Kelly Hearn | COMMON GROUND

Psssst, summer’s coming, so it’s time to study up on sunscreens.

There are debates swirling about the health impacts of sunscreens. What’s up with that? Are some safer than others? How should sunscreens be used? Or should we just stick to the shade?

The key is balance and, importantly, avoiding the wrong sunscreens.

Plans vary. But fortunately there are resources and tips to help.

Smart sunning requires finding that level of exposure that gives our body the sun-derived Vitamin D it needs while avoiding three types of skin cancer: melanoma, squamous cell and basal cell.

First off, we have to recognize that vitamin D is a key nutrient the body needs to fight a variety of diseases such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, high blood pressure and some forms of cancers. And experts say a surprising number of people lack Vitamin D. So, generally speaking (and there are always exceptions) we do need some sun … sans sunscreen.

Calculated Sun Time

With that in mind, what are the sunscreen rules?

Michael F. Holick, Ph.D., M.D., has been researching this and discusses it in his book, The UV Advantage. Holick, who’s also professor of medicine, physiology and biophysics at Boston University School of Medicine, says more than 120 peer-reviewed studies demonstrate that moderate exposure to UV (that’s ultraviolet) light will give the body the vitamin D it needs without significant skin damage.

Holick says that slathering SPF 15 sunscreen all over your body (about one ounce) prevents its ability to make vitamin D by 95 percent. For that reason, he says everyone needs a little unprotected time in the sun, depending on the latitude, time of day, season and degree of skin pigmentation. His book offers tables for knowing how much to get but, he says, there’s a rule of thumb: Typically for very light skin Caucasians — who will get mild pinkness after a half-hour in the sun — he recommends only a fraction of that, some five to 12 minutes, two to three times a week. After that, with a base tan built up, he says, the fair skinned can stay in the sun about twice that time. Then bring on the hats and sunscreen. Those of you with darker skin extrapolate accordingly (or buy his book).

Toni Bark, M.D., medical director for the Center for Disease Prevention and Reversal in Chicago, recommends if you’re going to be in the sun, start your day by putting antioxidant vitamin lotions on your exposed skin. “Many studies have shown vitamins C and E to be protective against cellular damage caused by either the sun or free radicals in general,” she says.

As an avid hiker and skier of sunny slopes, the doctor, 45, swears by her personal program that includes, first thing in the morning, using a lotion with 20 percent vitamin C if she’s going to be outside. With that, she mixes pure vitamin E oil, putting it on the parts of her body that will be exposed to sun. She’ll do her time in the sun without sunscreen and then apply it. All the while, giving her body the protective “force field” of the antioxidants, vitamins C and E.

Absorb or Block Those Rays?

When shopping for a sunscreen, experts say consumers should buy broad-spectrum products that block both UVB and UVA rays. And, this is where it starts to get dicey … know your sunscreens!

Importantly, Bark says, sunscreens are lumped into two categories, the chemical types and the physical or mechanical types. Chemical sunscreens, she says, generally absorb UVB radiation, the so-called “burning rays” of the sun and then disperse that energy through chemical reactions generating those maverick “free radicals” that rust our cells from the inside out. “There has been a growing body of evidence that this free radical formation causes DNA damage and or breakage,” she advises. (Some sunscreen brands are better than others; we’ll get to that.)

In contrast, says Bark, physical or mechanical sunscreens — notably called sun blocks — come in the old-fashioned form of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, white creams that reflect radiation rather than absorb it. As founder of Plan-It-Green and Apothecare, companies that sell healthy, enviro-friendly products, the physical sunscreens are Bark’s favorite form of sun protection.

Even so, the problem for sunscreen makers is that the white stuff wears like clown make-up (not always a popular look) so companies have shrunk the molecules to eliminate the problem. “But this was done at the expense of toxicity,” Bark notes, “and these smaller-molecule physical sunscreens have been shown to cause some DNA damage as well.” So if you use the mechanical sun blocks, maybe start a beach trend and wear the Bozo make-up (she says it does come in different fun colors!).

The Dark Side of Sunscreens

Manufacturers use a confusing mix of chemicals to make sunscreens. But the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a frequently cited watchdog organization, has authored a report to help us know what’s, ahem, getting under our skin.

