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Something burning under the sun

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Esther Cepeda
June 18, 2012
— I’ve come up with a foolproof moneymaking scheme—it entails buying as much stock as possible in pharmaceutical companies researching skin cancer cures because they’re going to start raking it in soon.

This brilliant plan popped into my head the other day as I was cowering for shade near a large bush while at an amusement park. Despite wearing pants and a white long-sleeved hoodie in the 80-plus degree heat, I was well aware that my dark sunglasses weren’t covering enough of my cheeks and forehead to justify that morning’s decision to not wear sunscreen on my face and hands.


Too many others leave themselves unprotected. Despite years of warnings about the perils of skin cancer, national melanoma rates have been rising steadily, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Though the risk of dying from skin cancer has fallen in that same time, this good news is overshadowed by dramatic increases—men have seen a fourfold increase and women an eightfold rise over the past four decades.


Unlike sun worshippers who love baking themselves in tanning booths and on beaches or those who just don’t understand the risks of sustained exposure—I’ve been well-versed about skin cancer since having several suspicious-looking moles surgically removed four years ago—I still take measured risks because I just can’t stand sunblock.


I hate the smell, I hate the slimy feel of it on my skin and can barely tolerate touching it as it squirts out of the bottle. Even the spray-on type makes me feel sticky-gross. And on top of all this, I now have to wonder how many of the times that I’ve endured it to go to the beach with my family, it’s been either ineffective or unhealthy in other ways.


According to the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) recently released sixth annual “Guide to Safer Sunscreens,” the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s lax regulations still make it allowable for companies to market sunscreens that have chemicals in them that actually heighten skin cancer risk when used on sun-exposed skin. The rules also allow for products to over-hype their UVA protection and SPF (sun protection factor), and use the same amounts and formulations for their adult sunscreen as for their child versions, which are supposed to be more effective.


Oh, and the spray-on kind that I coated myself and my children with last year? Until I read the EWG’s materials, I hadn’t given even a passing thought to the harm the spray could do to young lungs.


It really stinks that even those who conscientiously try to protect themselves and their families from skin cancer are still at risk because they believe misleading labels such as “waterproof,” “sweatproof” and “sunblock.”


At least now I know to slather my loved ones in the highest SPF I can find and reapply it hourly. Personally, though, I’ll endure the sunscreen slime only when it’s impossible to be covered from head to toe or sheltered in the shade—and I’ll keep banking on a skin cancer cure jackpot.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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