August is on its last legs, but the sun’s rays are still potent. Potent enough to require that we use sunscreen. Especially those of us whose skin is most vulnerable to those rays.
I’ve been vulnerable to the harsh effects of the sun since birth. And I now apply sunscreen religiously to my face, hands, and arms whenever I expect to encounter sunlight.
When I was younger, sunscreen wasn’t really around. Fortunately for my skin, I spent most of my childhood and youth in cold-weather climates where the sun was absent much of the year. Chicago and Boston, even St. Louis, had long winters featuring gray skies instead of sunshine.
I encountered the sun mostly during summers and a seven-month stay in Los Angeles. But my sun exposure was limited. It was only when I was about 28 and about to embark on a trip to Mexico that I first heard of “sunblock.” Friends advised me to seek it out at the only location where it was known to be available, a small pharmacy in downtown Chicago. I hastened to make my way there and buy a tube of the pasty white stuff, and once I hit the Mexican sun, I applied it to my skin, sparing myself a wretched sunburn.
The pasty white stuff was a powerful reminder of my father. Before he died when I was 12, Daddy would cover my skin with something he called zinc oxide.
Daddy was a pharmacist by training, earning a degree in pharmacy from the University of Illinois at the age of 21. One of my favorite family photos shows Daddy in a chemistry lab at the university, learning what he needed to know to earn that degree. His first choice was to become a doctor, but because his own father had died during Daddy’s infancy, there was no way he could afford medical school. An irascible uncle was a pharmacist and somehow pushed Daddy into pharmacy as a less expensive route to helping people via medicine.
Daddy spent years bouncing between pharmacy and retailing, and sometimes he did both. I treasure a photo of him as a young man standing in front of the drug store he owned on the South Side of Chicago. When I was growing up, he sometimes worked at a pharmacy and sometimes in other retailing enterprises, but he never abandoned his knowledge of pharmaceuticals. While working as a pharmacist, he would often bring home new drugs he believed would cure our problems. One time I especially recall: Because as a young child I suffered from allergies, Daddy was excited when a brand-new drug came along to help me deal with them, and he brought a bottle of it home for me.
As for preventing sunburn, Daddy would many times take a tube of zinc oxide and apply it to my skin.
One summer or two, I didn’t totally escape a couple of bad sunburns. Daddy must have been distracted just then, and I foolishly exposed my skin to the sun. He later applied a greasy ointment called butesin picrate to soothe my burn. But I distinctly remember that he used his knowledge of chemistry to get out that tube of zinc oxide whenever he could.
After my pivotal trip to Mexico, sunblocks became much more available. (I also acquired a number of sunhats to shield my face from the sun.) But looking back, I wonder about the composition of some of the sunblocks I applied to my skin for decades. Exactly what was I adding to my chemical burden?
In 2013, the FDA banned the use of the word “sunblock,” stating that it could mislead consumers into thinking that a product was more effective than it really was. So sunblocks have become sunscreens, but some are more powerful than others.
A compelling reason to use powerful sunscreens? The ozone layer that protected us in the past has undergone damage in recent years, and there’s scientific concern that more of the sun’s dangerous rays can penetrate that layer, leading to increased damage to our skin.
In recent years, I’ve paid a lot of attention to what’s in the sunscreens I choose. Some of the chemicals in available sunscreens are now condemned by groups like the Environmental Working Group (EWG) as either ineffective or hazardous to your health. (Please check EWG’s 2018 Sunscreen Guide for well-researched and detailed information regarding sunscreens.)
Let’s note, too, that the state of Hawaii has banned the future use of sunscreens that include one of these chemicals, oxybenzone, because it washes off swimmers’ skin into ocean waters and has been shown to be harmful to coral reefs. If it’s harming coral, what is it doing to us?
Because I now make the very deliberate choice to avoid using sunscreens harboring suspect chemicals, I use only those sunscreens whose active ingredients include—guess what– zinc oxide. Sometimes another safe ingredient, titanium dioxide, is added. The science behind these two mineral (rather than chemical) ingredients? Both have inorganic particulates that reflect, scatter, and absorb damaging UVA and UVB rays.
Daddy, I think you’d be happy to know that science has acknowledged what you knew all those years ago. Pasty white zinc oxide still stands tall as one of the very best barriers to repel the sun’s damaging rays.
In a lifetime filled with many setbacks, both physical and professional, my father always took joy in his family. He showered us with his love, demonstrating that he cared for us in innumerable ways.
Every time I apply a sunscreen based on zinc oxide, I think of you, Daddy. With love, with respect for your vast knowledge, and with gratitude that you cared so much for us and did everything you could to help us live a healthier life.