Friday, June 17, 2011

The Truth (?) About Sunscreen

 This week, the FDA updated sunscreen safety and regulation information.  As I was reading some of the new information, I made a number of troubling discoveries.  As someone who is dotted with small, round scars where the dermatologist has scraped potential cancerous spots off my skin, I want my sunscreen to work.  According to new research, in many cases, it doesn't--at least not in the ways or to the degree that I expected.  Here are some things I have learned.

  • First, the SPF (sun protection factor) refers only to the level of UVB protection. UVB rays are the ones that cause sunburns.  UVA rays are the ones that cause skin cancer.  Sunscreen manufacturers may claim that their products are "broad spectrum," but that has not been a regulated claim and could mean next to nothing.
  • SPFs higher than 50 don't mean much.  According to an expert quoted in June's Women's Health Magazine, SPF 30 protects against 97% of UVB rays, SPF 50 98%, and SPF 100 against 99%: in other words, the numbers are misleading.
  • Vitamin A, an "anti-aging" ingredient added to 30% of sunscreens on the market, could lead to accelerated cancer growth.  I just bought a face sunscreen yesterday.  It has Vitamin A in it.  I will be returning the sunscreen.
  • Many sunscreens contain a chemical that some scientists and doctors claim to be dangerous.  Oxybenzone is added to sunscreens and may penetrate the skin and act as a hormone-disruptor.  There is general disagreement about what effect oxybenzone has, with some groups cautioning against its use and others dismissing concerns since only a small amount is likely to be absorbed.  The American Academy of Dermatology recommends its use. 
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has listed 600+ sunscreens based on effectiveness and potentially dangerous ingredients.  Unfortunately (for me anyway), none of the "best" sunscreens are likely to be found on any shelves near me--the more widely-available brands are the more dangerous ones. 

What's troubling as well is the fact that there seems to be a lot of disagreement about these issues.  The EWG has been condemned by some as over-exaggerating the dangers, using out-dated methodology, and having an ulterior motive, as outlined in this piece from the Huffington Post (read the first comment as well for a response from the EWG).  Additionally, the EWG disagrees with many recognized authorities: for example on the danger of oxybenzone (see above) and the potential side-effects of sunless tanner (see below).
Sure, it is possible that dangers have been over-exaggerated by some Chicken Littles out there.  But, I admit, I am very afraid of cancer and frustrated with the lack of consensus over causes and prevention.  It seems lately that there are sensationalized news articles about potential carcinogenic effects of everything from cell-phones to cleaning products.  I try to sort through the research as best I can, err on the side of caution, and go with the advice of credible organizations.  With that in mind, here are a few useful links:

The EWG's list of surprising findings about sunscreens, as well as sun safety tips

The Mayo Clinic:
On Sunless Tanner (The Mayo Clinic approves of sunless tanning, unlike the EWG).
Does your Sunscreen Expire?  Yes, but only after about three years.

Tips from the American Academy of Dermatology on Skin Cancer Prevention.

The American Cancer Society promotes the catchy Slip, Slop, Slap, Wrap method.
Basically, the advice seems to be to avoid making sunscreen your first or only line of defense, but instead, avoid the strongest sun rays (between 10am and 4pm) and stay in the shade, and wear long sleeves and broad-brimmed hats.  Sunglasses are also super-important, and should be labeled for both UVA and UVB protection and actually cover your eyes.  Since I can't even go outside to check the mail without my sunglasses, this isn't hard for me to get used to.  Sunscreen is still a necessity.  Hopefully, with the new FDA rules, it will be easier to pick one that actually has good UVA and UVB coverage.  I'm going to be avoiding Vitamin A, but I'm still undetermined about oxybenzone--it's rather hard to find one without it.

So, hopefully, it's beach, yes, skin cancer, no.  Happy Summer.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Deluge and the Ascent

 Jordan and I went camping on Friday night.  Despite the fact that it was raining and had been storming.  We went to Pilot Mountain, with plans to climb the next morning.  Pilot Mountain is impressive at any time, but particularly so with glowing skies and storm clouds behind it. 

