Sometimes I wonder if all of the modern ailments, which seem ever more numerous as the years pass, are really just the result of adopting chemicals as a regular component in nearly every part of our lives. Can it be that simple? The sudden outbreak of peanut allergies, the increase in chronic diseases, the fact that cancer now seems more the expectation than unpredictable tragedy—have we just become more aware of them, or are these things really becoming more and more the status quo?
What I know for sure is that chemical interference has decimated other natural systems, and with so many examples at our disposal, it seems completely reasonable to think they’ve done the same for us. In fact, much like with biocides, the immediate results often seem great: If we put on sunscreen, we don’t get burned, and of course, that means less risk of skin cancer. However, as time passes, as we further expose our systems to the chemicals that are “helping” us, the worse and worse the results become.
Getting Out the Sunscreen
A few years ago, my wife Emma and I decided to start making all our own toiletries in an effort to get away from regularly putting known carcinogens directly onto and into our bodies while avoiding corporations that test on animals and/or increasingly pollute the planet. It seemed logical. Avoiding chemicals is something most of us recognize as a negative in gardens, yet many of us continue to use questionable chemicals on our bodies. Sunscreen is definitely one that has been under fire lately, and it’s something we’ve also given up.
Now, for two people who spend an abundant amount of time outside gardening and, when we can, swimming, this might seem a bit irresponsible. However, what we’ve come to realize is that sunscreen isn’t the only way to prevent getting burned. In fact, I’d say in the time since we’ve stopped using it, we’ve suffered much less from burns, which suggests that perhaps it’s been a healthier choice regardless of whether or not the contested studies about sunscreen causing skin cancer are true.
Much like approaching a garden exposed to excessive sun, we look for ways to prevent problems naturally and sensibly rather than chemically. We feel that this approach is not only better for us, but also for the environment, which often has to absorb these chemicals as they wash off of us, not to mention the process of mining the minerals and processing the lotions. For anyone interested in making some of the same steps, here are a few of the ways we have rethought sun-protection.
Our Nearly Foolproof Method
Our method begins with finding shade. At the beach, at the park, wherever we are outside and partaking of nature’s beautiful offerings, we seek out shady spots, both for staying a bit cooler and for preventing over exposure to the sun. We worked for years in the tropics, and the same method is often used for gardens. High shade is created with palm and papaya trees so that plants aren’t overexposed in the middle of the day. In the desert, gardens are shaded even more. This isn’t to say we never catch the sun. We get plenty, but finding shade and spending the bulk of our time there is a priority.
The next very effective method for preventing sunburns is wearing appropriate clothing when necessary. Sometimes the work (or fun) must go on, but that means so does the protective clothing. Whether it’s thin, long-sleeve shirts, hats, or a sarong draped over us, we block the sun with clothing rather than chemicals. Again, tender plants, like tender skin, often get the same treatment with shade clothes, and soils similarly received layers of sun-blocking mulch to prevent overexposure and moderate soil temperatures. If there is time and concern enough to put on sunblock, why not just block the sun with protective clothing?
Timing is something else we try to consider. Sun in the morning or late afternoon/early evening is much less punishing than the midday rays, so a walk on the beach is better taken around breakfast time or sunset. Again, gardens work the same way. Plants are much better off when watered in the morning or evening, as during the heat of the day, they more or less shut down to lessen the impact of the sun. In general, this usually is a more pleasant time to be out because it’s cooler, the colors in the sky are changing, and the animals, which have also caught on to this timing thing, are more active.
The other piece of the healthy skin puzzle, though this simply came by trying to have a healthy diet, is that food can do a lot for protecting our skin. Foods rich in vitamin A and vitamin C (carrots, dark leafy greens, red peppers), rich in lycopene (tomatoes, watermelon, papaya), in vitamin E (olive oil, nuts, mustard greens), and just a general balanced diet—all of this strengthens our skin from within. Again, our crops work the same, looking for the right nutrients to thrive and suffering when they aren’t supplied. In general, a mix of leafy greens, red peppers, broccoli, tomatoes, and fruits—like a great compost—makes a massive difference.
For Those Who Love to Slather
For many, these precautions seem to be lacking, but I must say again how effective they have been, much more so than any sunscreen we’d ever used, once we accepted the limitations. Even so, if having a sunscreen feels an absolute must, there are methods for making them at home, and these can at least assure that suspect chemicals aren’t present. There are even water-proof versions! There are even all-natural, commercially produced versions that are likely gentler on your body and the environment.
Then, when all systems do fail, and that can happen from time to time, it is vital to provide the troubled with skin with the care necessary. Again, in this circumstance, Emma and I prefer natural methods to chemical solutions. Aloe vera, it seems, pretty well exist primarily to help our skin: soothing, cooling, moisturizing, reducing inflammation, and healing. And, there are many other plants that can help, or natural products from stores also exist.
Slathering something on no doubt can feel reassuring, but some suspect that it is this very—often false—confidence that ends up causing burns. We either trust the sunscreen too much, we don’t reapply it often enough, or we simply, and probably, overindulge in too much of a good thing. In the end, we are much less likely to have sunburns when we approach the situation with simpler solutions rather than artificial lotions, and it’s highly likely that we’ll also have less of those cumulative problems as well. For us, rethinking sun protection has just made good, practical sense for our health and the planet’s.
Header Image: The Sun (Courtesy of Bruno Caimi)