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The following is part of an Organic Living Journey Guest Post Series now written by Mariana who has a mother’s heart and scientist’s brain.
Before we get down to the fun stuff, let’s take a minute to get to know one another! When Amy first approached me about continuing the Organic Living Journey, I was both nervous and excited. Nervous- because Amy has done such an amazing job with this series, breaking down seriously complicated research into tangible, useful information. Excited- because “organic living” is truly one of my passions.
About 1.5 years ago, my family of five (including my work-from-home husband and our 3 young boys) began making some changes. We started with organic produce, learned about grass-fed beef, bought a cow (butchered, not as a pet, despite the kids’ requests), stopped buying processed foods, changed some habits…all on a budget.
Today, I’m starting the Fun in the Sun Organic Living series with what will be my family’s next step: organic sunscreen and bug spray. Hopefully, this is timely for you too. Summer is approaching, pools are opening, and the mosquitoes are on the hunt! Let’s begin by discussing the concerns with having fun in the sun.
Part 1: The Sun
Our sun gives off electromagnetic waves. These electromagnetic waves include infrared rays, visible light, ultraviolet rays, and sometimes x-rays. When we talk about the sun’s “harmful rays”, we want to focus on the ultraviolet (UV) rays.
Before we go any further, and if you take nothing else from this article, know this: UV rays are carcinogens. In the world of conventional vs. organic, there are few points of agreement between the different camps: this is one of those points. Everyone agrees that UV rays are carcinogenic and the more exposure you get, the greater the risk. Moving on…
There are three different types of ultraviolet rays: UVA, UVB, and UVC. What’s the difference between these rays?
UVA- these rays make up 95% of all the UV rays that hit our skin, they penetrate the deeper layers of our skin, appear at constant levels throughout the day, are not blocked by clouds or glass, contribute to burns and aging, and recent research suggests UVA rays may initiate skin cancer.
UVB- these rays make up about 5% of all the UV rays that can hit our skin, they peak in the summer months and during the afternoon hours, are easily reflected by glass, snow, water (meaning they’ll hit your skin multiple times), are the main cause of sunburns, surface skin damage, and aging.
UVC- I’m going to consider these a non-issue as they are mostly reflected by our earth’s ozone layer.
What happens when UV Rays hit your skin?
Your skin will absorb the energy from the UV rays.
This energy is used for good and bad. The good: production of Vitamin D, which is essential for bone strength and immunity, specifically disease prevention. The bad: release of free radicals, changing and mutating your DNA, breaking down of connective tissues below the skin (causing wrinkles and sagging), and suppressing your immune system. (Note- seeing as this has happened since the dawn of time and skin cancer hasn’t done us all in yet, there are additional factors at work here. The more exposure you get, the more free radicals can do their damage, the more your immune system is suppressed, and the more likely cancer may begin to develop.)
Your skin is a powerhouse organ! It will continue to absorb the UV rays as long as it’s exposed to them. If your skin absorbs too much energy from the UV rays, your body’s immune system kicks in, activating an inflammatory response. Blood rushes to the damaged skin cells (in an attempt to repair the damage) and you turn bright red. Sunburn- a sign that you’ve absorbed too much UV rays and have damaged your skin.
The Wild Card: your skin has built-in UV protection! Melanin is a pigment (color) in your skin. It protects the deeper layers of skin from UV damage. You are born with a certain amount of melanin potential, and your body can make more when it’s exposed to UV Rays, the suntan. Melanin is why some people can spend hours in the sun without burning and others will get burned within minutes. I’m still learning about melanin’s role in protecting our skin. I’d like to add that even if your skin isn’t getting burned, it’s still being exposed to the rays and experiencing some level of damage. For your viewing pleasure, the Mayo Clinic has compiled a lovely Sun Damage Slideshow. :)
So, where does that leave you? Sun overexposure is a personal threshold. There are a couple of resources that I found to help guide my decisions on how to protect myself and the kids from overexposure.
Determine your “Fitzpatrick Skin Type” – the Fitzpatrick Scale ranges from Level I – “very fair skin, always burns and never tans” to Level VI – “black skin that never burns and tans easily”. I am a Level III. My heritage is Cuban and Puerto Rican, but I can easily burn if I’m not careful (but I think that’s because I’ve hidden from the sun for the past 10 years and haven’t continued building up my healthy melanin). There are several different charts and tests to determine your Fitzpatrick Skin Type. I used this one.
Once you know how sensitive your skin is, find your local UV levels. The EPA’s UV Index resource will tell you the average daily UV index or the hourly UV index (shown). You’ll see something like this:
Image credit: epa.gov
This shows how the UV Index will vary throughout the day. (Obviously, the day I went to the pool from 11AM – 1PM was a bad idea and the cause of my now painful sunburn. Live and learn.)
We can prevent overexposure to UV Rays by avoiding the sun during peak hours, but what if you have to be outdoors during those times?
Always try to find some shade. Keep cool in the shade of a tree or carry an umbrella or parasol. We loved having a huge golf umbrella during soccer season. I picked up a massive umbrella at Ikea for less than $5. Not to be a Debbie Downer, but you can still get some decent UV Ray exposure while under an umbrella on the sand. UVB rays will reflect off sand and water.
Wear a wide-brimmed hat. Now, I’ve never been a hat girl, but I’m embracing this tip. I picked up a big paper straw hat in the Target clearance section for $4.28. I’ve learned that this type of hat is good for blocking some sun, as long as it doesn’t get wet. Water will practically disintegrate it and cause any colors to run…everywhere. I’ve been looking into some water-friendly hats that can be worn poolside and came across ribbon sun hats. These hats are made with a polyester grosgrain ribbon and are more water-friendly. You can find them for $9-30 on Amazon.com. I selected a middle of the road hat and love it. Perfect for the water, blocks the sun, and thoroughly durable.
Cover up. You can find rash guards (swimshirts) just about anyplace that sells swimwear. They will give you very good sun protection, are great for swimming, and dry quickly. These are probably the biggest investment you’ll make, but it makes sun protection totally fool-proof. Last summer, I picked up rash guards for all the boys for about $10-15 each. I bought one size up, and they are still fitting great this year. This year, I want a rash guard for myself! I couldn’t find one in my local Target (maybe you’ll have better luck?), but I did find some online (Old Navy, Amazon, etc) for $13-40. I can’t attest to the quality yet, but I’ll let you know how it goes!
If you can’t physically block the sun, wear a healthful, broad-spectrum sunscreen- but more about this next week!
So, to sum up: UV Rays are worth your concern. Exposure is a huge factor that you can control by staying out of the sun or shielding your skin from overexposure during peak hours. How did your local UV Index info look? Do you have any tips to have fun in the sun without overexposing your skin?
Psst…(If you’re headed to the beach before next week (or you’re an over-acheiver like me) and want to buy a healthful sunscreen now, check out the EWG.org Sunscreen Buyer’s Guide for some quick picks. They even have a handy-dandy app to use while you’re out and about.)