Thursday, August 30, 2012

Sunscreen: Let Me Tell You About It

While reading this article today ("Sunscreen Myths And Misconceptions",) it occurred to me that writing my own post on the topic is long overdue. As a sunscreen disciple who has done a lot of research into ingredients and effectiveness, I've become very confident in my own sun protection, and dispense advise (both solicited and not) frequently to those around me.

I don't feel that I need to begin by justifying why sunscreen is good for you. Everything I've read that suggests otherwise is pseudoscientific bunk. Similarly, I don't want to spend a lot of time talking about cancer risk, since, again, the only people that deny that sunscreen decreases your risk of skin cancer are woo practitioners. I'd much rather delve into trying to break down some of the technical aspects of sunscreen itself and try to make it easier for neophytes and non-chemists to understand (yes there may have just been a GPB reference there.) If you're interested in the pesudoscience/cancer discussion, the link above does a good job debunking some of the myths behind anti-sunscreen proclamations.

First up, I want to talk about the difference between UVB and UVA, and what they mean for your skin.


In the most simplified terms, UVB gives you a visible, red, sunburn. UVB penetrates the outer-most epidermis only, and produce more severe immediate damage to those layers. UVA penetrates more deeply, and it will very rarely produce a red burn, but it primarily contributes to tanning and longer-term indicators of damage, like wrinkles and spots. Tans, though perceived as attractive, are actually evidence of sun damage, but since they aren't painful like sunburns, we tend not to think of them this way. (I should note that when I say "tans are sun damage" I am of course NOT referring to skin that is of a naturally darker complexion; I'm talking about the changing of one's complexion.) Both types of rays will contribute to skin cancer risk, especially over time; though, generally speaking, burns caused by UVB increase risk more immediately. This is a nice segue way to:

Probably everyone has heard of Sun Protection Factor (SPF); it's the nice number on your sunscreen that tells you how good the protection is. The SPF number informs you how strong the protection is with the following formula:

SPF X absorbs 1 - 1/X of UVB rays.
So for example, SPF of 30 absorbs (1-1/30), or about 96.7% of the sun's UVB rays. SPF 55 absorbs 98.2% of the sun's UVB rays. SPF 100 absorbs 99% of the sun's UVB rays. This is all why people say there isn't much of a point in spending more money on some of the higher SPF sunscreens beyond 45 or 50 -- because there isn't much of a difference between 98.2% and 99.0%, even though the 100 SPF is almost twice as high as SPF 55.

Astute readers who didn't fall asleep during the math section may notice that the SPF formula only covers UVB. That's correct! Persistent Pigment Darkening (PPD), the measure of UVA protection, has never been required information for United States sunscreens, so it's harder to judge how well a sunscreen will protect you against these longer waves. The best you can do is try to know your filters -- the exact chemical compounds in sunscreen that block or absorb UV radiation. This isn't always easy, because there are a lot of them, so I'll try to stick to the most important ones.

Physical Filters
The two main physical filters used in sunscreen are Zinc Oxide (ZnO) and Titanium Dioxide (TiO2). A "physical" filter means that the particles sit on top of your skin and act as a physical barrier to scatter, reflect, and absorb UV rays. Both of these two filters protect against UVB rays, but TiO2 has an absorption spectrum that only covers the shorter range of UVA: the "half" of the UVA spectrum that is closer to UVB, also known as UVA II. ZnO covers the full range of the UV spectrum, so sunscreens that use only physical filters offer much better protection if they include ZnO.

Chemical/Organic Filters
There are tons of these! So like I said, I'm going to try to keep it as simple as possible. Chemical/organic filters penetrate the epidermis and create an in-skin barrier that absorbs UV rays and metabolizes them into heat. It doesn't make you feel hot, not hotter than sitting in the sun anyway. It's just an energy-releasing reaction. And why the name "organic"? Well, organic compounds are literally those that have carbon in them, which these filters do, as opposed to the molecules that comprise physical filters. The two main things you need to be concerned about with when selecting sunscreens with organic filters are:
1. Coverage of the UV spectrum (like with physical filters,) and
2. Photostability.

