Aldona Bird, Opinion

Don’t let sunscreens burn you

I’m the first to admit, I make mistakes. Some I learn from, others I repeat. One error I end up making yearly is underestimating the power of the sun and getting sunburned.

Every year, I struggle with my stupidity, remind myself of the dangers of skin cancer and the premature aging to come. Then the next year, I figure it’s too early in the spring to get singed, or I lose track of time, or I figure I’ll let myself just get a little tan — vitamin D, amiright?

Usually by late summer I’ve learned my lesson, or become too tanned to burn. This year I already had a very mild burn; more of an extended rosy glow. But it was enough to set me straight.

The next time I hit the garden, I wore a big-brimmed sun hat, a long-sleeved shirt and long pants. I hated it. I hate overheating and overdressing in the summer heat. But I achieved a full afternoon of garden work with no sun damage — a first for me.

I’m crediting this maturing to my birthday, a few months away, at which I’ll reach a milestone age. While lack of maturity might have been a contributing factor, my dislike of sunscreen also contributes to my annual errors.

 I’ve never liked sunscreen. It’s sticky, it’s usually scented in a way that I don’t care for, it’s a hassle to apply and I inevitably miss a spot. When researching sunscreen to pick a child-safe option for my daughter, I learned another reason to dislike the stuff: A lot of it is quite unhealthy.

Active ingredients in sunscreen block UV rays with either mineral or chemical barriers. The most common sunscreen brands use chemical filters, with a combination of oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate.

Little to no testing has been done on these chemicals by the FDA — many ingredients are grandfathered in from the late 70s, with no consideration of their health hazards.

Last year, the agency proposed reevaluating sunscreen safety standards. This came after publication of evidence of systemic absorption of sunscreen chemicals in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The news from other studies of these chemicals, and their effects on humans, isn’t great. Many mimic hormones, and since we apply the stuff often over our entire bodies to our skin (which is great at absorption) they end up disrupting our endocrine systems.

Oxybenzone is particularly concerning. Studies have shown effects on men and women, and found it (and other sunscreen chemicals) in mother’s breast milk. Other studies link oxybenzone in pregnant mothers to altered birth weight, and altered hormone levels in adults.

There are also concerns about some sunscreen chemicals being carcinogens, and from what I’ve read spray-on sunscreen is the most harmful; it easily makes its way into our lungs, which is never good, and the particles are so small that they are easily absorbed.

There is, however, enough data on two active ingredients in sunblock which shows safety and effectiveness. These are the mineral barriers — zinc oxide and titanium dioxide — which block UV rays by creating a physical barrier.

Zinc and titanium by themselves form a white layer on your skin when applied, although the color will fade. The ointment is a pain to apply, since it’s so thick and sticky.

As mentioned above, I usually skip it for myself, but am vigilant about applying it on my kiddo, and zinc oxide sunblocks have kept her from sunburn. This year, maybe I’ll use some, too.

ALDONA BIRD is a journalist, previously writing for The Dominion Post. She explores possibilities of local productivity and sustainable living in Preston County.