Guest Post by TPII Editor and Post-ac Coach Dr. Laura Graham
Laura Graham is on the editing and post-ac consulting team at The Professor Is In. She is passionate about social justice, animal rescue, and skin cancer awareness. She is a skin cancer survivor and advocate for increased awareness of the dangers of UV radiation exposure.
Spring has sprung here in Memphis, TN, and apart from the fun experience of fighting off allergies from pollen overload, I am spring cleaning my makeup bag – in particular, my sunblock. You read that correctly – sunblock is makeup! I would argue that it is the most important makeup item in my kit. So, today I want to share some of my favorite sunblock brands and why it’s so important to make this a regular part of your skin care regimen.
Just after my 30th birthday in 2014, I began to notice what looked like a pimple on my back near my bra-line. I didn’t give it a lot of thought until several months later in May (Skin Cancer Awareness Month!) when I was flipping through a magazine that had a feature on how to spot the ABCDE’s of skin cancer. I was flipping through the photos of basal cell carcinomas when it suddenly dawned on me that my “pimple” that hadn’t gone away for over 8 months wasn’t a pimple at all, but could be a BCC skin cancer. I picked up the phone immediately and called the dermatologist’s to make an appointment. A few days later, my fears were confirmed when the biopsy revealed that I had a BCC skin cancer and the doctor wanted to cauterize it immediately to prevent the tumor from spreading.
This news was shocking. I was a 30 year old caucasian female with olive skin and dark hair who spent most of my 20s in Ireland where there is no sun. Not exactly in a high risk group for skin cancer. My dermatologist was surprised, too, and asked if I had ever used tanning beds. And then the source of my skin cancer was revealed. I had, in fact, used tanning beds regularly as a teenager. As it turns out, teenagers are at an increased risk for harmful exposure to UV radiation and tanning beds are one of the culprits for this increase in skin cancers among young people. I was devastated to learn that having just one BCC diagnosis increases your risk by 50% of developing more BCCs over the course of your life. And that’s exactly what happened.
In 2016, another pimple appeared on my face between my eyebrows.
If you look closely in this photo, you might be able to see it. If not, you’re not the only one. A team of dermatologists thought this new lesion was probably a cyst. It wasn’t. And this time, I had to undergo Moh’s surgery to have the cyst removed. The result of this painful surgery can be seen in the photos below.
And can I just say that at the age of 32, the last thing I wanted was a large surgical scar right in the middle of my face. Especially while I was on the job market. Just a month after the surgery, I flew to Dublin, Ireland for a campus visit interview at Trinity College Dublin. Thankfully the search committee could see past the hideous scar on my face and hired me.
Since 2016, I have had 6 laser treatments (costing over $3000) on my surgical scar to reduce its size and improve the appearance. The photo below shows what fraxel laser treatment does to the skin after a treatment.
However, in 2017, I had a third BCC diagnosis. This time on my upper eyelid. I won’t even get into how painful that was to remove. Thankfully, I found a plastic surgeon opthamologist (yes, that’s a thing) in Memphis, TN that was able to remove the tumor with only a tiny scar on my lid and two forever lost eyelashes.
While I can’t do anything to repair past sun damage that will inevitably lead to more BCC skin cancers (not to mention increased risk for melanomas, requiring biannual trips to the dermatologist) I can prevent future sun damage. Since 2014, I have increasingly improved my defenses to dangerous UV radiation by wearing hats and sunglasses while outside to protect my scalp, ears, and eyelids (areas not easily covered by sunblock creams). Did I mention that the vast majority of BCC skin cancers occur on the head? When I go to the beach, I now have a beach tent and umbrella, as well as SPF bathing suit and SPF sunglasses. And finally, I use a daily skin care regimen that includes high SPF sunblock.
So what do I use?
After many bottles of cheaper drug store creams and moisturizers that ranged from truly terrible to somewhat tolerable, I discovered a few brands that work really well for me and don’t leave my skin greasy, with white streaks, or break out my skin (I had adult acne until very recently). So here are my go-to facial sunblock moisturizers that I wear every
Elta MD Broad Spectrum SPF 46 Facial Sunscreen ~$25 per 1.7 oz
I absolutely love this product. I buy it tinted because it suits my complexion and looks like foundation. I regret that it doesn’t come in any other tinted tones besides what is clearly marketed for caucasian skin, but it does also come in untinted. I also really like that it feels like a moisturizer and leaves a nice glow on my skin. It is not greasy, it doesn’t clog my pores. Like all SPF products, it is recommended that you reapply every few hours. I’m not an expert on SPF ingredients, but this product uses zinc oxide which is recommended by the Skin Cancer Foundation to protect against UVA and UVB radiation. If you’re not sure what ingredients to look for in your SPF, have a look at the Skin Cancer Foundation’s recommendations for sunblock. For me, this product is pretty close to perfect.
La Roche-Posay Anthelios Daily SPF 50 Primer ~ $40 per 40 ml
This is a pricier product with a different secondary purpose. For those of you who love primer (I know I do), this sunblock acts like a primer to fill in any lines or crevices in the face before you put on your makeup. I use Benefit’s Porefessional Primer on my scar before applying sunblock because it fills in the dimple pretty well. This sunblock is a mattifying product, so no glossy shine with this one like Elta MD. This product is oil free and non-comedogenic, so it isn’t greasy and won’t break out your skin. I like using this as a primer on days when I plan to wear foundation. La Roche-Posay also has other facial sunblocks that are tinted and similar to the Elta MD sunblock. What I don’t like about this product, besides its hefty price tag is that it doesn’t contain zinc oxide. But again, I’m not an expert on sunblock ingredients (maybe some of our readers are experts and can share their insights in the comments).
Coola Mineral Face SPF 30 Matte Tint Sunscreen ~ $36 per 1.7 oz
I love Coola sunblock products. They are silky smooth and usually smell like the cucumber water that you get at fancy spas. And maybe why it’s so pricey. What I love about this product is that it goes on smooth, isn’t oily, and contains shea butter, which is just fabulous for skin and hair. You can also get this sunblock in a variety of fragrances, including cucumber, citrus mimosa, or unscented. Much like EltaMD, you can get a tinted version that’s suitable for caucasian skin tones. This product uses titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which are excellent ingredients for broad spectrum sunscreen. The only thing I don’t like about this product is that it doesn’t come in an SPF higher than 30, which is really the minimum SPF you want to wear to protect your skin. So, I have to reapply more frequently. It also isn’t very sweat resistant, which isn’t great for Memphis summers where it can get down-right swampy.
Wearing sunblock on a daily basis has completely changed my relationship with my skin and face. When I was younger, I never wore much makeup. I had great olive toned skin that didn’t need foundation or highlighters. As I’ve entered my thirties and developed multiple skin cancers, I am so much more mindful of the importance of taking care of my skin. I actively seek out products that will protect my skin barrier against harmful UV radiation and other dangerous substances. And surprisingly, despite my multiple skin cancer scars, I appreciate the natural beauty of my skin. I no longer look in the mirror and wish I could change what I see. I purposefully make a mental note of what I like about my skin and face. So in a way, my skin cancer diagnoses have been a lesson in self-love and self-care.
I’d love to hear from our readers. What products are you using to protect yourself from sun damage? What experiences have you had with skin cancer?