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Sunshine. Beautiful, warm, nourishing sunshine. We don’t get nearly as much here in the Pacific Northwest as I’d like, and when it does come out I love to be out in it for at least a little while every day.

Let me give you an idea of how much we don’t get hot weather around here. We went to Hawaii for our honeymoon. One day we went snorkeling at a reef in a bay a bus ride away from where we were staying. Having lived in and frequently visited much warmer areas of the country than the one we live in, I told my husband of only a few days, “Let’s put some sunscreen on before we get in the water.”

“Why?” he asked in confusion. “You don’t burn in the water.”

He hasn’t lived that one down. Thankfully he listened to me that day, and has since come to understand that water can actually increase burning, but having only lived in and rarely left the  rainy Pacific Northwest (the man grew up near Forks, people), he literally had no idea.

However, when it does get sunny, preventing overexposure and burning is important.

You see, the body has great mechanisms for preventing and repairing skin damage during limited sun exposure, and it’s the best way for us to get vitamin D. People with darker skin can be out in the sun longer than people with lighter skin because those mechanisms are stronger for them. But when you start exceeding the natural limits of your body’s protective capabilities, which can be before you start burning, you’re going to need to protect the skin through other methods to prevent damage.

One of the safest methods is simply putting on some lightweight clothes and a hat. Lightweight cotton has an SPF of about 15, and unlike sunscreen it doesn’t wear off through the day and require reapplication. However, if you have exposed skin, especially if you’re out swimming or covering with enough clothes is just too hot, you’ll need sunscreen.

A lot of people (probably rightly) worry that many kinds of sunscreen do damage of their own because of the ingredients in them, so you may be preventing sun damage and cancer caused by sun exposure, but causing endocrine disruption or skin damage from the ingredients you’re slathering on your skin when using chemical sunscreens. And yes, chemical sunscreen is actually the term, not a scare buzzword.

Physical sunscreens (with zinc or titanium oxide) lack this problem, and can be found online with products such as Badger sunscreen or made at home using zinc oxide and ingredients like shea butter and coconut oil, which have their own SPF and skin-protecting properties. Even without zinc or titanium oxide a product with SPF can be made, but you’re going to want to go for 15-30 SPF for the best protection.

It’s also interesting to note that a healthy diet can play into your skin’s natural protection and healing ability. Considering the cancer-preventing power of any good diet, I suppose this isn’t too surprising. When your skin is healthy and your body is able to fight free-radicals and other problems that cause wear, tear, and inflammation, cancer is going to be less of a problem all around.

So please, please don’t dismiss sun protection if you’re reluctant to use commonly available sunscreens. It’s pretty well established that over-exposure to the sun will damage the skin in ways that can lead to cancer, and we really don’t want that. You can have sun protection without all of the questionable stuff, and get out to the garden or play with the kids in safety and peace of mind.