Having pale skin and living in the tropics don't mix well. While most of my work entailed night patrols on prime nesting sites, there were many days spent walking and surveying along the beaches. You see, for a few years I was a sea turtle biologist and found myself working in tropical areas just north of the equator where the suns rays are far less forgiving. It was a hard lesson after one particular sun poisoning that jolted me into a very different relationship with the sun though.
The 60's, 70's, and 80's were recalling their aluminum sun reflectors and baby oil and the new millenium was bringing an awareness to the dangers of excess sun exposure. Gone were the days of baking in the sun for the purpose of beauty. I learned to live in the skin I was born with and realized that I could not behave as others around me and I could not forget or become too preoccupied to protect my skin. My lesson was learned. But I still did not know what it really meant to protect my skin as I thoughtfully slathered myself in high spf creams, lotions, and blocks each and every day. It was the studies conducted in 2003-2004 that started showing a growing concern with these chemical sunscreen additives that I had become so devoted to.
So for better context lets back up...
Sun rays contain radiation. There are UVA and UVB rays which are different in not only their wavelengths, but also their effects on us.
(see photo below featuring my unshaven leg hair)
UVA is a long wave radiation that is the most prevalent exposure. It penetrates deeper into our skin and has the most effect on our DNA causing genetic damage. UVB is a shorter wavelength wave that penetrates the top level of skin and is most responsible for sunburns.
Melanin is our body's natural defense mechanism against this radiation (Melanin=Sunscreen). Melanin absorbs the UV rays and dissipates it as heat. All humans have the same number of melanocytes (cells that contain melanin), but darker skinned people have more melanin pigment at their disposal. People with lighter skin tones do not have as much melanin in their skin and do not have the same skin defense system. Whatever your skin type, our melanin works to absorb the radiation until it has exhausted it capacity, then the skin will burn. While folks with darker skin don't burn as quickly, they too will still burn.
Risk Factors - People with light skin/blue eyes/red or blondes pay attention...
Summer time/Tropical Locations
Outdoor recreation and drinking (bummer.)
Medications that make you photosensitive
Working/playing outdoors during heat of day
Locations near reflective surfaces (water, snow)
Excess exposure to the sun's UV rays triggers distress in our bodies that can manifest in ways that are at the least unattractive and at the most life threatening.
The scariest part is that our bodies work very hard to repair the damage the sun does, but our bodies are busy being 'toxified' by our environment and modern lifestyle and get overwhelmed. Sun damage is a cumulative effect meaning that damage occurring from ones childhood through adulthood compound to create a higher likelihood of developing:
Melanoma and other cancers
Eye Damage (wear protective sunglasses!)
So now we know how the body works, let's look at our most common drugstore sunscreen options. There are two ways to protect our skin from UV rays. We can cover our skin with things that block the rays or things that absorb it. Usually these break down into Chemical or Physical barriers.
Here are the chemicals that are in our commercial options that you will find in sunscreens that are causing all the fuss right now.
and some others
These chemicals work to stop UV rays by absorbing them.
The concerns with them are serious though and include:
Increased Skin Allergies
Penetration Enhancing Characteristics (help to draw whatever else is with them into the inside of your body)
Promoting free radicals production (cancer causing components)
Increase DNA damage (breaking bonds)
Causing inflammatory responses
Transdermal transferring to the womb
Compromised effectiveness with sunlight
Bioaccumulating effect (toxin build-up passed along to babies)
The idea that modern sunscreens could be causing more damage to the skin than no sunscreen at all and might promote melanoma in place of protecting us from it has been a deal breaker for most people paying attention to current research.
And There's More...
In 2015, a study came out that showed that enough of a concentration of these chemicals were being washed off into the oceans around coral reefs to create major concern. Testing showed that enough parts per million of chemical sunscreens were contributing to bleaching, damage, deformation, and DNA damage, ultimately impeding reproductive success. The fact that some estimated 6,000 - 14,000 tons of sunscreen lotions wind up in coral reefs around the world each year, made many affected areas ban the products completely, opening the eyes of many more of us. The thought being 'If it hurts them in much much lower and diluted concentrations, what's it doing to us?'
Reef Unsafe Chemicals include...
- Any form of microplastic sphere or beads.
- Any nanoparticles like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.
- 4-methylbenzylidene camphor
- Para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA)
What are our other options?
In order of priority Notice sunscreen in #5 - NOT #1 (This is my personal opinion - no angry letters please)
#1. Learn to love the skin you're in and love to learn about it too. Not all of us handle sun the same. Know your skin. Know your limits.
#2. Limit sun exposure. Avoid activities in the most intense sun of the day from 10-4. I always like to say 'Follow the Animals!' The critters head to shade at these hottest parts of the day - they don't go wakeboarding. BE THE COW people! BE. THE. COW.
#3. Wear clothing that helps actually protect you - Light and Bright colors reflect the light, loose fitted clothes create a buffer, UV Sunglasses, and a wide brim hat will have us all looking oh so very tre chic!
#4. Eat Your Sunscreen! Well, sort off...there are a huge number of foods that contribute to UV absorption in our skin as well and/or contribute to our body's effort in fighting the effects of UV radiation. Here are a few to load up on:
Nut & Seeds - Walnuts/Hemp/Flax/Chia/sunflower seeds (Omega-3 Fatty Acids)
Dark Leafy Greens - Kale/Spinach/Kohlrabi (Anti-Oxidants)
Dark Berries - Cherries/Strawberries/Blackberries/Raspberries (ellagic Acid/Anti-Oxidants)
Fish/Eggs/Salmon (Omega-3 Fatty Acids)
Green Tea (Flavanol)
Red Grapes (Resveratrol)
Red (not green) Peppers (Lycopene/Beta Carotene/Anti-Oxidants
Cauliflower (Urocanic Acid/Anti-Oxident)
#5 Natural Sunscreen options include some high end natural oils and non-nano (larger particle sized Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide
Look for our safe OSW options:
Sun Stick (waterproof)
OK. What's the point of all of this? Well, my point is that there is no magic pill (or lotion). We need to be educated on how our individual bodies work and how to protect them, not just to rely on large corporations to come up with clever marketing and more chemicals to save us. We need to take ownership of our skin. We can alter how we play and work in the sun to minimize our risk of sun damage. The sun is a beautiful thing and not something to avoid, but we need to be mindful of our exposures and what we use to protect our skin. Our bodies do the best they can, but we need to do better to not overburden them. We need to learn to pay attention to our skin...and also our children's skin.
Part of what we need to instill in our kiddos, along with how to BE in the world, how to behave, how to treat others, how to eat and practice health, is to learn to care for their skin so that by the time they reach the age that I am, they don't have to just 'hope for the best'. They won't have to worry that the damage they did before they knew better might catch up to them before too long. We can do better now. They can know better now. And we are the ones that can make sure of it and lead the way as the example.
Here's to our bright future Soapsters!