Summertime always seems to bring back memories of being a young child vacationing on the Outer Banks. The thrill of getting that first glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean. The excitement of walking through the doors of Stop and Shop to purchase the best grape gumballs ever made, and more importantly the most amazing plastic bat kite complete with the coolest set of blood red eyes.
The bat kite was always in stock – without fail. Year after year, I could count on it.
There are other fond memories like swimming through Colington canals, Queen Anne’s Revenge, go-carts, races down the sand dunes, blowup rafts, and the crabbing spot near Billy’s Seafood.
But not all the recollections were pleasant. One of those was the uncomfortable feel of being crammed in the back of that big blue, non-air conditioned station wagon with my four siblings after a day at the beach. It was a long drive back to the Harbour.
What I remember most about the drive is being so sunburned that I felt like those poor little crabs we’d catch every year and then watch as they disappeared into the boiling water.
If there was sunscreen around in the late 1970s, my family had yet to discover it. It definitely wasn’t in the same aisle as the bat kites. So Noxema was as firmly cemented in our family tradition as that annual trip to the Stop and Shop.
That blue jar of cool cream was the only relief I could find from blistering shoulders and a scorched back. That and the soaked t-shirt I would be stuck in for the rest of the trip to prevent a further pain and possibly a semi-severe case of sun poisoning.
Fast forward a few decades and I find myself scratching my head as I wade through the bottles lining the sunscreen aisle at the local drug store, determined to save my own children from the fate that fell upon me as a child. I’m suddenly submerged in the confusion of SPFs, UV indexes, sprays, lotions, ingredient names, waterproof claims and brand names.
And when I see a beachgoer who may have forgotten to reapply (or possibly even apply a first time) – or when I or my kids seem to have forgotten ourselves – all I see is that blue bottle of Noxema on the nightstand. The smell of eucalyptus seems to suddenly float through the air.
Fortunately, on today’s Outer Banks, there are plenty of choices when it comes to sunscreens, and some of the best and most natural are even made right here on the island. What’s more helpful is that there are great resources, such as the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the American Academy of Dermatology, that can help when we are trying to decide between SPF 30 and SPF 100, mineral-based or chemical-based, and on other sunscreen conundrums.
The EWG recommends using mineral-based ingredients zinc oxide and titanium oxide for sun protection over chemical-based ingredients. But don’t worry, that doesn’t mean you have to look like a ghost out on the beach. In the good old days, zinc only came in a white and chalky consistency, but now the mineral-based ingredients are made with nanoparticles to reduce the white tint.
According to the EWG, these ingredients provide strong protection with few health concerns and they do not break down in the sun. Zinc oxide offers good protection from UVA rays and while titanium oxide’s protection isn’t as strong, the EWG says it beats most other active ingredients.
And while the EWG and other experts say there are several concerning ingredients in chemical-based sunscreens that can be absorbed into your skin and cause hormone disruption, other reputable sources continue to recommend these sunscreens. So it’s up to the consumer to do the research – and there’s plenty of information out there.
So what about SPF? Shouldn’t we reach for that SPF 100 to ensure we can stay out in the sun longer without reapplying? The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) says no, but recommends an SPF of at least 30. Experts note that an SPF rating has little to do with the product’s ability to shield the skin for UVA rays, which are the leading cause of skin cancer. Rather, the chemicals that form a product’s SPF are aimed at only blocking ultraviolet B rays. So be sure to reach for a bottle that as broad spectrum protection.
Also, the ADD recommends reapplying sunscreen every two hours, but if you are in the water you will have to do it sooner. Water resistant sunscreen only lasts for between 40 to 80 minutes.
And what about that expiration date? The FDA requires that sunscreens remain at their original strength for three years, and some include an expiration date.
Below is a link that can help make sense of sunscreen. It may even save you from having to Noxema part of your Outer Banks vacation tradition. https://www.aad.org/public/spot-skin-cancer/learn-about-skin-cancer/prevent/sunscreen-labels/how-to-decode-sunscreen-lingo.