We need to have a frank discussion about sun safety while travelling. I want to warn you about the time I accidentally purchased, what I believe to be was, knock off sunscreen. The result was painful and a potential threat to my long-term health. I spent 72 consecutive hours laying in the darkness of my hotel room with severe burns to 40% of my body. As a diligent sunscreen user you can be assured I was mad as hell. Now I implore you to read on so you don't end up bedridden on your holiday. 

Koh TaoBy Ahoerstemeier (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

In 2012 I set off on a three-and-a-half month backpacking trip to Southeast Asia. After three weeks I had landed on the small, idyllic island of Ko Tao, Thailand. I quickly obtained my Open Water Diver certification and fell in love with the underwater world. 

Having spent the last five years in snowy Prince George, British Columbia I was hyper-conscious of my fair complexion. In fact, 'fair' was a generous description. Pale would be more accurate, and with little effort one could detect the veins in my forearms. While I was committed to returning home with a tan, I diligently used sunscreen. Moreover, I knew the latitude of Thailand meant stronger sun exposure than I was accustomed to. I had packed high SPF sunscreen from home and always applied it well in advance of spending any time outdoors. Three weeks into the trip I finished the bottle and innocuously purchased a bottle of Samui Sun sunblock. I reasoned that my base tan would stand up to a 30 SPF rating.

Purchasing a regional brand of sunscreen would be the biggest mistake I made on my entire trip. 

Samui Sun BurnJennifer Larsen

On the day I inadvertently managed to burn nearly half of my body, I applied sunscreen 30-40 minutes before heading out. I made my way to the beach and laid a towel on the sand. I snapped a picture of my toes against the blue surf, cracked Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code and fell into its winding plot line.

For a couple of hours I drank in the hot, mid-day sun. Feeling a little toasty I reapplied sun block as I felt needed. Around the two hour mark I took a sun break. Settling under a palm tree I sipped soda and noticed how pink I had become. I peeled back the strap of my swim top which revealed a startling contrast of red and white. Alarmed, I immediately packed up and returned to my room.

Evaluating the damage under a cold shower I began to panic. Then I got mad. Storming out of my room, bent on a fact-finding mission, I frantically searched for the nearest pharmacy. Finding one, I waved the bottle I had purchased in the face of the vendor. "I bought this today. I am very burnt. Is this a good company? Good sunscreen?" She replied in the affirmative, and then eyeing the price tag, kindly informed me that I had been overcharged by her competitor. Thanks for that.

With little to do except purchase a bottle of aloe vera, I made my way back to the hotel. Red as a lobster I slathered myself in aloe and started a 72-hour bout of bed rest. I suffered from cold sweats, nausea and severe blistering. My skin peeled in sheets, twice. I was lucky to be travelling with my boyfriend, as leaving the air conditioned room brought on spells of dizziness. Not to mention, I had effectively etched the outline of my over-sized sunglasses onto my face, creating a sort of bearded effect. But most of all, I feared that I had done irreparable damage to my skin that may threaten my long term health. 

Immediately I felt compelled to share my story, but unfortunately it is not a unique one. I posted the it on my personal travel blog and to this day it is the single most visited page. Not only did many commenters echo my own complaints, but most heartbreaking was a reader who was pregnant and feared for her unborn child. 

Now, I urge you to share this warning with anyone you know heading to Southeast Asia or for that matter, a tropical destination. Pack sunscreen and bring enough for the duration of your trip. If you're traveling for months on end, be discerning about what brands you purchase and where you shop. Chain pharmacies with recognizable brands, like the ones found in airports, are a safer bet. 

Samui Sun product details: white bottle with a label that includes 'coconut sun protect' and 'protects against sun burn and premature ageing.' (Misspelling intentional.) 

 


Have you been burned by knock-off sun block? 
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