Let me just say now that my parents did teach me how to camp.  They took me hiking when I was six days old and camping when I was six weeks.  I have been doing this all of my life.  But, never without them.  This was our first solo trip.  Mistakes were made.  Like, no canopy.  We ended up rigging the tarp we had intended to use under our tent as a canopy over the picnic table.  We rigged this in the rain as it was starting to get dark.  We also had no lantern.  It was really dark.  Finally, we had no sleeping pad.  The ground is really hard.  Our tent was on its maiden voyage.  My parents had bought it for us a while back, and I actually like it.  I call it the sarcophagus.  It is coffin-shaped and narrow--it sleeps us both, but that is it.  It actually isn't as claustrophobic as I had feared and is actually pretty comfortable.

We couldn't get a fire going.  If you bring "strike-on-box" matches, you need, uh, the box.  I didn't bring it.  We had one of those long fire starters but it was almost out of fuel.  The campground provided free firewood (yay!) but it was wet (boo).  Jordan struggled for at least an hour to get a fire going.  I had even brought dryer lint, but we went through that and every scrap of paper in his car without any success.  Finally, we ate cold chili beans and went to bed.

At about 1:00 am, we heard rustling outside.  We had forgotten to put up the bag that had our food in it.  My first thought was, "squirrel."  Jordan's first thought was "bear."  When we got up to inspect, we found that our visitor was actually a raccoon, who was no-longer in sight, but had left his distinctive five-toed print.  He had also made off with a gallon-size ziploc bag with cornbread muffins in it.

 Everything was much more cheerful in the morning.  The sun came out.  We got our Coleman grill working and had scrambled eggs and toast for breakfast.

 We checked out the damage Jordan had done pulling out of the muddy parking lot when we picked up our wood.  The tires were caked with mud and there was a rut at least six inches deep left in the lot.

 The view from the parking lot at the summit is pretty great.  You can see all the way to Winston-Salem.

 We climbed in an area near Three Bears Gulley.  Each of the routes is named (which I find fascinating) and we worked on Papa Bear and Mamma Bear.  I don't have any pictures of the actual climbing because it would be really hard (and dangerous) to take pictures while trying to belay someone, but trust me, we did it. 

The weekend was definitely a learning experience--some things that should already be understood.  Like, rain is wet and unpleasant.  The ground is hard.  It gets dark at night.  But we survived.  And will probably do it again.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Review: The Winter Sea

The Winter Sea

Susanna Kearsley's The Winter Sea was an enjoyable first read on my new Nook Color.  The novel follows two parallel narratives, one being that of modern-day writer Carrie McClelland who settles into a rented cottage on the Scottish coast to work on her newest historical novel, and the other is that of Carrie's heroine, Sophia Patterson, named, on a whim, for one of Carrie's ancestors.  Carrie's novel, the story within the story, is set in 1708 at Slains Castle and follows Sophia as she finds romance and danger in the midst of an early attempted Jacobite uprising.  At modern day Slains, Carrie becomes concerned when she discovers that her imagined scenes between characters are born out as true by her subsequent research.  She comes to believe that her novel is less fictional that history--she has inherited the memory of her ancestress, and her writing uncovers a variety of twists and surprises that had not been included in the family record.

Despite the quirky framing and occasional references to genetics and DNA to explain how Carrie could possess the memories of her great-great-great-great-great grandmother, the story is less sci-fi /fantasy and more historical novel.  The Carrie narrative arc is gentle: her encounters with the locals who are eager to supply her with material for her novel, the fairly harmless triangle that arises between herself and the two sons of her landlord, and the descriptions of her writing process.  Despite its relative quietude, I liked the Carrie arc--I wanted to know who she ended up with, and as someone who has been attempting a bit of writing myself, I am interested in other writer's descriptions of the process (and surely Carrie and Kearsley share ideas on this subject?).  The Sophia arc was also interesting, if, again, a bit quiet.  There is danger, but most of Sophia's trials are mental--the references to chess games are apt, as she attempts to hide the information she possesses from those who might harm her loved ones and their mission to bring back the Scottish king.  Her's is a more likely true look at the dangers women faced--domestic dangers, the trials of waiting, knowing but being unable to act.

