First day of May my first-born girl asks the question most dear to all children: “How many days until summer?” Since she’s not in school yet, what she really wants to know is how long until she can wear shorts without asking. Until the backyard pool gets blown up. Until mom lets the family leave the house without a light jacket AND a winter coat in the car just in case for everyone involved. Dissatisfied with our explanation that “it’s complicated” she pushed us for something concrete that she could hold us to. We panicked and gave her the solstice date. Every day since, we–and everyone else who’ll make eye contact–gets the current count-down status. Father’s Day was T-minus-one-day and still 51 degrees and rainy.

A more reliable predictor of summer is the sudden flood of sunscreen “information.” Email, magazine articles, local news. The information we get has been so processed and repackaged that it hardly resembles the original research. You and I couldn’t even understand the original research, much less figure out what we should do based on it. You can barely find a citation. What we do get, we get because months ago someone wrote “sunscreen” next to June on their marketing or story-planning calendar.

Still, cynical as I am, the very volume of information demands that I do something. But what? My own first-born-girl, concrete-craving brain can’t make sense of all the contradictory info. Page 108 of RealSimple says that *any* sun-induced change of skin color is an injury. Flip the page and here’s the swimsuit coverup that will best show off my “sunkissed shoulders.”

The next best thing to black-and-white is a framework. That way only the information that matters has to be looked at, and I get to choose what matters. Everything else falls off the table.

So here. Let me fling my own heap of “information” devoid of citations into the teetering pile. It’s a framework I’ve come up with for choosing–or changing–the sunscreen(s) you’ll use this summer.

And the categories are:
Health and Safety
Lifestyle Choices
Skincare Goals
Immediate Gratification

If you, like me, are a self-improvement junkie but still fail to “put first things first,” you’ll be relieved to see that I will discuss the categories in the order in which you and I will actually consider them. We might as well be honest with our unimproved selves.

Immediate Gratification. Yea! One of the best ways to choose your sunscreen is to choose based on how it smells. Choose lime and coconut and you are perpetually on vacation; essential oils you love and your spirits are lifted. Or choose based on slip. Does it feel like a million bucks going on? If it burns your eyes, you aren’t going to be that into using it on your face (she said as her own eyes complained about the sunscreen she bought while waiting for the ferry). Or are you chintzy? If you know you will mentally weigh the cost of applying that shot glass full of sunscreen every time you do it, choose economically. Consider the packaging. Are dropping brand names important to you? All these (and add your own) factors make the very act of using the sunscreen the payoff, and its actual benefits are just incidental. Just the way we pleasure-seeking pain-averse people like it!

Skincare Goals. Ten years ago my skincare goal was to resolve my acne and scarring. Today I’m trying to reverse all these brown spots I picked up with sun exposure, age, and the hormonal fluctuations involved with a couple of pregnancies. The appropriate sunscreens are very different: oil-free, non-irritating, with just enough SPF back then compared to the bullet-proof Kevlar stuff I wear today. Vanity will make you do just about anything. Might as well make that work for you.

Lifestyle Choices. Do your summer plans include moments on the water? In the water? Sweating? Hiking? Air travel? There are specialized sunscreens that are waxy like chapstick that you can put on your forehead and eyelids so that it won’t run into your eyes while you’re delivering that backhand shot. Some sunscreens attract bees, which can “bee” alarming if you’re hiking. Sunscreen wipes are light enough to tuck into your backpack. Or into carry-on luggage. Or into your purse for spontaneous romantic lunches at sidewalk cafes. Hey! It’s summer! Anything can happen!

And finally Health and Safety. There’s really only one thing you need to remember here: do not rely on sunscreen alone to protect your skin. That’s because while the research is conclusive that almost all skin cancer is caused by exposure to UV radiation in the sun’s rays, the jury is still out on how effective sunscreens—individually or as a whole—are for preventing it. I KNOW! It’s hard for me to believe it myself. But as an example of the gray area, your sunscreen’s SPF rating only measures protection against UVB. The labeling of “full-spectrum” that some sunscreens use is meaningless because until this week, there were no standards for measuring UVA protection.

Soon you will begin to see changes on sunscreen labels. On the front you will see the verbiage “Broad Spectrum” (if it is) along with the SPF. There will also be a Drug Facts panel on the back like you currently see on all other over-the-counter drugs. Behind these visible changes are new FDA standards that manufacturers must use to test sunscreens before they have the right to make the “Broad Spectrum” claim. These changes have been years in the making, and the regulation won’t be fully in effect until summer of 2012. S-l-o-w.

What’s fast is the excited jumping up and down by watchdog groups and the watchers of watchdog groups. It adds a lot of confusion about the legitimate side-issues involved with sunscreen. Like the other ingredients in sunscreens: Warnings about retinyl palmitate’s use in sunscreen for its anti-aging properties are supposedly based on a study that did indeed find that retinyl palmitate may speed the growth of tumors and lesions when exposed to light…buuut no sunscreen with retinyl palmitate in it was ever tested. The stated research did not result in the stated finding. Or delivery systems: How does spray-on sunscreen affect one’s lungs? Or consumers’ false sense of security: Do people rely on sunscreen to protect them, increase their exposure to sunlight accordingly, and end up absorbing more radiation than they otherwise would have?

On this front you always have to think about who is delivering the message, where they got it, and what they have to gain if you believe it. Then you have to calmly make decisions based on what you know at the time, common sense, and the level of risk you’re willing to live with. Sticking your head in the sand might protect your face from the sun, but you’ll still need to CYA.

The summer my step-dad was diagnosed with melanoma I was already pretty careful about not getting sunburned thanks to the day at the water park when the tops of my boyfriend’s feet got so sunburned they turned blue. But Jerry’s death… That was life-changing and behavior-altering. It was agonizing and about 30 years premature. And his Texas sunbaked shoulders looked an awful lot like my own. My perceived risk there feels pretty high, so for *me*, my face gets whatever SPF is in my makeup, my pinto-bean-lookin’ eye area gets a higher SPF formula by a brand I trust, and my back and shoulders get clothes. Period. I’m the gal by the pool with the towel around my shoulders and happy to be that.

All my other body parts are on their own, and I’m willing to accept that level of risk.

Ambivalence. A very grown-up word. It means I can hold simultaneous and contradictory attitudes about one object. Sunscreen is helpful–and profitable. Gobs of money will continue going into sunscreen research–and sunscreen marketing. The suncreen knowledge-base will continue to evolve slowly–and be spun frequently. Still I have choices to make about it that will affect my health and my children’s health and attitudes. It’s complicated! So I go after the concrete the best I can and try not to knee-jerk too much.

Say, anyone know how long until the autumnal equinox?

Angela Graham
Maristella Spa Services
4026 NE 55th Street, Suite E-240
Seattle, WA  98105

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