At this point, the sunscreen gospel is essentially common sense in modern society, making it difficult to comprehend a time when we weren’t acutely aware of the ins and outs and hows and whys of sun care. However, wasn’t it just a decade or two ago that 24-hour tanning bed salons were incredibly in-demand, and products like tanning oils and super-low SPF formulas were embraced by the masses? While one could easily chalk this all up to lack of information or education around sun damage, for many, sun care principles are much more rooted in culture, family tradition, and longstanding belief systems.
“My dad and oldest sister have the darkest skin in our family and then it kind of trickles down and gets lighter in color as you go down the line,” says Natasha Marsh, beauty features writer for TZR. “Because I was obsessed with both of them, I followed what they did. My oldest sister, who is 37 now, has never regularly worn sunscreen. In fact, I sometimes have to beg her and state all the harmful effects of excessive sun exposure. When I think about going home (to Africa), I don't ever recall seeing my family members, both on my mom and dad's side, ever put on sunscreen, let alone wear it. It really isn't seen as important there like it is in the states.”
Angela Melero, executive editor for TZR, had a similar experience with sun care education, or lack thereof. Not only was sunscreen not prioritized in her family, but tanning products were encouraged and embraced, particularly among the women in her Mexican-American family. “Growing up, my entire family — aunts, cousins, grandparents, etc. — would always do an annual camping trip to Kern Valley (California), and we would all spend our days lounging by the river, with cumbia music blaring and bags of chips and sandwiches being passed around,” she recalls. “I remember my mom and tias (aunts) always packing baby oil and tanning lotions, slathering their bodies with the stuff throughout the day. Even as a kid of seven or eight, I’d follow suit, loving the way my skin glistened in the sun and got golden after a few hours. While this memory is a warm one for me, I’m also aware of how unhealthy this beauty tradition was.”
On the flip side, Bustle Digital Group’s Executive Beauty Director Faith Xue explains that in her Chinese culture sunscreen and protection has long been enforced, but often to fit “outdated” beauty standards. “In Chinese culture, sunscreen is a vital part of your skin care routine — partly because the sun is so intense during the summers, and partly because of a long history of the beauty ‘ideal’ being milky, pale, white skin (this skin tone was associated with the upper class, while farmers would be more tan because of their days working in the fields outside),” she explains. “It’s a beauty standard I’m happy to see people speaking out against more in Asian communities in the U.S. and abroad, but sadly, it’s still going strong in China — every model or celebrity you see in advertisements has the same pale skin. In fact, a common compliment in China is for someone to exclaim how bai — the Chinese word for ‘white’ — your skin is.”
Ahead, read on about the three editor’s unique journeys with sun care and how their upbringings played a crucial role.
How would you describe your current SPF habits?
Natasha: Over the last two years, since becoming a beauty journalist, I've worn sunscreen on my face, body, and scalp nearly every day. I typically will use Supergoop! Unseen on my face as a base and follow it up with Olay and then a mineral spray once I leave my house. Layering is key.
Faith: I’m more conscious than ever about sun protection now that I’m in my thirties. I apply an SPF every morning — I love Tatcha Silken Pore Perfecting Sunscreen, Kate Somerville Daily Deflector Mineral Sunscreen, and Neogen Day-Light Protection Airy Sunscreen SPF 50+ — but I admit I’m not great at remembering to reapply throughout the delay. I did just get back from a beach vacation and am pretty proud of the fact that my boyfriend and I finished two bottles of sunscreen between the two of us at the end of our trip.
Angela: I’ve been an SPF fanatic since my mid-20s, which I know is a bit late in the game to jump on the bandwagon. I now apply it all day, every day, even if I’m not leaving the house. I literally have a sunscreen for every occasion and purpose — for events that call for heavier makeup (Colorscience’s Sunforgettable® Total Protection™ Brush-On Shield SPF 50 over foundation), for outdoor workouts (water-resistant formulas like Supergoop! Play Everday Lotion), and for quieter days where I’m indoors and just need a sunscreen that feels light and like second skin (chemical formula like Fenty Skin Hydra Vizor Invisible Moisturizer Broad Spectrum SPF 30 Sunscreen). I’m a connoisseur!
What was your perception towards sun protection / SPF growing up?
Natasha: I had very minimal knowledge of sunscreen growing up, however I was constantly told to protect my skin from over-browning. My parents were born and raised in Cape Town, South Africa and grew up in the Apartheid, where communities were categorized as white, Black, and colored. Although my father was dark-skinned and mom has olive-y, fair skin, they both were considered colored. Blacks were treated terribly and my mother grew up fearing her skin would color, awarding her with the same horrendous treatment. When they immigrated to the states, this mentality was still in her. Therefore, my two older sisters, younger brother, and I were always told to not stay in the sun too long and to cover our arms and legs. This didn't necessarily mean sunscreen (although we were taught to wear Olay daily), but with our clothes.
