Last March, on a cold, snowy powder day at Snowbird I answered my phone to hear my doctor tell me I had skin cancer.
Talk about a way to ruin a ski day. At least it wasn’t a sunny day, so I didn’t have to feel guilty about exacerbating the small cancer on the side of my nose. Still, I put a mask on and skied the rest of the season, even in the warm spring sun, with a mask. But what a bummer — especially since skin cancer is an often avoidable condition.
I have always thought of myself as careful with my skin. Since I am often outside, come rain, sleet, snow or sun, I have been a dedicated hat wearer for many years. I also am a (mostly) faithful sunscreen user. Unfortunately, that “mostly” means that one or two times a year I have been burned. Not only that, but I was getting burned even when I was wearing sunscreen.
What I learned from my bout with squamous cell skin cancer is that I was using the wrong sunscreen and had been for years. While I wasn’t necessarily looking burned when I used my cheap supermarket sunscreen, I wasn’t doing myself any favors. I was blocking one type of ray, the UVB, and absorbing a lot of UVA, burning and aging my skin without really knowing the extent of the damage I was doing.
Spring is coming and the sun is getting brighter. Here is what I’ve learned.
1. A physical block is a necessity for optimum protection from the sun. There is no getting around the superiority of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Luckily, this doesn’t mean you have to go around looking like a lifeguard. Advances in microfine zinc oxide and titanium dioxide mean that, for the most part, they are transparent and don’t require vigorous rubbing to blend into your skin.
Microfine zinc oxide (sometimes called Z-Cote) is by far the best choice, as it blocks all UVB rays, all short UVA II rays and the majority of UVA I rays. That’s a lot of rays. Titanium dioxide blocks all UVB, all short UVA II but falls short of zinc oxide on the UVA I spectrum. Look for a sunblock that has both.
2. If you don’t like using a physical sunblock with zinc or titanium, the chemical blend you choose is important. Avobenzone (Parsol 1789) is the only ingredient other than zinc oxide which is good across most of the UVA spectrum.
Other common ingredients such as Octyl Salicylate (OCS), Octyl Methoxycinnamate (OMC), and Octyl Dimethyl Paba (Padimate-O) do nothing at all to block UVA rays. Octocrylene blocks some UVA II rays, but no UVA I rays. Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3) blocks all UVA II rays and some UVA I rays, but no UVB rays.
Yep, that is confusing and you’ll need a cheat sheet to go shopping. Or you can simplify by only choosing sunscreens which have zinc oxide. If I can’t find zinc oxide on the ingredient list, but I see Avobenzone, I figure that makes for a good fall back position.
3. No matter which sunscreen you choose, be sun smart. Wear a hat. Avoid the brightest part of the day from 10:00 – 2:00, if you can. If you can’t, cover up as much of yourself as you can. Patagonia makes some great UPF sun protective clothing that isn’t too geeky looking. I started hiking in their lightweight trousers last summer and didn’t find them very much warmer than hiking in shorts.
Of course, ski helmets don’t have brims, the best skiing is during the brightest part of the day and skiers are already mostly covered up. For winter sports, sunscreen is going to be your best defense.
So Which ‘Screen?
Aside from choosing the right ingredients, picking a sunscreen is personal. Everyone in my family has a different favorite. I have personally tried each of the following brands, several of which I first received as product samples from my doctor, at ski areas, and from distributors.
However, these are all broad-spectrum sunscreens which I feel comfortable using or letting my family use.
My Doctor’s Recommendations
Ultimate UV Defense SPORT SPF 45 or Ultimate UV Defense SPF 30, by Skinceuticals. These sunblocks contain Z-Cote and rub on easy, feel clean, and don’t leave you white. I’ve tried both the SPF 45 and SPF 30 and really like them. These are good all-purpose sunblocks. I completely trust this product.
Anthelios SPF 60, by la Roche-Posay. Ultra light, this sunscreen comes out of its bottle almost watery and has to be shaken before it is applied, but it goes on smooth. My kids like it because they don’t have to rub it in very hard. It isn’t a physical block, but it does have Avobenzone, so it covers the UVA and UVB spectrum when combined with its other ingredients. And, if the boys will wear it without complaining, it is a winner in my book.
All Terrain Winter Sport, SPF 30. This sunblock has Z-Cote, titanium dioxide and numerous essential oils and botanicals such as aloe, jojoba, lavender. It doesn’t have parabens or other chemicals, a fact I really like.
Formulated to protect skin from the winter sun, it also claims to protect skin from the winter wind. I think it works really well, but it is a bit grainy going on. Once it is on however, I feel confident that we are avoiding both sunburn and windburn. If you can get past the grains, it is good stuff.
All Terrain also makes Recovery Rub for sore muscles, which goes on light and smooth, is not overpoweringly scented and feels really good.
Leave a comment on this post with your name before 8:00 a.m. MST Friday (March 11, 2011) and you will be entered into a drawing to win a 3 ounce tube of All Terrain Sunscreen or Recovery Rub — your choice!
Beyond Coastal, SPF 30. This sunscreen doesn’t have either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, but it has everything else you need, it smells nice and feels good. Beyond Coastal also makes an SPF 15 lip sunblock which I love.
Mass-Market and Widely-Available
Neutrogena Sensitive Skin SPF 60+. With zinc oxide and titanium dioxide as the only active ingredients, this widely available brand will turn your skin a bit white, but you won’t get burned. This is my primary choice in the summer when we go through a lot of sunblock because it is relatively inexpensive.
Aveeno Enviroblock, SPF 70. My kids don’t always like the Neutrogena because it can be thick and hard to rub in, especially on their faces. They prefer Aveeno Enviroblock. It has Avobenzone to block UVA rays. It goes on very smoothly and it is moderately light and creamy. You don’t feel like you’re wearing it after you put it on.
Happy Skiing, Happy Spring and Happy Skin!
Congratulations to giveaway winner Nancy!
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