May is Melanoma or Skin Cancer Awareness Month. This disease is something I care about deeply because it is a part of my own personal history. Before I share with you some of my own tips and strategies, I would like to share my own personal story about how I got here.
I was a month shy of turning 19, when the doctor called our home and shared the test results. It was a fluke that I went to see the specialist. My mother had an appointment and I had a gut feeling to tag along, mainly because I wanted to remove some annoying moles on my back that made me self-conscious. Over the phone, the doctor explained to me that my biopsy came back positive for melanoma. The words being spoken might as well have been in another language. I understood that it meant I had skin cancer and would require more surgery, but it didn’t stop me. I was young; naïve and I obsessed over the sun. I obsessed over getting that sun kissed glow I could never have, regardless of the cost.
I would spend countless days in my teens using self-tanners, recklessly frequenting tanning beds and thought that burning my skin meant it would eventually fade into a tolerable shade of beige. The tanning beds were my enemy. I would use accelerators and could feel my skin burning, but I didn’t care. I would endure the burning heat for those 10-15 minutes just to look like I had been down south for a month. I would lather on tanning oil and lie in my backyard like I was on some Mediterranean beach. Why didn’t anyone stop me? Why didn’t anyone say, this is going to hurt you in the long run? They did, and it didn’t matter. I was determined to become someone I was never going to be. I was setting myself up for failure. I wanted to be just like the females in magazine covers or makeup ads that used the latest products to enhance their summer glow. I bought it all and nothing ever worked.
My mother always would remind me to apply sunblock and I would, very lightly. On the other hand, she would also tell me I looked a little pale and needed more colour. She struggled with the sun as well. She knew it was harmful, but she too wanted that sun kissed glow. I guess her struggle became my own struggle. When I was a child, she permanently damaged her décolletage because sunscreen wasn’t something they used back in the day. Years later she was diagnosed with melanoma and had a part of her bicep muscle removed as a result. Now she applies her sunscreen, stays covered and loves her bronzer!
It wasn’t until I was diagnosed the second time that I came to terms that this is not going to go away unless I start taking the consequences seriously. I would buy the sunscreens my doctor would recommend, I would use SPF 30, 45 or even 60. I would think if I lathered on SPF 60 I could stay out all day and not worry. I was being fed false information about how sunscreen worked and I was buying products I did not need. Once my daughter was born I would buy sunscreen for her, as well as for my husband and myself. I was spending money on bottles that would take up space in my bathroom when it was unnecessary. I would buy into the latest ingredient as being the best protection yet. Over the years, I curated my own tips and strategies on how to keep my family and I protected from the harmful UV rays.
Sunscreen protection can be daunting and there are so many opinions of which ingredients are best or which brands are better for you. My focus is on simple and clean products that are effective, but aren’t harmful. My goal is to always buy less, but good quality.
Is it necessary to have different sunscreens for different ages?According to my research, not really. The main difference between the two is that baby or kids’ sunscreen is formulated with more mineral based ingredients, such as zinc oxide. The particles are bigger which means it leaves more of a white film, this is due to the fact that it sits on top of the skin layer as opposed to being absorbed. Sunscreens formulated for adults may have more skin irritants and harmful ingredients that kids and infants cannot tolerate. Well then is it ok for adults to use them? Yes, you can use kids sunscreen too. To be honest, I sometimes just buy kids sunscreen and we all use it as a family.
Which ingredients am I to look for? Did you know that Hawaii and a few other places around the world have banned the use of sunscreens with oxybenzone and octinoxate? It not only can be harmful to you, but some scientists have found it may have harmful environmental effects on coral reef and sea life. I try and stick to zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. However, there are also studies that suggest inhaling it through sprays can be harmful. This can become quite overwhelming!! EWG, an organization dedicated to inform the public about what ingredients are safe and which to avoid gives a much more in depth look.
Sprays vs. Cream This can be a personal choice, but I will never buy an aerosol spray sunscreen again. During a trip in Mexico, after a full day at the beach I was burnt to a crisp. We placed frozen dishcloths and they sizzled on my skin. I used SPF 50 aerosol spray and it ended up more in the air than on my skin. Studies also show that certain ingredients, including zinc oxide can also be harmful to inhale. If you like the idea of spray, I suggest using a non-aerosol spray to avoid inhaling harmful ingredients. If you’re concerned about applying lotion on young children, may I suggest a sunscreen stick? My three year old applies it on her own (of course with adult supervision). Click here to see which one we love to use.
