A sunscreen story from Downunder


Remember, a few years ago, when they told women to start wearing sunscreen daily, or end up a wrinkled old prune ? 

It was the era of PABA, or para-amio benzoic acid. This was the most common sunscreen ingredient at the time, at least Downunder. Sometime later, it fell out of favor due to allergic reactions. 

I was one of those unfortunate "reactionaries." 

I remember putting Hamilton Sunscreen on my face - a popular pharmacy brand - and within a few days my cheeks started itching. Then it got worse - little fluid filled bumps and a redness that spread across my face. 

The usual thing we do, of course, is try all manner of salves and lotions in our medicine cabinet "just to see what will happen." It usually it makes it worse. It's like trying to experiment with putting too many fruits in a smoothie or ingredients in a soup and ending up with something ashen-gray in hue with a "something not quite anything" flavor.

A dermatologist prescribed the usual first rash-abater - hydrocortisone cream. Corticosteroids are something you want to avoid using for any length of time, especially on the face, where they can break down the skin structure and lead to "depressed, stripey areas" as the textbooks so appealingly put it. 

But my face got worse. It started weeping and I looked like someone in need of a skin graft. 

The dermo then got me to bring in a box of all the things I had put on my face - and indeed, it was quite a box! Even so, she was scratching her head in bewilderment (don't you despair when someone three times your age and ten times your wage does that?)

Being a medical science geek - I wanted to be a pharmacologist once - I started reading the labels. Bingo! The cortisone cream was preserved with 1% hydroxybenzoate - a PABA derivative (para amino benzoate - get it?). And PABA was of course, in Hamilton sunscreen. So the cream that was supposed to reduce inflammation was being scuttled by its own preservative. If anything, the ointment version of the cream, which is anhydrous (i.e. no water, and thus no preservative) would have been more appropriate.

I had to deal with my allergic reaction like this.
Well, not really, except on this occasion.
The dermatologist's experience now came to the fore. She diagnosed that PABA was creating a light sensitive reaction, so continuous exposure to daylight - and even the weak UV rays of flurouscent light - were triggering the condition. I had to stay in a DARK ROOM for 3 weeks, to get it out of my system. This meant I moved back with my mother while she brought me food in a kind of twilight zone and I read by flashlight. 

For months after, had to wear a hat indoors to protect myself from the office fluorescent lights. 

For years after, I would get an itchy spot on my right cheek if I ever got a little too much sun, or stressed out. 

The lesson? If you're sensitive to things, read the labels and do your due due diligence with Google before you slather anything on your skin. If a small, round patch worn on your butt can stop you from getting pregnant, imagine what's going directly into your bloodstream with everything you rub on your skin. No leaning up against strange walls, now!

PABA has since been removed from most sunscreens, but it still lurks in some.

What do I use now?

I like Naked Bee ("all the good stuff, no bad stuff") sunscreen which I discovered in Bisbee, Arizona many years ago. There's something nice about this product that you can't quite put your finger on - perhaps it's because it simply feels and smells great. Whatever preservative they use: grapeseed oil and phenoxyethanol I believe - doesn't seem to give me trouble.

I use Shiseido D Program purple range (sensitive skin) for the rest of my skincare at the moment.  I discovered it while hanging out at the Duty Free airport en route from Tokyo, and hallucinated that might be more attuned to my Asian skin. I can't for the life of me read Japanese,  but since it's not made in the USA, it probably doesn't have high fructose corn syrup or trans fat in it. So far, so good. It's quite expensive, but goes a long way, and besides, I don't drink, have kids or drive a car -  so it's my one indulgence. I have to get my Japanese contacts to keep me supplied as it's not available, even online. 

If you're a closet pharmacology/medical science freak like me, some books that you might like this book. 




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