Faith: My earliest sunscreen memory is clear as day: I’m at a swimming pool in Columbia, Missouri where I grew up, and my mom is slathering a thick, white lotion all over my body. She was always so diligent about applying sunscreen both to herself (she’d also always stay in the shade and wear a wide-brimmed hat), as well as me when I was younger before going out in the sun.
I’m lucky that my mother, who immigrated to the U.S. in her late twenties, never enforced that [traditional Chinese] beauty ideal on me. I watched her meticulously apply her 10+ step regimen every morning and every night, but she never made me feel bad when I went out in the sun and returned a shade or two darker, or made me feel like I had to carry an umbrella outside in blistering heat to protect my skin from the sun (a practice that’s commonplace in China for vanity reasons, but also just to provide some respite from the heat). SPF was always more about protection than about trying to keep my skin light to fit some outdated beauty ideal, and I’m thankful to my mom for that.
Angela: To be honest, I don’t really recall getting a lesson on the importance of sunscreen growing up. Couple that with being a child of the ‘80s and ‘90s who grew up in sunny Los Angeles, amidst the reign of tanning beds and dark tanning lotions and belief that sun-tanned skin was the key to effortless beauty. I’ve always had pretty fair skin, so pool and beach days as well as vacations were simply seen as opportunities to get my glow on, and no one around was really telling me anything different.
In pondering this as an adult, I think sunscreen’s role (or lack thereof) in my upbringing stems back to how my ancestors lived. My grandparents (and their predecessors) were from a small farming town in Mexico and were raised to rely on little from a skin care perspective. They worked with what they had. If your skin was dry you grabbed some coconut or olive oil to give it some moisture. If you got a sunburn or were dealing with irritated skin, you picked a leaf off of an aloe plant and rubbed it on your face. If you needed to shield yourself from the sun you used a scarf or clothing to do that, otherwise you let it do what it was going to do to your skin and just worked with it. Sun damage was just an afterthought as there was very little education and knowledge surrounding it, which trickled down to my parents and then to me.
Who or what had the biggest influence on your perception towards sun protection / SPF?
Natasha: My mother would always speak to me about not staying in the sun too long for the reasons I shared before. I don't ever remember hearing my dad talk about it.
Faith: I think working in the beauty industry has opened my eyes up to the importance of SPF the most. It’s hard not to care about sun protection when you’re meeting with sunscreen brands and listening to the founder’s impassioned stories (I still remember the first meeting I had with Supergoop! founder Holly Thaggard and how blown away I was by her dedication to making sunscreen fun and easy to use for everyone). I’m inspired by all the dermatologists recently who are spreading the SPF news on their social media channels — people like Dr. Whitney Bowe and Dr. Marima Turegano — who make educational, digestible videos about the importance of sunscreen, the difference between physical and chemical SPFs, how much to apply, and debunking common misconceptions (i.e. if you have naturally darker skin tone, you don’t get burned or need protection). I also love my friend Charlotte Parler’s account for general education around skin care — she was the one who made me aware that all the studies around SPF efficacy use way more SPF than the average person would (two tablespoons for the face are used for research!), and why the U.S. is so far behind our counterparts in Asia and Europe when it comes to SPF innovation.
How did your perception of SPF and sun protection change as you entered the beauty industry?
Natasha: Honestly, I was shocked to learn about the potential sun damage people can experience every day, whether indoors or outdoors because UV rays are everywhere. The more I learned, the easier it was to convince me of how important sun protection is.
Faith: I will never forget editing a story at a previous site I worked for where a young woman shared her journey with skin cancer — she was in her late twenties, just like I was at the time, and had just gone on vacation and noticed a small bump on her nose when she returned. It turned into a years-long battle with skin cancer that ended with the doctors having to do a skin graft and removing a large chunk of her nose to keep the cancer from spreading. I will never forget that story, and with that more people would remember that applying SPF isn’t just about vanity or to keep your skin from getting dark spots — it’s about health, just as much as your diet or exercise routine, and sometimes, it can be life or death.
Angela: I had the great fortune of working for a beauty trade publication early on in my career that specialized in professional skin care treatments. So, I literally got a two-year crash course on the dangers of UV rays and the long-term damage the sun can wreak on your skin and overall health. I’ve been a changed woman ever since.
What are some of the biggest lessons you've learned about sun care over the years?
Natasha: Apply sunscreen to your hairline! Even if you have thick curly hair like me, anything that is exposed has the potential to burn or lead to chronic skin conditions. Also, I know all industry and derms will agree with this, every single person should be wearing sunscreen daily. No, you are not exempt if you have darker skin.
Angela: I think the biggest lesson for me is to apply sunscreen repeatedly throughout the day, which I’ve struggled with over the years. It’s not enough to simply slather on some SPF first thing in the morning. You must reapply every few hours to ensure your skin is properly protected.