Clothing When my husband and I spent our honeymoon in Positano during the month of July, it was breezy, but it was HOT. As we walked up and down the one windy road to the beach and back to our hotel, each boutique we passed would have beautiful cotton and linen clothing on display. They knew what worked for their climate. You can definitely buy UV protected clothing, but I am not always a fan. I do, however buy a few UV pieces for my kids, especially those bathing suits with sleeves. For myself, I have invested in breezy linen blouses in light colours such as light pinks, blues and whites to help deflect the heat. Linen is a natural fibre that breathes. It is sustainable and can be affordable. They are perfect when I spend several hours out in the garden. If you’re not into wearing long sleeves in the summer, I recommend looking at cotton or linen shawls to drape over your shoulders.
What to do if you are stuck in a sunny area in the middle of the day? As a teacher, I am responsible to supervise students during recess. The lunch hour is around noon and the afternoon break is around 2:00 pm. The sun at this time is at its’ peak. If I don’t have my sunscreen with me, I try my best to carry sunglasses, a light linen scarf to cover my shoulders and arms and a wide brimmed hat. I also don’t recommend keeping sunscreen in the car because of high temperatures it can alter the formulation.
Don’t forget about unlikely places When doing a full application do not forget your ears, hands, feet (even if you are wearing sandals), neck and your lips. I always forget to apply on my ears and feet and they are the first places to burn after a day outside. I invested in a chapstick that has at least SPF 30.
The higher the SPF the better I am protected Yes and no. First of all, what does SPF actually mean? The term actually stands for Sun Protection Factor. Essentially if you are using SPF 30, it will take you 30x times longer to get burnt from the sun compared to not wearing any sunscreen at all. If you are using broad-spectrum sunscreen, it will help protect against both UVA and UVB rays. The number dictates how much protection from UVB rays, which is what gives you that lovely lobster glow. SPF 30 protects 97%, SPF 50 I believe is 98% and so on. The important piece to take out of this is, use at least SPF 30. If it makes you feel better to use 50 or 60, that is fine too. My dermatologist even mentioned that SPF 30 would be fine, even with me having had skin cancer. The biggest misconception is that the higher the SPF means you don’t have to reapply as often. This is false, you should still be reapplying every two hours, the same you would for lower SPFs. If you are sweating or in the water, follow the label directions, but reapplying every 40 minutes or right after is best. There is no such thing as waterproof or sweat proof sunscreen. Don’t be fooled!
Do I need to wear sunscreen on a cloudy day? Yes. If I know I will be gardening outside all day or going to the park with my kids and it is cloudy I will either cover up or put on sunscreen. We tend to stay out longer if the sun isn’t present and not apply sunscreen, which can still lead to skin damage. This also includes the winter. Sun reflection off of snow can be even more harmful then on a hot summer day. Wear sunscreen or cover up all year round.
I don’t usually burn; I don’t need SPF 30 or higher. Guess what, just because you have that beautiful dark skin tone that I have yearned for many years does not make you safe from the sun. You might not burn, but you are exposing your skin to the same UVA and UVB rays like others. This makes you vulnerable to getting skin cancer and premature aging like others with fair skin (you might have a slightly better defence line, but you’re not fully covered).
Will sunscreen protect me from skin cancer? No. Sunscreen alone cannot protect you from this. Using SPF 100 does not give you 100% coverage from the sun. There is no guarantee that any of this will protect you 100% from skin cancer. Exercise caution, stay in a shaded area or indoors during peak hours and cover up whenever possible.
How do I know if my moles might be cancerous? This alone could be a post in itself, but I am not a professional. One thing I can say is if you feel concerned about something you find on your body it doesn’t cost a thing to get it checked it out. I get checked every year or so and one visit a mole might not be suspicious, but it might in the future. Be aware and don’t be afraid to confront it.
I hope these tips are helpful and sharing my own struggle inspires you to choose the right products for you and your family when practicing sun safety this summer. This post is not endorsed or affiliated with any company or organization suggested. This is information based on my own personal experiences and you should always consult a medical professional when you are unsure about sun protection.
Here are some links I find helpful:
Canadian Skin Cancer Sunscreen Prevention
Government of Canada Sun Safety Tips