I opened up my inbox a few weeks ago to find an e-mail blast from my pediatrician’s office. The heading was “Sunscreen Safety” so I opened it expecting to find the usual information about sun protection factors and a reminder about reapplying frequently. What I found instead was a list of sunscreens and their “safety” ratings. I was a bit perplexed by this, I mean, isn’t all sunscreen safe? Each brand was given a number that fell within a range from “recommended” to “use with caution” and finally, “avoid.”
This prompted me to do some of my own research. Why in the world would sunscreen be considered unsafe? It had never occurred to me the stuff I obsessively slather on my children could be hazardous. (The one I was currently using fell into the “caution” category.) I typed it into the search engine and a myriad of information flooded my laptop. I immediately felt confused and borderline angry. It turns out that many environmental advocates and other assorted groups are claiming that some of the active ingredients used in sunscreen are toxic. According to the Environmental Working Group (a nonprofit), most of the commercially available sunscreens “do not provide adequate protection against the sun’s harmful UV radiation and may also contain chemicals with questionable safety records.” I will spare you my extensive findings, but basically, from what I can grasp, they are saying the chemicals are in question because they can enter the bloodstream and do some unfavorable things to your body, such as disrupt your natural processes and generate a lot of free-radical activity. Doesn’t that sound great? And then there’s a whole other group of people that say it’s all just a farce and we don’t need sunscreen at all because it inhibits our production of vitamin D. It was all so confusing and yet they were all advocating so adamantly. The information swarmed around in my head and I felt like screaming.
So here I am, a self-proclaimed worrier, pondering the fact that I’ve possibly been rubbing down my children (and myself) with toxic chemicals. I’m upset because I feel vulnerable at the hands of all the so-called experts who have given me endless amounts of advice, namely, that of “never forgetting the sunscreen!” I’m frustrated at my own ignorance for not being more environmentally aware and I’m angry that for some reason in our country we seem to be bombarded with a lot conflicting information. I also have to ask the question, if these chemicals are unsafe, why are these products sitting on the shelves of every store I enter? Who do I trust?Since I’m more than a little confused at this point, I decide to err on the side of caution which I often do. Enter: a mother on a mission.
I studied the list of recommended products. (Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database) I read reviews about how easily the products rubbed in and just how “waterproof” they really were. And then, I became a sunscreen-obsessed crazy person. I began my search for a chemical-free sunscreen that offers adequate protection and is easily applied. I marveled at the intensity with which I took on this challenge, seeing as though I was a child whose body never saw an ounce of SPF growing up. I’m not going to say my parents were negligent, but I can only recollect sharing my mother’s Hawaiian Tropic oil and having lots of painful sunburns. I spent every day in my backyard pool or out on a lake smoothing on the oil because I liked the way it smelled. I guess it could have been worse. My stepsister used to slather her body with VEGETABLE OIL and lay on a reflective silver mat. I mean seriously, who does that? Sunburns should have been the least of her worries; she could have burst into flames!
So here I am, armed with my new-found information and a list of sun protection products that are not easily found and definitely not the most economical option. For a busy mom of two, it was more difficult than I anticipated. I rejoiced when I came across one that was on my list and often times almost choked when I saw the price. I was torn between the convenience and not wanting to spend twenty-five dollars on a tiny tube of sunscreen when I knew there were cheaper ones available. I was like a stealth ninja sneaking through the aisles of local discount stores, glancing around the corners to make sure no one saw me squeeze a bit of the product on my hand to test the rub-ability. I opened bottles and sniffed their contents. I read labels until I was nearly cross-eyed. I asked everyone I knew what kind of sunscreen they use. I practically drove my husband crazy but I finally settled on a brand called “Yes to Carrots!” and I’ve been very happy with my choice.
I just wish it didn’t have to be so hard, you know? You think you’re making the right decision and then something comes along and slaps you across the face with a big case of uncertainty. We’re so vulnerable as parents. We would do anything to protect our children and it sometimes feels like those fears are preyed upon It’s hard to know what to believe and who to trust. I guess the best we can do is be as informed as we can and make decisions based on what works for our family. It scares me that despite my best efforts I might not always make the “right” choice. So for now, I’m working on integrating more organic products into our daily lives and trying to educate myself about the guidelines by which products are tested. I can’t promise we’ll be perfect, but I can guarantee with certainty that none of my children will be sunbathing with cooking oil on their skin.
Melanie Chezem is a freelance writer and stay-at-home mom to two little girls. Whether it's life as a mom or life in general, she tells it like it is at www.mommyspills.com