After one day in the sun, our author has a new skin color. That exposes her mainly for what she is: a tourist. Plus, she also learns that sunscreen factor 30 is just a bad joke in America.

A wonderfully relaxing afternoon on the beaches of San Diego: Lying on the sand, eating ice cream, watching the surfers, and finally enough time to catch up on my reading. But the relaxation ended sooner than I expected, namely that same evening. My skin was fire engine red, the pain excruciating and my surprise really great because I took care to get a sunscreen with a 30 SPF — especially because this was the California sun. While I try to cool my skin down, I check San Diego's latitude: about the same as Casablanca. I guess I must have underestimated the strength of the California sun. Next time, I'll remember to apply the sunscreen more often.

A couple of weeks later I'm off to “Gay Pride,” the traditional gay and lesbian festival in San Francisco. I stand at the side of the street for two hours, enjoying the dazzling parade that passes by. When I'm not cheering, I'm creaming myself up. But that night, I'm glowing red again! What's up with this? And was I hearing things, or did some guy actually just call me the “lady in red?”

Is the sun that much stronger in California than it is in Germany? Back to the map where I discover that San Francisco is about on the same latitude as Athens. But even when I vacationed in Turkey, SPF 20 sunscreen was enough. I began to get the sneaking feeling that something was wrong here.

When I showed my friend Kimberly my lobster complexion she shook her head in horror: “SPF 30? Way too weak!” She said she always uses sunscreen with at least 50 SPF, sometimes even 70. An SPF of 70? I never saw that anywhere in Germany, and when I ask at the drugstore, the clerk sizes me up and recommends one with an SPF of 100 because of my “especially sensitive skin.” Now I'm really confused: Did traveling to another country make my skin super-sensitive?

Telltale Tourist Tint

Then I run across something in Consumer Reports magazine: a study of sunscreen use in the United States.

The shattering conclusions of this study: Never go by the SPF listed on the package; it varies from manufacturer to manufacturer. If the SPF 50 of one brand protects you, there's no guarantee the same SPF claimed by another brand will do the same.

And even more scandalous: The best UV filters available in the world are banned in the United States. Mexoryl and Tinosorb block UVA and UVB rays especially effectively and their ingredients are more stable than previously, so they've been widely available in Europe for some time now. But in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) still hasn't given them its blessing, something sunscreen manufacturers have been waiting years for it to do.

The bottom line to all this is that Europeans in the U.S. can cream themselves up as usual without having to wonder why they look like lobsters and why everybody is laughing at them for being tourists — tourists in red, to coin a phrase.

SPF 50 may be sold as a sun blocker in Germany, but in the United States it's just run-of-the-mill protection against sunburn. They don't even sell SPF 15 or 20 sunscreens in America, and Kimberly says kids need to use creams with an SPF of at least 100.

As I peel the skin off my nose, I wonder if I shouldn't buy a cowboy hat. Ranchers and other hardy outdoor types have worn those for years when they're out in the strong sunlight. Still, I might run the risk of looking ridiculous in a cowboy hat.

But better a cowgirl curiosity than going back to being the “lady in red!”