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I Don't Always Slather Sunscreen on My Daughter

I was a slave to the sun in my teen years — hours spent laying out, pouring on the baby oil, soaking up the rays and loving the dark tan that formed as proof of my dedication to the outdoors.

By the time I was 16, I had discovered tanning beds and was making daily visits after school, in addition to my weekends spent outdoors basking in the sunlight that never seemed to go away in Arizona. From the time I was old enough to have a say, I turned my nose up at sunscreens and instead opted for tanning lotions and oils. Anything to further enhance my glow.

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By the time I was 25, I had my first skin cancer scare: two large areas of basal cell carcinoma that had to be removed and left gnarly scars that I jokingly refer to as “knife wounds” today. I am a fair-skinned girl with a family history of melanoma. The years I spent vying for the perfect tan were, perhaps, among the most dangerous choices of my misspent youth. At 31, I can’t go to the dermatologist without them finding something “suspicious” to remove. And I wait … counting on the day when one of those biopsies comes back as something more frightening than just basal cell. It seems almost inevitable that day will come, given my history and that of nearly every member of my father’s side of the family.

So as a mother, my gut instinct should be to now slather my child in the sunscreen I never wore enough of in my own childhood, right?

Well, it turns out — the answer’s not quite that simple.

I consider myself a pretty crunchy mama. Or at least, I try to be a crunchy mama. Years ago, when I first began experiencing issues with endometriosis and the subsequent loss of my fertility, I found myself turning more and more toward natural therapies when western medicine seemed to be failing me. I found more relief from acupuncture and myofascial release treatments than I ever had from the medication that had my hair falling out and caused me to vomit nearly every day. And visits with a naturopath and nutritionist had me revisiting my entire diet and suddenly considering all that is wrong with the processed foods many Americans so thoughtlessly consume today.

I am by no means perfect. I still have my weaknesses and guilty pleasures when it comes to foods that I know are not good for me. But I try really hard to implement an organic, whole-foods diet in our home. When it comes to feeding my daughter, I work diligently to avoid the hormones and chemicals that plague many of our foods today.

I would say I do a pretty good job about 80 percent of the time.

But my concerns don’t just stop with food. I am also forever aware of what I am putting on her body, not just in it. Not only because she has some seriously sensitive skin, but also because I have done the research and know that many lotions and household products are full of chemicals that have never been tested by the FDA in terms of safety. And when it comes to the products we put directly on our skin, many of those chemicals have the ability to leach into the bloodstream.

And that's pretty terrifying when you think about it.

Like most things these days, I don’t totally know what to believe as a mom. I want to do what is best for my child, but I don’t know what that is.

So recent reports surrounding the dangers of sunscreen have me nervous. Particularly now, in the middle of summer, when the question of whether or not to slather my baby up before we head outdoors is always there.

Sunscreen, and the chemicals that make up sunscreen, have recently been linked to increasing rates of cancer. Those same chemicals have also been linked to increased rates of endometriosis, the disease that robbed me of my fertility and left me in debilitating pain for years.

So, of course, the more I've read, the more panicked I've become. I literally spent hours one Saturday afternoon researching and trying to determine what would be more dangerous to my little girl in the long run: sunscreen or sun burns.

The problem is that the answers vary, depending on where you look. One report will poo-poo any anti-sunscreen sentiments, while the next cries out about the dangers. Apparently all it takes is one bad sunburn in childhood to more than double a person’s risk of melanoma, but other studies have shown that the hormone disrupters in some chemical sunscreens can interfere with normal development.

It honestly starts to feel like there is no winning at all.

Like most things these days, I don’t totally know what to believe as a mom. I want to do what is best for my child, but I don’t know what that is. And when her daycare asked me last week to bring in sunscreen for her, I honestly didn’t know how to respond.

Do I want them slathering her up? Or would I prefer they plop a hat on her and call it a day?

For now, I’m trying to mitigate any risks by opting for more natural sunscreens, those that specifically avoid the use of oxybenzone, which from what I can tell – is one of the scarier additives used in many sunscreens. Thinkbaby has a brand I like and so does Seventh Generation; both organic products seem to limit the use of too many chemicals.

Beyond that, I try to remind myself that my daughter has a few things going for her that I did not. For one, we live in Alaska now, so her sun exposure is far less than mine was as a kid, to the point that I almost have to worry more about ensuring she gets enough vitamin D than I do her risk of sunburns. Then there is the fact that she is adopted, and therefore hasn’t inherited my fair skin. Her darker native complexion protects her, which also has me feeling less nervous when we are out in the sun's rays.

RELATED: Then and Now: From Sun-Worshipping to Sun Avoidance

As parents, there are so many decisions we have to make where we weigh the pros and cons. Sunscreens make me nervous, and there will certainly be days when I opt to risk the sun exposure over slathering her up. But if we’re going to be out all day and the sun's rays are beating down, I know I’ll want to do what I can to help her avoid a burn.

So for me, the sunscreen question is going to become a day-by-day analysis — one where I ask myself, based on what we are doing and how long we plan on being outdoors, where I feel the bigger risk resides. Is it from the sun itself, or from the sunscreen meant to keep those rays at bay?

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