Monday, May 9, 2011

Sunblock info, and why it matters so much to have good sun protection

This started out as more a "I'm gonna post this to my blog so I can always find this info" sort of post than anything else, but then it ended up turning into a longer story about my experience with skin cancer. Because I also have allergies and sensitivities to a bunch of stuff, this makes finding a good, truly broad-spectrum sunblock super important for me. Almost all of the Neutrogena stuff is out, because it contains beeswax. Then a lot of things don't have good UVA blockers. Then there's the debate about how effective avobenzone really is, and whether it degrades other sunblocks or not. It's all a real mess. If I need to shell out tons of money after I finally find my Holy Grail of sunblocks, then this is a cause that deserves it.

Anyway, I have a bottle of Garnier sunblock sitting upside down in a container because I've reached the point where the pump doesn't work anymore (Hello? Garnier? Can you please maybe package the stuff in a squeeze tube?) Until that drains completely into the jar, I'm on to other stuff. Next up is a Peter Thomas Roth sunblock I got in the Sephora kit. It has an active ingredient I wasn't familiar with - meradimite. Turns out it blocks UVA II rays and maybe isn't quite as effective as some other ingredients.

I googled it and found this helpful info, a list of commonly used sunblock ingredients with all their pros and cons.

Then, I wondered what the difference between UVA I and UVA II rays was. As far as I can tell, UVA II rays are longer, and closer to UVB rays than UVA I rays, which are shorter. The Skin Cancer Foundation has another informative section on their website about which chemicals block which types of UV rays.

This is what UVA rays do to the DNA in your skin: Yikes!

Skin cancer sucks. I know, because in July 2009, I had a basal cell carcinoma removed from my forehead at the tender young age of 26. Now, I am very fair, and my sunblock habits have not always been the greatest, and I also had family history of skin cancer. It turns out that the UV rays entering the atmosphere are stronger than they used to be, and all of this conspired to produce the "zit" that showed up when I was 24 and never healed. Well, it would start to, but the center never did, and it would create a small crater that kept filling itself in. Eventually, my mom made me promise to talk to a doctor about it, and I was referred to a dermatologist.

The dermatologist took tons of pictures of it, injected my forehead with a bunch of lidocaine (pain reliever), and scooped out the center of the spot with a really tiny blade shaped like an ice-cream scoop. A few days later, he called back, saying it was basal cell carcinoma - skin cancer - and I had a subtype that was particularly aggressive.

Six weeks later, I sat down on a surgeon's table for Mohs skin cancer removal surgery. In other treatments, they cut out a rather large area and test segments of it to make sure they got it all - and sometimes they don't, which means a second trip to surgery. Also, since this was ON MY FACE, they wanted to cut as little away as possible. In Mohs, they cut out what they think they need to, patch you up temporarily, and slice the removed bit into slices, and look at each of them though a microscope to determine if they need to go back for more or not. In my case, they needed to go back again. After they looked at that and determined it was all out, they started to deal with the round hole in my skin that needed to be closed up. They cauterized it to stop the bleeding (by the way, burning flesh smells awful, especially when it's yours), did a bunch of internal stitches, and then sewed me up with nine external stitches. Oh, and all these are shitty webcam pics, so they're mirror image, and I didn't feel bothered to flip them.

This is what I looked like the day after the procedure, right before I removed the huge dressing to change the bandages for the first time. I was in a bit of pain and felt pretty shaky:

This is what I looked like about 10-12 days later, after I'd had the stitches out and removed the steri-strips that replaced them:

A few weeks after that. Finally, the internal stitches have all made their way to the surface, and there's no more scabbing:

After about a month:

A year after surgery - finally mostly faded. I still have a whitish line slightly raised above the rest of the skin (you can kind of see the shadow of the bump in the pic), but I'm no longer self-conscious about the scar and don't wear my bangs down every day anymore. (I cut the bangs specifically so that I could hide the scar. Turned out I kind of liked them.) Bonus rainbow eye look:

Skin cancer is caused by UVA rays. There are a lot of ingredients that block the longer UVA II rays, but only two approved by the FDA that block UVA I rays: zinc oxide and avobenzone. And avobenzone is only stable in the presence of octocrylene. Depending on the formula, it can also be stable mixed with some other ingredients: Enzacamene or 4-Methylbenzylidene camphor, Parsol SLX, Tinosorb S, Tinosorb M, and Mexoryl SX.

Protect yourself. Yes, basal cell is easily treated, but as the pictures show, it wasn't a fun process.


  1. Yay for spreading awareness, and thank you for sharing your story. I'm glad that everything was so treatable. People look at cancer and think "It won't happen to me," but it does. I went to high school with three different kids who had cancer and lost their battles, one only being graduated for a few months. None of them had skin cancer, but I just thought I would share that as an example of how common cancer can be (my graduating class had less than 150 students, btw, and I graduated in 2010.)

  2. Thanks for sharing this with us! I'm with Sam, we all think "it won't happen to me." I rarely ever wear sunscreen. I may start now. Glad they caught your cancer and were able to treat it. Thanks again for all the information!