A Skin-Cancer Survivor's Top 4 Sunscreen Picks

I was once terrified of the sun. A brush with skin cancer will do that to you.
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Publish date:
April 25, 2014
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Josie Maran, spf, sunscreens, sunscreen, Badger, Kiss My Face, mineral, Peter Thomas Roth, skin cancer

When I was a teenager, I lifeguarded and taught swimming lessons at a summer camp. In between class periods, I would slather myself with sunscreen, turning to my best friend and optimistically asking if I had rubbed it all in. The answer was never yes, and we would laugh as she wiped off any excess.

I was outdoors, in the sun, and in the water (which amplifies the effects of the sun), from June to August every summer of my life until I graduated college. But I was never careless about it. I felt pretty OK about my diligent use of sunscreen. I mean, it was during my adolescence that the weird “Everybody's Free To Wear Sunscreen” song came out, after all.

And despite being baffled, then and now, that this spoken-word commencement speech got actual radio play, and not as a joke, I listened. I followed directions.

So, when I had surgery to remove skin cancer of two different types, melanoma and basal cell carcinoma, at 24, it was a shock. Ultimately, I was lucky that the cancer was caught when it was. I have a couple of bad scars, but that’s it. Please get your skin checked, people. Regularly.

For a year after my surgery, I was legitimately terrified of the sun. I lived in Venice Beach, and I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy the ocean, or take my dog on long walks during daylight hours. I was a mess.

When I had blood work done at my next physical, my vitamin D levels were dangerously low. I was feeling sad, and stressed, and tired, and I had to fix it. The answer was obvious: to do obsessive internet searches about skin cancer causes and sunscreens and any- or everything tangentially related to those two things.

So what did I find out? Nothing good, people! (We’re all doomed!) I learned that melanoma specifically is not necessarily correlated with sun exposure (neat!), and that the most common sunscreen ingredients are possibly carcinogenic, and may be disruptive to hormones.

After that, I made the decision that I was going to go back to enjoying time outside, and going to the beach, and I was going to find sunscreens I could wear with confidence that they weren’t causing me more harm than good.

The two basic types of sunscreen are chemical and mineral. Chemical sunscreens penetrate the skin, many destabilize with sun exposure, and the most common (oxybenzone, octisalate, octinoxate) have been observed to mimic hormones, with oxybenzone and octinoxate specificially being found to disrupt the reproductive system. (For a great comprehensive resource, itself cited by the CDC in discussions of skin cancer, I highly recommend the Environmental Working Group’s sunscreen guide.)

Mineral sunscreens, usually zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, do not penetrate the skin, but form a physical barrier on the skin via nano-particles. They aren’t ideal cosmetically because this physical barrier will sometimes create a white cast to the skin; mineral sunscreens tend to be thicker and harder to work with.

Still, I don’t want my reproductive system damaged by my sunscreen. Bye, chemical sunscreens. Mineral sunscreens forever!

For my face, my true blue ultimate love is the Peter Thomas Roth Instant Mineral SPF45 powder. I don’t love the idea of adding an actual sunscreen into my skincare routine. It feels like a lot to glop on each morning, since I’m already using a toner, a moisturizer, and an eye cream. This powder comes with an attached brush. You just brush it on like any other powder, and you’re done. Double duty! Mattifying and adding protection!

When I first used this powder, I was pretty sure it wouldn’t work. Then I used it as my only face sunscreen during my one Coachella weekend, and didn’t see any sun damage whatsoever. I can’t recommend this highly enough.

If a traditional sunscreen is more your speed, though, Josie Maran makes a good one. I actually have yet to find a Josie Maran product I haven’t liked, so it didn’t surprise me that Josie Maran Argan Daily Moisturizer SPF 47 is fantastic. It’s light! So thin! It absorbs into the skin so beautifully!

My only complaints about this sunscreen are that it comes in a glass bottle and it’s expensive. Obviously what that means to me is that I bought the jumbo size and then on day three of owning it shattered the entire thing in my bathroom. It was a very “screaming ‘no’ in slow motion” beauty moment for me.

I think the cost is worth it for the actual product, but when I upgrade from the travel size I’m using up now, it’s going into a less breakable container.

For my body, formula is less of a concern. I just need something that works. My favorite is Kiss My Face Mineral Formula Sun Spray Lotion Broad Spectrum SPF 30. It’s nice, not too gloopy, and the spray application is super convenient. It’s available at Whole Foods, and is the cost equivalent of a nice salad for lunch. A+.

If I need something more serious though, like if I’m headed to the beach and actually want to be in the water for prolonged time periods, I turn to Badger Broad Spectrum SPF 35 Sport Sunscreen. This stuff doesn’t play. It’s thick, it smells weird (like an energy bar), and it has the worst white cast of any of these. It does not move, however. At all.

You can do whatever outdoor wet and/or sweaty activity you want (no judgment) and you won’t burn.

So there they are! My sunscreen dream team. I’m five years out from my skin cancer diagnosis, and I’m happy to be healthy. I’m even happier that this endless winter seems to be breaking.

How about you? Do you wear sunscreen? Are you as bad at rubbing it in as I am? Have summer beach reading recommendations? Tell me all about it.