Edgy Mama: Grandma was right — bonnets and shirts are the best sun protection

I’m writing this from a sun-drenched island in South Georgia. At the moment, I’m inside, hiding from the midday sun, yet I’m still gooey with sunscreen. Sunscreen that I recently discovered might cause cancer — not prevent it.

I’ve just learned that I’ve been slathering carcinogen-laden goop all over my kids on a regular basis since they were tiny babies.

Enviro-spouse’s work in computer modeling leads him to expound regularly: “The solution to the problem can lead to another problem.”

This seems to be the case with sunscreen.

We all need some daily sun exposure, because it’s difficult to get enough Vitamin D otherwise (this vitamin is vitally important to overall health and even prevents certain cancers). Yet, overexposure to the sun’s cell-damaging rays has been linked to skin cancers, including malignant melanoma — the most common form of cancer for adults aged 25-29 years old and the second-most-common cancer in adolescents and adults 15-29 years old. The disease could’ve killed me several years ago if I hadn’t noticed a bad mole early.

So, in order to protect ourselves from this disease, and from the less deadly but often painful and disfiguring other skin cancers, we load on the sunscreen, because that’s what many doctors and The American Cancer Society recommend.

I’ve been a believer — just as my kids never ride in a car without a seat belt, they never venture into the sun without first being basted like turkeys with ultraviolet ray deflectors. But I might be causing a problem with this solution. Because many of these sunscreens may contain carcinogens and toxins. Plus, in a 2007 report, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration admitted: “The FDA is not aware of data demonstrating that sunscreen use alone helps prevent skin cancer.” Argh.

Seven years ago I noticed a mole on my thigh that looked weird. I showed it to a dermatologist. That doctor said it was “nothing.” A few months later, I noticed more weirdness (the damn thing was growing). I decided to visit a new dermatologist. He removed the mole, then called to tell me it was malignant melanoma and I needed a hunk of leg tissue removed to verify it hadn’t spread. It hadn’t. Though if I’d listened to doctor number one instead of trusting my instincts, I probably wouldn’t be writing this. I’d be six feet under.

As someone who’s dealt directly with skin cancer, I’ve been particularly cautious about covering my kids with sunscreen, particularly as they’re both white as fish bellies and may have a genetic predisposition for the disease I caught early on and survived.

Thus you can imagine my anger at discovering the stuff I’m using to “protect” them could be harming them.

Here’s the skinny, as far as I can tell, on sunscreens, according to nonprofit research organization Environmental Working Group. Don’t avoid sunscreens, but do read the labels, and try avoid certain chemicals, such as oxybenzone. One study revealed that 97 percent of Americans tested contained oxybenzone, a chemical known to contribute to cancer and hormone disruption.

When I checked my beach bag, most of the sunscreens therein contained oxybenzone. And guess what? They’re all sunscreens made in the U.S. EWG recommends using sunscreens produced in Europe and Australia. Because, as is often the case, our brethren across the seas are more proactive about avoiding carcinogenic substances in their foods and products. They’re also less influenced by the chemical company lobbys. Ahem.

Another couple of notes from EWG: Also avoid products containing Vitamin A (retinyl palmitate), which, when applied to the skin, can increase the development of tumors and lesions. Don’t use those seemingly convenient spray-on sunscreens either. You and your kids are not only putting that stuff on your skin, but inhaling it as well.

Instead look for these ingredients: zinc, titanium, avobenzone or Mexoryl SX. These substances protect you from UV radiation and are less likely to penetrate into skin.

The safest way to balance sun exposure may be to spend only short amounts of time out in it, and cover up or seek shade if you need to be outside for long. Avoid the burning ball of fire, if possible, between the peak burn times of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

My kids wear sun suits and swim shirts — always have — which minimize sunscreen use and generally protect them better. You don’t need anything fancy — don’t invest your kids’ college funds in SPF-rated clothing. A hat and a shirt could be the best protection. My Southern grandma was right about this one — she lived at the beach, and she used to send my fair, freckled sisters out to play wearing bonnets, shirts that reached to their knees, with any uncovered skin layered with zinc oxide. Interestingly, I was the tanner in the family.

Again, the sunscreen bottom line: try avoid oxybenzone, Vitamin A and spray-ons. Geek out with the sun shirts and hats. Take your siesta in the shade.

Environmental Working Group offers an annual safe sunscreen guide that rates more that 1,400 sunscreens, lip balms and moisturizers, on their Web site. Check it.


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One thought on “Edgy Mama: Grandma was right — bonnets and shirts are the best sun protection

  1. dan

    I agree! People put on sunscreen as if it made them invulnerable. It helps, use it, but that’s only part of the solution, limit your exposure as well. I’m using and recommend this free UV Detector app for my iPhone that gives me UV forecast and alerts http://bit.ly/aOVgNQ , or at least check your weather forecast everyday for UV ratings, even cloudy ones!

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