In a remarkable interactive database, entitled Skin Deep (see info box), EWG offers a safety assessment of 166 sunscreens and tanning oils. The report, which contains info about specific products, found that:

• 80 of the reviewed products may pose cancer risks.
• 11 contain ingredients that damage the skin and may increase risk of skin cancer.
• 52 products contain ingredients that may contain impurities linked to breast cancer.

To help consumers get wise, the EWG has also flagged 10 products it says carry the highest potential danger. Topping the list is “Murad APS Oil-Free Sunblock Sheer Tint” containing a cocktail of questionable chemicals, including triethanolamine, which EWG says may form cancer-causing nitrosamines when rubbed into the skin. In fact, six of the 10 products identified as those “you may want to avoid” contain triethanolamine, including Banana Boat and Coppertone products marketed for kids.

Complicating matters, the report says many sunscreens contain chemicals that have not been assessed for safety. For example, the Banana Boat product, “Baby Magic Sunblock Spray, SPF 48” ranked high for potential health dangers, containing 16 unstudied chemicals.

So know what you’re getting and seek out the least questionable products. The EWG helps by listing what it says are “Better Choices.” Ironically, both Coppertone (Sport Sunblock Gel, SPF 30) and Banana Boat (Protective Tanning Oil Sunscreen, SPF 15) have products on this list as well. Among natural-products companies, Jason and the French company Mustela make the grade.

It’s important to remember that health data is very limited on many of the chemicals used in sunscreens (and other personal care products). Think of groups like EWG as erring on the side of caution, calling attention to the fact that ill-understood and potentially harmful chemicals may present cumulative health impacts after consistent, long-term use—not single applications.

Kelly Hearn writes from and suns himself in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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Kurt Chandler | Salon

Growing up, I was terrified of my father’s hair-trigger temper. So it was with surprise, and shame, that I found myself exploding at my teenage son.

It’s a fine Friday morning. My wife fries bacon in the kitchen as I lead our kindergartner daughter through her bathroom routine. In the living room, our son, a high school freshman, slouches on the sofa, reading the paper.

I hand my daughter, Emma, her toothbrush and spy a damp, green bath towel heaped on the floor, no doubt the property of her brother, Ben. It’s frivolous, an errant towel, and should be no more than a nuisance on this glorious Wisconsin day. But it’s the same green towel that was heaped on the floor yesterday, and the day before. Today it sets me off.

I snatch up the towel and stalk into the living room with the evidence.

“Ben. What is this?”

He glances up absently from the sports page.

“Ah, let me see. A towel?”

A smartass reply from a smartass 14-year-old. And normally I’d let it slide or come back with my own smartass reply. But he levels his remark at me with a look of such disdain — a glower that I see more and more as he grows older — that I lose it.

“Goddamn it, Ben.” My circle of vision collapses. I can see no light, no detail. Only the smug scowl on Ben’s face.

And it becomes my target.

I lunge for him. I tear the newspaper from his hands and hook him around the head with my arm, knocking him off balance and pushing his smug little face into the sofa.

He goes down without resistance, taken aback by the swiftness and force of my rage. And then he panics.

“Don’t touch me! Get your hands off of me!” he spits into the cushion.

And in seconds, it’s over. I release my grip and push away.

Ben springs to his feet and out of my reach. His ears are beet red. His T-shirt is hiked up his back. His glasses lie on the rug under a table. He looks at me for a long second, his face wracked with shock and utter, desperate hurt.

“I’m out of here,” he mutters, his eyes damp and downcast, and he stomps out the front door, not bothering to retrieve his glasses.

I hover in the middle of the room, dizzy now, the adrenaline drained. And in the corner of my eye, in the hallway mirror, I see my reflection. Jaw tight, brow furrowed, eyes ablaze. The face is familiar. It’s my father’s face, the same face that raged at me so many times, so many years ago.

Damn.

My father.

Damn. Damn. Damn.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

My father only made it to age 58. He died of lung cancer when Ben was 6, before his grandson really knew what made him tick. It has been up to me to explain to Ben the many sides of my father — including the hair-trigger anger that eventually would be handed down.

My father’s rules were rigid, his punishment swift. For the worst offenses, his discipline could turn corporal — a “lickin’,” as it was grimly referred to, exacted with a large, muscular hand, the hand of a carpenter.

