Sing It With Me Now: Sunshiiiine On My Shoooooulders Makes Me Happyyyyyy

In the past week I ran across this article about an elderly gentleman who after nearly three decades of truck-driving, developed an interesting case of what is called unilateral dermatoheliosis (a fancy term for "sun damage"). The left side of his face (hence the "unilateral") is visibly more wrinkled and droopy than the right. The photograph is meant to shock us as to the damage caused by repetitive exposure to the sun and serve as a warning to reduce our risks. Not surprisingly, this has led to the debate as to how evil sunscreen is, chemically altering our bodies and generating third nipples and pus-filled toenails. Have you even met me??

I was diagnosed with malignant melanoma in 2010 and I unashamedly admit to harping on my friends who unwittingly announce, "ohemgee! I got The Worse sunburn this weekend while boating!" Frankly, I don’t find it an amusing anecdote, and I find it similar to my 20-something nieces and nephews regaling of how much they puked in the neighbor’s yard last night after binge-drinking. It’s stupid, self-harming behavior that’s entirely preventable.

It’s been a long time since I have felt so unwavering about a topic. I’m about to get up on my high horse and RIIIIIIDE!!

What really twisted my knickers were the remarks that came up in response to this particular image (which I discovered has been circulating around the ‘web for a couple years now…), specifically how they would rather send their kids outside without sunscreen and expose them to the risks of the sun rather than apply sunscreen because the risks that can be attributed to the chemicals. Then there’s the argument that exposure to the sun is good for us and our children.

…Regretfully, this is true.

My oldest sister was diagnosed with rickets as a little girl. When the disease was described to me, I imagined that she had decided to hole up in the basement and live among the toads and salamanders we shared the dirt walls with, and that she only came up to go to school. It explained so much about my weird sister… Now of course, I was just a child then and have since realized that my sister’s rickets resulted in her refusal to drink or eat dairy of any kind (not an uncommon side-affect of having been raised on a dairy farm. Some day I’ll tell you about chickens. REAL chickens.). My sister did not acquire rickets because she was not outside getting sun, it was her crappy diet.

"Sunlight lets human skin cells convert Vitamin D from an inactive to active state," (Wikipedia) That’s the simplest definition I have found, but what’s difficult to calculate is HOW much sunlight is needed to do this. Surprisingly, it is very little. VERY little: 10 minutes a day for most Caucasians. For me, that’s how long it takes me to walk up our lane to the mailbox and back dressed in shorts and a t-shirt. Plus, our bodies can store Vitamin D, which is how we get by in the winter months, in addition to foods that are supplemented with the vitamin. That means if you are going boating, beaching or biking, you’re going to need to protect yourself from the sun for all but a handful of minutes, which is the amount of time it will take for you to properly apply it. Sunscreens are not your only options here, but let’s talk about it.

Sunscreens can be filled with lots of nasty chemicals. The kind of stuff you don’t want on your skin when you go out in the sun, much less every day and certainly not every day on your kid’s skin. I found this wonderful website that can help you immensely wade through the goop of sunscreens, whether you just need a lip balm or something mineral-free for your family. It’s Environmental Working Group (ewg.org) and this database on their site lets you look up the sunscreen you are using; research the ones that your friends have "recommended"; or to research what ones are the best to go out and get. I wish I had known of this website before our Disney trip as it includes make-up and moisturizers as well.

From this website, a bullet-point review of sunscreen (emphasis is mine):

  • Use a sunscreen with a minimum of SPF 15 and a maximum of SPF 50;
  • Make sure labels list UVA and UVB (or broad spectrum protection);
  • Avoid products containing oxybenzone and retinyl palminate if you’re concerned about potentially toxic chemicals;
  • Choose lotions versus spray sunscreens for a more evenly distributed protection.
  • Remember to apply at least 2 ounces of lotion (about a shot glass full) and reapply often. The sun breaks down the ingredients in sunscreen that protect your skin. Experts recommend reapplying every two hours, or after swimming or heavy sweating.

Not only is anything over SPF 30 a waste of money, it can actually contain more harmful ingredients. With the new labeling requirements, it’s easy to spot the ones that say "broad spectrum". I do like the convenience of the spray, but only because I use to not like having the lotion on my hands and nowhere convenient to wipe them. Now that I can use every drop of coverage possible, excess just gets wiped off on my arms and legs. You all should know what a shot glass looks like. Imagine it full of your fave booze. That’s how much an adult needs to use with EACH application.

OK. You don’t like sunscreen. Fine, I get that it smells, is sticky, can make the kid’s eyes burn out of their heads, attracts dust, is full of poisonous shit. Well, whatever. No one ever said "sun protection" comes in applicable sunscreens only. Here’s your chance to show off your Scarlett O’Hara straw hat or to take a stroll with a parasol or wear a flowy beach cover-up. I have versions of all of those and I can’t tell you how freeing it actually is to 1) not have to do my hair just to go to the pool or beach; 2) get to use the silk parasol my husband had personalized with my name from Disney (and receive compliments everywhere I go with it) and the luxury of shade when there is none to be found (soccer field! track field! local car show! parade!); and 3) keep my fat ass under wraps.

I am definitely in the minority here in Hickville, USA. I guess I would have to call myself progressive when I’m surrounded by a sea of farmer’s tans, exposed bra straps and tank tops. I had to make this lifestyle work for me. I’m aging and my children are so young. I want to see my daughter get old enough she can sign my living will and put me away in a nursing home. I don’t want her to get married and have "In memory of my late Mother" typed in hindsight on the wedding program.

I honestly didn’t mean for this to be so long and I admit that about three-quarters of the way through, my bitch-and-complain sail lost wind, which explains why I started off so ranty and then petered out. To end this diatribe, I’ll share a quick exchange between my husband and myself from this weekend when we went to the local lakeside beach. Setting the scene: Me, sitting under our enormous sport-brella. Sparring Partner, sitting just outside of the shaded area next to me where I notice his back is getting a bit red in spite of getting an application of sunscreen.

"Hey, why don’t you scoot back a bit so you’re in the shade?"

"I’m fine. It’s not affecting you."

"If I had had lung cancer, and I knew you were smoking cigarettes when you weren’t around me, would you still say ‘It’s not affecting you,’ as an excuse to smoke?"

He moved to sit in the shade with me.

Your choice to not protect yourself may not directly AFFECT me, but it does have an effect on me. I care.