The most common organic filters you'll see these days in United States sunscreens are Avobenzone, Octisalate, Octocrylene, Homosalate, Oxybenzone, and Octinoxate. Most sunscreens avoid using PABA these days, as it has been demonstrated to be potentially damaging -- so you should avoid sunscreens with PABA if you happen to see them. Avobenzone covers UVAII, and is the only one of these that protects against the longest-wave UVA rays up to 400nm, also known as UVA I. (Feel free to keep checking on the graphics above when I'm talking about short and long waves for reference!) The rest are all UVB filters, except for oxybenzone, which covers both UVB and UVA II. Oxybenzone is a good filter, but it does tend to be absorbed through the skin intact (rather than degraded into different, inert compounds) into the bloodstream more than the others. So far, no research indicates that there is any adverse effect from this, but if it makes you wary, you can avoid this filter. Due to the overlapping and complementary nature of these filters, they are often used together to boost UVB protection and cover the full UV spectrum.

So, what is photostability? Well, organic filters, as they absorb and metabolize UV light, are themselves degraded. Some degrade quickly enough in sunlight that they are considered photo-unstable. Avobenzone is one of these, but we like to see it in sunscreens because it protects against UVA I, while the other filters don't. Fortunately, sunscreen makers have found a way to stabilize it in solution by adding octocrylene. So that's a good green flag: if you see avobenzone and octocrylene in a sunscreen, chances are it's in effort to stabilize avobenzone so that it lasts longer. Avobenzone also has an enemy, though: it's already unstable on its own, but if you add octinoxate to the mix, it helps degrade avobenzone even faster! If you need help remembering this, a mnemonic that has helped me remember is "OctiNOxate," as in "octiNOxate is NO GOOD with avobenzone."

Why is photostability important? Well, first know that it is better to wear an unstable sunscreen than no sunscreen at all, since you're at least getting some protection. Beyond that, a photostable sunscreen is important because most people don't reapply sunscreen throughout the day when they are in the sun, and a stable sunscreen will simply last longer and offer better protection for longer. If you are the type that doesn't mind conscientiously re-applying every 2 hours, then maybe stability isn't as much of a concern for you. But I'd say that type of person is about 5% or less in the population, so most of us are better off seeking out photostable sunscreens.

I also want to talk about two other filters that have been prevalent in European sunscreens for at least 10 years, but are either not approved or very recently recently approved by the FDA here in the US. Tinosorb S and Mexoryl are both broad-spectrum filters that absorb the majority of the UVB and UVA spectrum, with drop-offs in absorption toward the extreme ends of the spectrum (as with all filters.) They are also both photostable, and Tinosorb actually can also stabilize avobenzone in solution. These are awesome, multipurpose beasts of UV filters, and the FDA is just taking forever to approve them. Come on, FDA! Fortunately, sunscreens using these filters are not too difficult to get online.

That should about wrap it up. In summary, here is what you should consider when selecting a sunscreen:

1. Physical or organic filters? Generally, the recommendation seems to be to start with organic filters and see how your skin takes to them. If you have sensitive skin or find that you react to most sunscreens that use organic filters, it may be time to get physical. If you're doing so, make sure you get one with zinc oxide, since that provides the best protection.
2. If organic works for you, make sure it has stable, broad-spectrum filters. Look for 30+ SPF sunscreens with avobenzone and octocrylene, first and foremost -- not one or the other. If they also have homosaliate and octisalate, that's fine; they're just contributing further UVB protection. Same goes for oxybenzone, unless you'd rather avoid it. If you can find sunscreens with Mexoryl and Tinosorb, try those out too! (They're personally my favorites, but that's not a scientific bias so much as what formulations I like best from experience.)

I hope this all helped! If there is interest, I can do a separate post for questions and/or my personal sunscreen picks!