Yet it wasn’t the punishment that was most feared. No, it was my father’s temper that planted dread into the hearts of my siblings and me. Sometimes the most seemingly harmless deed — a bicycle left out in the rain — would push him to the edge. He would explode in a roar, shouting us into obedience. When I reached adolescence, a gulf grew between us, widened by my rebellion and his temper. Time and again we would clash, battling over things both momentous and trivial — the war in Vietnam, the length of my hair. My father would pace the kitchen floor, delivering a stern admonishment as I stood silently, leaning against the counter. Suddenly his rage would erupt, pinning me against the counter like a blast from a fire hose. I would take it, wordlessly, my arms crossed at my chest, despising him for his bluntness and shamed by his reproach. Then I would strike back, hollering into his face until, in a fit of frustration, I would bang out the kitchen screen door.

After the dust settled, my father would try to smooth things over with a touch of humor, using his playful teasing like a verbal mussing up of my hair. But there were no words of reconciliation, no discussion of the fury that had been unleashed. The dysfunction was locked away, never sorted out.

It wouldn’t be fair to say my father had a mean streak. He was a bighearted man, willing to give his time to friends and family without complaint. He spent many hours with me, one on one, heaving a baseball high into the evening sky when he was dead tired from work. And when we moved to the parceled pasturelands of Milwaukee’s western suburbs, he built a wooden footbridge over a creek that separated our backyard from our neighbors’, a magnanimous gesture.

But sometimes the man boiled inside. And when the pressure became too great, he boiled over.

I have a photograph of my father as a young man. He is scowling at the camera, wearing a look of complete contempt that could stop traffic. I don’t know what was behind that particular scowl, and I can only guess what fueled his rage later in life — the strain of his job, of raising four children, of missed opportunities. He kept it to himself, lived with it, as so many men of his generation were prone to do. He buried himself in his work, his most loyal friend. I’ve seen that expression a thousand times — on the face of my father, my brothers, and on my own face. Sometimes I see that same scowl on the face of my son — and I feel accountable.

It has become my duty as my son’s father — and my father’s son — to cut the scorn and anger out of the family tree, as if it were a diseased limb or rotted stump.

But anger is hard to carve away. The roots go deep.

Ben has seen his own anger rise up from within. Weeks earlier, he roared at his sister when he found her rummaging through his desk drawer. “Stay out of my room!” he bellowed. “You can’t just come in here any time you feel like it.”

Ben’s thunder frightened Emma and sent her running for her mother. He later apologized, all was forgiven, and we wrote it off as an adolescent mood swing. But I sensed it was more than that. It was anger inherited.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

My scuffle with Ben over the bath towel casts a pall over our home. The next day, a Saturday, he repels my attempts to break the ice. But on Sunday, he reluctantly agrees to come along on a family day trip to an apple orchard.

Candy apples and a petting zoo draw Emma into the barn at the edge of the orchard, and my wife, Cathy, follows.

“Let’s go pick some apples,” I say to Ben, seeing my chance, and we wade through the field grass, the tall blades sweeping against our jeans.

We start with Harrelsons, pulling the lowest fruit from a squat, gnarled tree. The tree resists for a moment, its branch bending, then gives up the fruit, the branch flying back.

“Smells like rain,” I say, studying the sky. But Ben says nothing.

“You’re still mad at me, aren’t you,” I say.

“Maybe. Maybe I am.” And he moves to another tree. “I just don’t like being pushed around.”

I hesitate, but I know this is the time for amends.

“That was wrong of me, Ben. And I’m sorry. It frightened me. Reminded me of my father.”

Ben’s eyes narrow and he waits for more.

“I need to work on my temper,” I say. “The pressure builds and I just lash out at whoever’s closest. There’s no excuse. You’ve seen it happen, you’ve felt it yourself. Let’s just try to let it go.”

My son and I have talked about male rage and how hard it is sometimes to predict or avoid. But it has become easier for me — for us — to control it. With words instead of stubborn silence, it can be brought into the open, laid bare and the roots sheared, so nothing grows between us.

We move on to another apple tree, two paper bags nearly filled with fruit. Ben pulls down a Macintosh, bites into it. Then he sends the core flying. I turn, but not in time. The apple finds its target, my stomach.

“Oooff.” I double over. Ben laughs at his precision and picks up another apple.

“Wait!” I call out, backing away and laughing myself. “Truce! Truce!” And he drops the apple.

A drizzle is falling. Raindrops spill down my face and I wipe my eyes with my sleeve. In the distance, Cathy is calling.

“Come on. It’s starting to rain, we’ve got to go. What are you guys doing?”

We grab the apples and make a beeline to the barn.

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