With the passing of the summer solstice, we’ve entered what I call peak summer, those days when everything that makes the season one to savor can be had in such gladful abundance that even us hardened Vermonters are tempted to think winter might just never come again. Chief among these gifts is lots of warmth and the sunshine to go with it. That means slathering on the sunscreen, which evidence suggests might not be the safest idea under the sun. Two years ago, I researched the issue of sunscreens for our newsletter and was surprised by what I found: most sunscreen chemicals, which are designed to be easily absorbed by our skin, cause the kind of mischief that might have us wishing for a rainy day. Some act as free radicals that damage cellular DNA. Others are endocrine disruptors. Some use new untested nanotechnology. It was like heading out for a day at the beach only to learn I was going swimming in a minefield. In fact, I found that few of the ingredients we’ve come to rely on were free of issues. And only one chemical, a relatively new compound called mexoryl, showed any non-toxic promise as a sunscreen. Two years burning down the road, the mainstream press is finally picking up on the concern and asking questions about products that have previously been taken almost entirely for granted. Last week, for example, the Washington Post offered a short summary of concerns while the Denver Post gave its readers a much longer and more detailed look at the subject that featured several useful resources, including The Environmental Working Group’s Sunscreen Guide. I think generally we tend to overdo it on sunscreens when other strategies, like simply seeking shade during peak sun hours, would be much safer for us. Here’s our list of safe sun tips:
- Minimize sun exposure between the hours of 10:00 am and 3:00 pm when sunlight is strongest, and use your shadow as an indicator of the sun’s intensity. If it appears shorter than you are, the sun is at peak strength.
- Don’t use sunscreen on children younger than six months. Instead, keep infants out of the sun.
- Remember that your daily sun exposure is cumulative. Taking a shade break after a long soak in the sun does not reset your day’s exposure.
- UV rays reflect off things like sand, tile, water, snow, so limit your exposure to these reflective surfaces—even in the shade.
- Carry and use an umbrella. Take a big one to the beach for shade and use a smaller parasol for walking around.
- Wear a wide-brimmed hat, and long-sleeved shirts, long pants, or caftans made from light but tightly woven fabric that you can’t see through.
- Consider UV-protective fabric clothing, which is specially woven to lock out the sun but keep you cool.
- Keep an eye out for new research on sunscreens with the ingredient Mexoryl, which is derived from natural camphor. Mexoryl is biodegradable, lasts all day, and has a bodily absorption rate of less that 0.1%. It’s also water-soluble, which means that the little bit absorbed by your skin won’t stay there. While we’d like to see more data before declaring Mexoryl safe, initial reports are promising.