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Protect Yourself! The Effects of Sun Damage + Safe, Non-Toxic Sunscreens

I have put off writing a blog on the use of sunscreens because most of me feels like “who cares”? Plus, being that it’s summertime, there are tons of blogs on this topic already with plenty of great suggestions for clean, non-toxic sunscreens that have been cleared by the gods of natural products.

Sun bathingWell, suffice it to say that I have a little more investment in the use of sunscreen than your average sun worshipper.   I was diagnosed with melanoma in 2010.  I have thought a ton about cancer in my clinical life and in my own personal head and heart — hoping it doesn’t come near me or my family, wanting to do whatever I could to avoid it, and praying that if I did get cancer, it would NOT be melanoma. I specifically singled that one out. Well, guess what. Sure enough. Bingo. 

I saw a red “lesion,” won’t call it a mole, on the back of my arm in October 2010. It was slightly pink, and I had an immediate sinking feeling in my stomach. Not because it looked so terribly awful, but because I knew it wasn’t right that it was pink and nothing else was. My dermatologist did the standard biopsy, and when the call came from her office, I knew why she was calling before she even said hello.  I had a major surgery on my arm and have an awesome scar to prove it. I also now have an oncologist, which is not exactly someone you want on your health care team, but, I decided it was better to have one than not and got over it.   

As a result of a silly little mole gone wrong, I get my skin checked every 3 months. I also have to get biopsied all the time, which means stitches every three months or so. I’m getting over it for the most part. I have to stay out of the sun as much as I can. Honestly, I’m still working on that one, but when I do go out in the sun, I’m as lathered up as a turkey is basted at Thanksgiving.  Not surprisingly, Colorado has one of the highest incidences of melanoma, likely because of its proximity to the sun compared to other states.

I actually did not grow up in Colorado. I grew up in California on a tennis court…check. In the ocean…check. But even worse, I loved being tan…check. I spent hours working on getting my skin to a glimmering bronze color. I knew in the back of my mind that one day I might regret it, and SHO NUFF, I do. I have no business being in the sun in the first place as I am Irish! I have all of the major risk factors for getting melanoma:  fair skin, freckles, lots of burns before the age of 20, family history of skin cancer, tanning bed use (yikes!), and was under tremendous stress the few years prior, which likely caused some immune suppression.

Shifting my perspective was the hardest part about this diagnosis. I love sports that involve being in the sun. Spending a few moments on a beach in a bathing suit feels like heaven to me. So, how could it be so bad? Initially, I had to really wrap my mind around wearing sleeves and hats. Total drag. I had to love my skin the color I was born with. I also had to accept that it was likely to happen again. For the most part, I am happy to say that I have found total acceptance of my diagnosis and what it means. I wear sunscreen all of the time, no matter what, and I still spend time outside doing what I love to do.

Needless to say, I am a sunscreen advocate now! Here are a few things to AVOID when buying sunscreen:

  1. Spray sunscreens. There’s potential inhalation risk of the product, especially for the little ones, and the can cannot be recycled (just a personal pet peeve of mine).
  2. High SPF sunscreen. High SPF products block the UVB rays, the ones most likely ones to burn you, but leave you vulnerable to a burn by the UVA rays. Reapplying a SPF 30 sunscreen more frequently is the best practice, as a higher SPF often gives people a false sense of security, and they may not reapply over long periods of time. 
  3. Oxybenzone. This chemical is considered an endocrine disruptor, meaning it mimics estrogen in the body. It is also a photo-allergen, which causes allergic reaction when used in the sun; can have possible immune system effects; is a wildlife endocrine disruptor; and increases reactive oxygen species, or free radical damage, in the body. 
  4. Vitamin A derivatives. While vitamin A is commonly added to products designed for indoor use (e.g. night creams), including it in sunscreens may increase the development of skin tumors.
  5. Combination sunscreen and bug repellent products.
  6. Sunscreen powders or towelettes. They are just not effective sun safety products and tend to wash off easily.

A couple brands I would suggest for safe, non-toxic sunscreens are Babo Botanicals and Badger Co.

For your best protection from sun damage, wear a hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, and layers of clothing whenever you’re out in the sun. Apply a non-nano zinc oxide, all-natural sunscreen in the morning before you leave the house; avoid the sun between 10am – 2pm, if possible; and always reapply, reapply, reapply. Being in the sun can still be fun, I promise, but do so with these cautions in mind.