SPF (Sun Protection Fearmongering)

Here’s a question I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: what sort of deal do fashion and beauty magazine have with the sunscreen and/or dermatology industry that drives them to fanatically hawk SPF 50 products and angrily bemoan the effects of the sun?

On a trip to the beach a few weeks ago I ended up reading more issues of In Style than I really care to admit, which not only rotted my brain and made me feel bad about my body, but also brought this issue of sun damage to center stage.  I don’t often read fashion and beauty magazines, so the recurring “sun is so bad for you” meme mildly surprised me.  Of course I recognize, like most folks do, that spending ungodly hours in the sun is going to have an adverse effect on your skin over the years, but the degree to which that’s reinforced, at least on In Style’s pages, is surprising.

I’m not kidding when I say (and you may know what Im talking about) that In Style is dripping with enthusiasm for self-tanners and disdain for real tans.  Whether in ads or articles, the magazine makes no bones about how you should not be getting a drop of sun exposure.  They quote dermatologists, make fun of “real tans,” suggest self-tanners of all kinds — even their interviews with celebrities are sun-kosher.

I recall a quick Q&A with Kate Winslet, in which she mentioned that she had recently gone on vacation with her husband and children and had managed to get a little bit of a tan: “with SPF 30 – of course!.” Winslet may very well have said/e-mailed that quote.  But given the obscene amount of sun protection evident across In Style, I found it sort of dubious.

As I began to feel conditioned to abhor all sun exposure, in a separate interview, Queen Latifah mentioned an SPF 15 body oil that’s a must-have part of her beauty routine.  I almost jumped out of my chaise lounge to call foul.  The editors at In Style must have been freaking out that someone would — horrors — recommend a body oil that was less than sun protection body armor.

All of this made me think about a conversation I had with a friend last summer about sun damage.  Keep in mind that this is a friend from college, with whom I used to go to tanning beds (something I don’t do anymore, and haven’t done since college; I’m not sure about her, but I’m pretty confident she has similarly stopped going to the fake-and-bake).

A short time before I saw this friend, I had read online an abstract for a study that questioned the degree to which people today are slathering themselves in sunscreen and avoiding direct sunlight.  The study found that, as a result, we were sorely lacking in collective vitamin D.  The researchers suggested anywhere from 10 to 60 minutes in the sun without protection, depending on your skin tone, and warned that for those who live above Atlanta, such exposure would only do you any good during the late spring and early summer.  Before April, UVA/UVB rays can’t penetrate the atmosphere.

I took this study as good news.  While I wear a lotion with SPF 15 on my face everyday, I was glad to know that the sun — the lifeblood of our planet, for goodness sake! — had some benefits to bestow upon us.  That sun exposure, in moderation, is good for us, was very good news.  And quite sensible.

Somehow or another this subject came up with my friend.  She quickly chastened me: “Cosmo says that you can get vitamin D from sources other than the sun!”

Cosmo, of all places! A fashion and beauty magazine.  But it fits so well into the In Style theme I picked up while on vacation.  Somewhere along the line fashion magazines became part of the anti-sun sqaud.  I have to wonder what sort of kickbacks they get for that arrangement.  It just seems too crazy that my friend believed what she read in Cosmo, more than what I told her came from a scientific study.  That, en masse, fashion and beauty magazine decided that sun exposure was way to harmful, even in natural doses — even to the point of denying recent research on the topic (this year, again, I read an article pointing to the same benefits of vitamin D, and warning that children are at risk for deficiency if they are covered in sunscreen all the time and playing indoors so much).

It’s probably little more than my own irritation at the sun-scare crowd.  But there are some weird coincidences there.  I’ll continue to be mindful of my sun-exposure, where my SPF face lotion, and sunscreen as necessary when I’m laying outside.  But I’m not going to become a crazy person about it.


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