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The Great Sunscreen Dilemma: Would Like Cancer? Or Cancer? [All your sun-blocking options]

Posted Jul 10 2013 3:46am


If something is good for you then more of it should be great for you, right? Duh. Isn’t that basically the first law of health? Yeah, okay so that’s obviously stupid – I learned the fallacy of that the hard way during the great Over Training Debacle of ’08! – and yet lots of health and fitness people still act like it’s true. Including me. Commence shame spiral, as I’ve done it again.

I’d like to introduce you to my newest obsession:



I’m not pimping this particular kind (they’re not paying me, I didn’t get it for free, I have no relationship with Banana Boat) but it smells delish. And the 100 SPF makes me happy even though I heard somewhere than anything over 30 is all the same. Whatever. 

Yep, sunscreen. When we moved to Colorado, we heard lots of Shangri-La stories about our new home but we were inevitably presented with two Very Important Warnings: 1. The prairie dogs here are hilarious and adorable but it turns out they’re evil plague-carrying vermin so don’t touch them. Plus it’s illegal to kill them because they’re a protected species. 2. Because of the “thinner air” at this altitude, you have to watch out for skin cancer like Kim Kardashian has to watch out for rogue GPSes targeting her new baby. (North West? Really?)

For whatever reason, I’ve chosen to ignore the prairie dog issue (seriously they are SO funny waddling down the middle of the road with their chubby butts and stumpy tails, I can’t help but stop to watch them) and instead decided to focus all of my obsessive energy (of which there is much!) on the sunburn issue. You know that huge ball of beautiful light that sustains every life on the planet? Public enemy number one. Yes sir.

There’s been some skin cancer in my family. I had at least six really major sunburns as a kid. Plus I’m basically Snow White, but paler. So I’ve got some legit reasons to worry about me and my kids. (And my hubby – he’s one of those people with hundreds of moles all over his body. But I can’t tackle him with the Banana Boat. As easily.) And yet, I realized today as I tried to organize my car and came up with no less than 8 different bottles of sunscreen that I might have a problem. And that’s not even counting the three I have in the house.

Who needs ELEVEN bottles of sunscreen?! At first I was just putting some on my face if we were going to go anywhere outdoors for more than 15 minutes. But now I put SPF 50 on first thing in the morning, slathering special “sensitive” lotion on my face and then a separate moisturizing kind all over the rest of my body. Next I put on my makeup and I wear a BB cream with sunscreen in it. Then I put more sunscreen on as soon as I get in the car. Even if it’s just 30 minutes later. Next, I do one more coat of the spray kind when we get wherever we are going. Lastly I reapply whenever I feel like my skin is “burning” which ends up being every half hour or so.

Two problems with this (besides the obvious mental issues):

1. IT’S NOT WORKING. My previously fish-belly pale arms are now covered in freckles, in spite of my hyper vigilance. My son told me the other day that my hands look like “old lady hands” because of how freckled and bony they are. I’m basically a big ball o’ freckles!! I haven’t had any burns but clearly some rays are getting through my 17 layers of chemical biodome.

2. Sunscreen can give you cancer. Oh I’m serious . 75% of the sunscreens on the market contain known CARCINOGENS. See? It’s making me caps-scream. One of the main culprits is oxybenzone, which “can lead to hormone disruption and potentially to cell damage that may lead to skin cancer.”

So I don’t buy sunscreens with oxybenzone. But there are a lot of other funny chemicals in there and who knows what they do when you slather them on your skin (or inhale the spray fumes) ten times a day? So which is worse – the burn or the remedy?

Not everyone worries like I do. Noted Hollywood hippy Gwyneth Paltrow recently explained her no-sunscreen policy in an interview, saying, “I don’t think anything that is natural can be bad for you. I try to get at least 15 minutes of sun a day.” Girlfriend has a point – we’ve all heard about all the health benefits of vitamin D and the best way to get that is direct sun, on our skin!” Gwyneth adds, “We’re human beings and the sun is the sun – how can it be bad for you?”

Eh, pretty bad , according to a new study from The Mayo Clinic that shows melanoma cases have increased four-fold in women under 40 over the past 50 years.