The book reminded me quite a bit of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series--both take place in 18th century Scotland and involve "time-travel" in a way.  But Kearsley's is a gentler tale--far less sex and violence than Gabaldon's lusty adventures.  I definitely recommend the novel as an engaging but tranquil historical read.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

What I did on my Summer Vacation

I assume that most teachers have the same problem.  People think that you are a lazy slob in the summer.  No, no, I am working.  I'm just not being paid for it.  Granted, I love my summer flexibility, and not everything that I am doing this summer is even able to be compensated.  So, to expand on my standard response when people ask what I am doing this summer ("oh, tutoring and writing"), here is what my summer is looking like:

1) Tutoring.  I have been tutoring at the local Baptist association as a volunteer for about three years now.  I love it.  I have worked with adult ESL students from Vietnam, Puerto Rico, and the Sudan.  I have also tutored kids ranging from pre-K to 8th grade.  When you add up all my teaching experiences, I have worked with all age groups, ages 3-80.  Love it.

2) Working with the youth group.  Oh my goodness.  Wednesday night youth classes, which Jordan and I assisted with, have ended for the summer, but the twice-a-month Sunday night classes, which we teach, are still going, and I am doing a girls Bible study at my apartment once a week this summer.  Additionally, Jordan and I are planning a week-long mission trip for July to Red Springs, NC.  There's also a lock-in in the works.  It's a good thing we like these kids.  To add to the craziness, we are looking for a youth pastor.  Jordan is on the search committee.  I am on a committee that is developing a personnel policy, which we realized we needed if we are going to hire someone. 

3) Writing.  Right now, I am trying to revise one of my diss chapters into an article for an upcoming special issue of a journal on Thackeray.  I feel pretty good about it.  But I need someone to read it.  My diss chair is jetting around doing research in India and China, and I feel bad asking other people, "Please, read about 26 pages of close-reading of a really long Victorian novel.  It'll be fun!"  I have thought about trading a meal for insightful feedback--you know, using some of my more valuable skills.  Also, on the writing front--a secret project.  I'm pretty excited about it.  But I need to get the article out of the way first.

4)  Working out like a fiend.  Right now the running schedule is four days a week: Once a week it's intervals (aghhh!) where you alternate running really fast with slower recovery runs.  Painful, but you see almost instant gains.  Twice a week I meet a friend who is new to running for a leisurely 2.6 miles, about half of which we walk--we plan to run the whole way by the end of summer.  Once a week, I do a solo long run, between 3 and 4 miles.  My goal is to run a 5K in September in under 30 minutes.  My last 5K time (2 years ago) was 32:10, so I think this is reasonable.  Twice a week, I do strength training.  Last summer, I joined a gym, but this summer I am trying things on my own.  Right now, I'm not using weights, but trying body-weight exercises like push-ups, lunges, pull-ups, etc.  Old school.

5) Eating and cooking.  Oh, summer food.  Squash, corn, strawberries.  My old friends.  And because of the working out like a fiend, I am also eating like a fiend.  I have found that my migraines are often hunger-related, and I often let hunger go on too long, because I feel to busy or just too un-motivated to stop and eat.  So, now I am trying to eat around 6 small meals a day before I get hungry to the point of fainting, which was my typical signal to eat.  I have this serious struggle between wanting to eat real, local, Michael Pollen-would-approve food and convenience.  Tyson chicken nuggets--so easy, so quick, but so mysterious--is it real chicken?  This needs further investigation.

6)  Being all professional.  Since the job search starts for real this fall, I am working on all that stuff--job letters, CV, writing sample, diss abstract, etc, etc, etc.  I am scared.  Also, working on becoming a really awesome teacher.  It looks like I will be teaching courses I am familiar with this fall, so I plan to polish those syllabi and assignments till they shine.  I'm still optimistic that if I work hard enough, I will find a way to teach all of my students to write intelligently and read insightfully.  Fingers crossed for Fall 2011.

7) Getting around.  Beach trip with my family, beach trip with Jordan's family, the aforementioned missions trip.  Also, a camping trip already in the works (yay!), and hopefully some time spent with far-flung friends.  Jordan and I used our season passes this weekend at the Biltmore House, and plan to go back again soon to rent bikes to ride on the property.  I also want to (finally) see note-worthy places nearby--Duke's chapel and gardens, Guilford courthouse, etc.  I have a Fodor's guide to the Carolinas and Georgia, so I plan to make like a tourist in my own backyard this summer.

So clearly, I'm not doing a 9-5 this summer, but I'm not watching soaps and eating bon-bons either.  Teaching has its ups and downs.  Summer is definitely one of the ups!