The warmer weather is finally here in Maine! We have been loving all the outside time we’ve been able to enjoy lately, soaking up all that warm sunshine and vitamin D. As we head into the summer months we will need to start thinking about sun protection because while some sun exposure is actually really good for us, excessive sun exposure can cause skin damage and even skin cancer.
So we just need to make sure we apply sunscreen right? Wrong.
It’s easy to blame the sun alone for skin cancer, but it is not that simple. Since the FDA approved SPF sunscreens in the 1970s, rates of melanoma have actually increased. WTF? Shouldn’t all that sunscreen be protecting us from those harmful UV rays? How is this even possible when we are spending more time indoors now than ever? As it turns out, studies show that the vitamin D generated from responsible exposure to UVB rays actually helps to protect against skin cancer!
When we talk about UV rays we are talking about UVA and UVB rays. UVA rays penetrate our skin more deeply than their counterparts. UVB rays are the ones that stimulate the production of melanin and cause us to tan. They are also responsible for protecting us by scattering solar radiation and acting as an antioxidant. When we have had too much UV exposure (we’ve exceeded the amount that our melanin can protect us against) our skin initiates an inflammatory response, our skin reddens and we get a sunburn. This is our body’s natural warning system telling us its time to get out of the sun. This is why UVB rays are sometimes called “burning rays.” UVA rays do not come with the same warning signal. They penetrate deeper into the skin where they can cause more damage to skin cells. UVA rays are associated with malignant melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. Since UVA rays don’t give us that sunburn signal, they can do a lot of damage without any warning letting us know we need to get out of the sun.
Here is the scary part… UVB rays are easily blocked by sunscreen (or windows) leaving us without our built-in warning system telling us that we need to find some shade. This leaves the UVA rays free to penetrate deep within our skin and wreak havoc without us having any idea that it is even happening. SPF, which stands for Sun Protection Factor, only measures the product’s ability to block the UVB rays, not UVA. It was developed as a marketing tool before we knew how truly damaging UVA rays can actually be. So is all this sunscreen really protecting us at all? Turns out, not really. We’ve been lead to believe that we are ok as long as we aren’t burning, and that is just not the case. Sunscreen gives us a false sense of security. Also, a quick note on broad spectrum sunscreens that claim to block UVA and UVB rays… it turns out that in order to market a product using this terminology, the UVA protection is only required to be a fraction of the UVB protection. Also, as Liz Wolfe points out in her book “Eat the Yolks” many of these broad spectrum sunscreens contain a chemical called retinyl palmitate which has been shown by the FDA to increase the growth rate of skin tumors. Again, we must ask WTF?
I am not here to tell you to never use sunscreen; I would just like to encourage you to use a product that provides PHYSICAL sun protection (therefore blocking both the UVA and UVB rays equally) rather than a CHEMICAL sunscreen that, as I’ve previously discussed, may be doing more harm than good.
Zinc based sunscreens provide a physical barrier that blocks the sun’s rays in a way similar to that of clothing (tightly-woven clothing that is). I would also highly recommend buying a stick based sunblock since liquid formulas tend to separate while they are stored on closet shelves, so you never really know which ingredients you are getting and in what quantity each time you use it. As a bonus, the stick makes applying the sunscreen to wiggly children a little easier! Here are a couple of brands I like (made without junky chemical hormone disruptors):
Beautycounter Sunscreen Stick (goes on clear)
Badger Balm Sunscreen Stick (goes on white – great for kids so you can see where it has been applied)
The lesson here is responsible sun exposure. Get some sun, but don’t burn. The right amount of sun exposure will be different for everyone, but the goal is the same. Once you feel like you’ve reaped the benefits of all that vitamin-D generating sunshine, cover up or find some shade.
In addition to the sunscreens linked above, here are some of our favorite summer sun protection products:
Now, to find the perfect wide brim sun hat for me!