“While more than three million cases of basal and squamous cell carcinoma are diagnosed each year, only about 2,000 people a year die from these non-melanoma skin cancers. Melanoma is a far more ominous diagnosis, causing about 9,400 deaths each year in the United States.” And I can attest from watching both my parents battle basal and squamous cell carcinomas that while they may not kill you they certainly can disfigure you. (My poor dad – had to have this horrible chemical peel on his face that made him red as a lobster and in terrible pain for months.)

Dr. Darrell Rigel, a dermatology professor at NYU Langone Medical Center, has more scary statistics, saying that every month at his New York practice, about two women in their 20s are found to have early melanoma, a dramatic rise from 20 years ago. Once melanoma is the size of a dime, there is a good chance that it has already spread and treatment may not work, Dr. Rigel said. “I know I’m looking at a death sentence on their arm, and they feel perfectly fine,” he said. “It’s absolutely awful.”

DID YOU HEAR THAT? He’s looking at a DEATH SENTENCE. On their ARM. Betrayed by an appendage! It could happen to anyone! I have an arm right now, in fact!

Seriously though, I’m a mom. I can’t take risks with my health that might leave my kids motherless. Do you know what options motherless children have in America? They either have to be a Disney princess or a serial killer. And all that from a spot no bigger than a tick. Plus, I’m also vain. While I’m all for aging gracefully, I don’t want to have wrinkles or age spots any sooner than I have to. I still don’t have any gray hairs!

So what options do I have?

1. Chemical sunscreens: Chemical sunscreens are the most common kind on the market and they work by having certain chemicals that absorb the sun’s ultraviolet rays. These are popular because they don’t typically feel too greasy or heavy and they soak right into your skin so it doesn’t even feel like you’re wearing anything. Unfortch, these are also the ingredients most likely to be carcinogens themselves.

2. Physical sunblocks: Sunblock and sunscreen are often used interchangeably but they have opposite mechanisms. Where sunscreen absorbs the sun’s rays, sunblock, well, blocks them by reflecting the rays. The two most popular ones are titanium dioxide and zinc oxide (of the white nose fame from the 80′s!). While they’re harder to rub in – they tend to sit visibly on the surface of your skin – these are often considered safer than sunscreens but it turns out these might be carcinogens too, especially when they’re “micronized” to make them easier to apply.

3. Natural sunblocks: From olive oil to jasmine, there are a host of “natural” sunblocks/sunscreens. While many have been used for centuries, there isn’t much research to support that they actually work. Plus, just because something is “natural” doesn’t mean it’s without side effects. And, this is just me, but every “natural” sunblock I’ve tried smells like patchouli. I hate patchouli. Hate. (Note: Studies have shown that ingesting fish oil supplements actually helped protect against the sun’s rays and helped prevent melanoma! Here, fishy, fishy!!)

4. Clothing block: Bring back the parasols and pioneer bonnets, baby! Thick fabric is probably the most used with the best track record of any sunblocking device. Dessert nomads wore layers of robes and wrapped scarves around their faces. People for millenia have worn large hats that cover their faces, heads and necks. Parasols used to be a sign of status, they were considered so important. And yet today the trend seems to be to wear as little clothing as possible. Modesty issues aside, thong bikinis aren’t doing us any health favors.

I have recently discovered “UPF clothing” or clothes made with sunblocks/screens in the fabric. Joy! Of course they only work on skin that they cover so these days with my UPF 50+ long-sleeved jacket, pants and hat I either look like I’m a cult member or unnaturally devoted to Athleta. (Side note: people always ask me if I’m too hot in all those clothes. My answer? Once you’re hot, you’re hot. I already sweat like a dude. The only difference between a plain t-shirt and my UPF jacket is that with the latter you can’t see my pit stains. Besides, it’s not a down parka – they look heavy but the UPF fabrics are actually very light!)

5. Become a hermit. Or a vampire. Looking better and better, frankly.

So what’s your sun policy? Do you just go about your business and figure that the sun is good for you? Do you sunscreen religiously like me? Give it to me straight: Am I insane?

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