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Blotchy Skin From Too Much Sun?

Here's what you can do about it.

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illustrated gif of woman opening robe and having a red blotchy chest
Agnes Lee
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“What do you think about these?” I tentatively opened my robe and let the man look at my bare chest. He nodded his head in approval while he traced my skin with his fingers. At long last, it was time to get busy.

I should mention that the fluorescent lighting in the room would put a school cafeteria to shame. And we were surrounded by millennials in white jackets holding clipboards. And, oh yes, this man was my longtime dermatologist. I had finally worked up the nerve to make an appointment with Dr. S to ask if he could fix the splotchy skin on my chest.

Call it a mandatory $1,000 splurge nearly 20 years in the making.

The memory is forever lodged in my brain. During a lazy Saturday afternoon in the summer of 2000, I was lying in the backyard of my aunt and uncle’s lake house in New York. Too unmotivated to grab the SPF, I bathed under the piercing sun for hours like an idiot. Whatever, I thought. My fair Midwestern skin could use some color. Later that night as I changed clothes, I looked down and gasped. That fair Midwestern skin was now beet red. And bubbling.

A vat of aloe couldn’t make those blisters go away. That ghastly sunburn on my décolletage and cleavage ultimately turned into a messy patch of dark brown freckles that had to be examined for melanoma every year. As I entered my 40s, age spots and popped blood vessels decided to join the party. In a turtleneck, I could still pass for a girlish 28-year-old. But I was deeply uncomfortable and self-conscious about my appearance in a low-cut dress, a bikini, a V-neck sweater, you name it. In photos, I’d zoom in on that specific part of my body and cringe.

I’ve never considered Botox, filler or peels for my face. Heck, I still haven’t chemically colored my hair. But I was desperate to troubleshoot this pressing body-image issue. After all, I’ve always been a big believer in outer-beauty affecting inner-beauty. I finally made the call — “I’d like Dr. S to look at a few suspicious-looking spots, please”— right after my 41st birthday, rationalizing it as a present to myself. I felt slightly empowered just by scheduling the appointment in my calendar.

Despite my years of Google searches, I was still taken aback when he told me a high-tech laser-skin treatment would be the most effective course of action. That sounded … intense. “There’s nothing to it!” he explained. He’d merely take an electronic pen and zap off every spot. That sounded better than needles. I was also floored by the $1,000 price tag, money that I should have earmarked for my monthly New York City rent. Sensing my apprehension, he suggested that I take a few weeks and think about it. Then a rush of urgency took over. I had already waited 17 years, and the second I walked out that door, I was likely to chicken out. I wanted to do it now. I signed the forms. I took a nice long deep breath. I was ready.

The process was simple and relatively painless. In fact, I was most unsettled when an assistant put tape over my eyes to ensure that I wouldn’t open them while this state-of-the-art laser was working its magic on my body. Without my sight, I became consumed with the burning smell and inquired if my skin was supposed to have the whiff of a campfire. (Answer: Yes.)  I’m making it sound scarier than it was. Essentially, it felt like a series of small electric shocks. Not pleasant, but not nearly as painful as that stomachache you got last month from eating bad sushi. And though the treatment is usually a one-and-done, my skin was particularly stubborn. I had to go back three more times over six months, at no extra cost, until all the marks disappeared. During the last appointment, Dr. S cheerfully declared, “Don’t worry, I’m going to bomb them now so you don’t have to return.”

Mission accomplished. More than a year later, my skin is clean and gleaming. (The doctor’s assistant took before and after photos for proof.) I must admit that I do have one lingering pink scar the size of a pencil eraser head. It’s not the doctor’s fault; I picked at the scab. I don’t care. The important thing is that I’m no longer emotionally scarred from one stupid mistake. Wearing my wardrobe, I have newfound confidence that I never deemed possible. Look, I’m not saying everyone should plunk down $1,000 on a B-level cosmetic procedure. But don’t underestimate how liberating it can feel to get something off your chest.