, based on what the other doctors had told me, and decided I was going to try Clear + Brilliant, a laser treatment to "penetrate millions of microscopic areas of the skin for comprehensive replacement of damaged cells." In layman's terms, it would piss off the melanin in my face and hopefully get it to retreat farther down into the surface. "Trying to get rid of pigment has to happen in baby steps," explained Jennifer Paulick, the esthetician who performed the treatment. "Theoretically, you want to attack the pigment, hoping it goes away. But sometimes, it actually brings out more. So this treatment is like a gentle fraxel laser." Paulick taped my eyelids closed and then fired up the laser. I am a ginormous wimp when it comes to anything medical, but it wasn't bad at all. It felt like she was slowly moving over my face with a hot rake. 

Advice: Be careful with my newly treated skin, and consider coming back for slightly more aggressive laser treatments if this one didn't work.

And the results?

All three docs suggested that slow and steady would win the race. So I'm currently trying a bit of everything while staying on the gentle side—recovering from Dr. Broumand's laser treatment, diligently applying Dr. Schultz's chem-free sunscreen, using Dr. Colbert's exfoliating pads and glycolic serum every night. None of the doctors offered an easy out, because unfortunately the problem takes work to fix. 

I will say, though, that my skin and I are enjoying the daily pampering and extra attention. It's a small penance for burning it so badly in the first place. But word to the wise? Be good to your sweet, glowy, youthful skin while you have it. One bad afternoon on the sun is all it takes for it to never look the same. 

Keep following Kaitlin's story—she'll update here with how her treatments turn out.

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