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Applying sunscreen is like lathering on a layer of nostalgia. (LAURA LEYSHON For The Globe and Mail)
Applying sunscreen is like lathering on a layer of nostalgia. (LAURA LEYSHON For The Globe and Mail)

Sunscreen: the scent of memories Add to ...

There comes a time each spring – just as it gets warm enough to wear shorts while skiing – that I reach for a familiar blue tube sitting beside my front door. Except for the occasional dab on the nose and cheeks, the sunscreen has remained at the back of the shelf for months. But now, as the lid pops open and I hastily lather my hands, a lifetime of memories cascades over me: sunny docks, quiet lakes, rugged beaches, sunsets in Borneo, mending cedar-rail fences on the childhood farm, learning to guide rafts two decades ago, strolls in the quiet forest behind my house… Basically, I feel the joy of being outside, and I'm not even out the door yet.

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This onslaught is an annual event. You'd think I'd have learned by now to expect it, but I haven't. This scent-triggered blur of memories always hits with surprising intensity. God bless sunscreen!

Yes, it protects us from melanoma and other maladies (that's important). Yes, it slows the glacial but inevitable advance of wrinkles (also good). And yes, it prevents Canadians from turning as red as lobsters when the sun returns to us (or we travel to it). But above all, I'm starting to think I love sunscreen simply because it smells so damn good.

I'm a Coppertone guy (waterproof, SPF 30). Loyalty to a particular brand, it seems, is immutable and unwavering. (Just how strong? Well, it took almost 20 years after leaving Toronto to shift allegiance from the Maple Leafs – but I'm still with the same sunscreen.) My wife favours Banana Boat. I've tried it, and can't stand it. The stuff never rubs in and hours later I still look like Casper the Ghost; I'd just as soon smear myself with bike grease. But her skin laps the stuff up. “[Coppertone]rubs off,” she insists. “It's weak.” Others are loyal to Hawaiian Tropic. Or BullFrog. Or Nivea. Whatever. It doesn't matter which one. What matters is the scent that gradually imprints itself in our memories through years and years of use.

Smell is unique among the senses in the way it is processed. Input from everything else – sight, touch, taste, sound – is sent directly to the brain stem, where essential life functions are regulated. But not the nose. It's linked to the hippocampus and amygdala, sites responsible for processing memory and emotion. Olfaction is uniquely tied to that potent blend, that inseparable swirl of memory and emotion, that we commonly refer to as nostalgia.

Autobiographical memories – ghosts of long-forgotten lives – pop up out of the blue, summoned by nothing more than a fleeting scent, an effect known as the “Proust Phenomenon.” In his monumental work Remembrance of Things Past, French novelist Marcel Proust described a cascade of vivid childhood experiences invoked by the whiff of a tea-soaked pastry. For some, one sniff of chlorine and you're the nervous child waiting poolside for a swimming lesson. Maybe the smell of lilies makes your stomach sink with the weight of a funeral. Or English Leather puts you back in a father's or grandfather's arms.

The outdoors is full of its own wondrous scents: warming earth, freshly cut grass, pine tar, skunk cabbage and cedar. And many whisk me back to a distant journey or forgotten time. But 30 years of wearing the same sunscreen has rolled all of these up and bottled them alongside soft summer breezes, first kisses, wrenching farewells, turquoise oceans and sand too hot to walk on.

And I'm not alone. Some suggest sunscreen as a cure for depression. Others use it as a cologne in the big city. (Although they might be better off using one of the many perfumes designed to mimic the scent of sunscreen.) One blogger claims such attachment to her sunscreen that she covers herself in it after every bath and shower, year-round!

Clearly it's not just for preventing sunburn. On long Arctic trips, when wind and silty water conspire to crack skin, it does wonders as a moisturizer. I've seen it used to lubricate squeaky oar locks on rafts and fix sticky zippers on tents. I've even rubbed a bit on my neck to “spruce up” before boarding a plane (after an 18-day showerless hike across the Mackenzie Mountains; not sure it did the trick). Each new layer adds to the deeply nuanced nostalgia I feel for the outdoors.

Remember Everybody's Free (to Wear Sunscreen), the Baz Luhrmann hit from the late nineties? Based on a Chicago Tribune piece by Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Mary Schmich, the song dished out a stream of folk wisdom aimed at irreverent youth, and was bookended by one simple suggestion: Trust me on the sunscreen. Schmich was on to something. If you really want to remember all those precious outdoor moments, forget the endless documentation that is so common these days, the tweets, blogs and photos. All you need to do is slap on some sunblock. Your hippocampus and amygdala will thank you. Your skin will, too. It's not often that something so good is also so good for you.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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