Monday, August 27, 2012

Book review: The Passage by Justin Cronin

Amazon says: “An epic and gripping tale of catastrophe and survival,The Passage is the story of Amy—abandoned by her mother at the age of six, pursued and then imprisoned by the shadowy figures behind a government experiment of apocalyptic proportions. But Special Agent Brad Wolgast, the lawman sent to track her down, is disarmed by the curiously quiet girl and risks everything to save her. As the experiment goes nightmarishly wrong, Wolgast secures her escape—but he can’t stop society’s collapse. And as Amy walks alone, across miles and decades, into a future dark with violence and despair, she is filled with the mysterious and terrifying knowledge that only she has the power to save the ruined world.”
That’s… a pretty condensed description, given that this book is ~800 pages long and Amy is in about 60% of it (not because she dies! Not a spoiler.) In fact, that’s really more of a set-up than it is in the description. The majority of the novel concerns human refugees trying to survive following a viral pandemic that killed most humans, and turned the rest into a vampiric species that has decimated most remaining human enclaves.
Immediately after I finished this a few weeks ago, I had a lot of thoughts about it, positive and negative. After those few weeks of reflection, the aspects of the book that stick with me the most are, unfortunately, the ones that left a negative impression. To start with the positive before I get too critique-y: I always love a good pandemic/survival plot, and Cronin keeps good pacing and suspense throughout the lengthy expanse of the novel. I didn’t get bored of reading and was overall invested in the story. But.

The novel is as long as it is mainly because Cronin insists on having, like, 20 main characters, and giving each of them a few narrative pages, and then giving some supporting characters narrative first-person pages too, just for shits and giggs. As a result, there are so many characters, and very few of them are really developed. Or, a character will become fully fleshed out, and we’ll start caring about him/her, and then we won’t hear from him/hear again for the next 200 pages. It’s quite frustrating. The Passage is still essentially linear, and the shifts between character POVs don’t break up the time continuum much, but character continuity is often completely destroyed. I got so tired of having to jump to another character just when one got interesting.
Given all of that, it shouldn’t have been surprising how disappointing, nay, infuriating, the ending was. There are “open” endings, and there are cliffhanger endings, and this was worse. Whatever precious little emotional goodwill invested in the characters is absolutely shat on, as precisely zero of the characters are granted any kind of resolution whatsoever. The ending read like one of the abrupt transitions between character POVs, except it was the end of the whole book. It’s almost like Cronin was like, “Well, I’m tired of writing, and after 800 pages, they’re probably tired of reading, so this should be good enough!”

So — would I recommend this book? Well, no, honestly. And I feel bad, saying so, because it didn’t really feel like a bad or sub-par book as I was reading it. I was engaged. It was well-written. But it was a bit jumpy and abrupt, and for it to end as such just seemed lazy. I understand, and often enjoy, open endings, because they are thought provoking, and on top of collecting my own thoughts, I often want to go out into the fandom and connect with other people and read their thoughts. But this wasn’t like that. It just pissed me off, to be honest. It’s like the last 50 pages of the book just got lost in between the editor’s desk and the printing press. It’s as if I were to end this review without actually

Friday, August 17, 2012

Book review: Insurgent by Veronica Roth

Summary: “One choice can transform you–or it can destroy you. But every choice has consequences, and as unrest surges in the factions all around her, Tris Prior must continue trying to save those she loves–and herself–while grappling with haunting questions of grief and forgiveness, identity and loyalty, politics and love.
Tris’s initiation day should have been marked by celebration and victory with her chosen faction; instead, the day ended with unspeakable horrors. War now looms as conflict between the factions and their ideologies grows. And in times of war, sides must be chosen, secrets will emerge, and choices will become even more irrevocable–and even more powerful. Transformed by her own decisions but also by haunting grief and guilt, radical new discoveries, and shifting relationships, Tris must fully embrace her Divergence, even if she does not know what she may lose by doing so.”

Awihle back, Feminist Frequency’s Anita Sarkeesian made a video about True Grit’s Mattie Ross, saying that while she is a good character, and an interesting character, we should caution ourselves against  holding her up as the feminist ideal for strong female characters:
As we know, all people regardless of gender are capable of the entire range of human behaviours but since we live in a male dominated, male centered society traits stereotypically identified as masculine are most valued and consequentially more celebrated by Hollywood while traits stereotypically identified as feminine are undervalued and often denigrated…

In True Grit, Mattie is certainly subverts expected gender roles by being witty and smart and competent and independent yet she’s not challenging the set of patriarchal archetypal male values ever present in most mass media narratives – she’s actually adopting them.
In other words, having a woman “act like a man” doesn’t necessarily a Strong Female Character make. I’ve seen this described elsewhere as Strong Character, Female vs. Character, Strong Female. The former implies a strong character who happens to be female (we like this), while the latter is just about taking a female character and making her “strong” (can be problematic, depending on what “strong” means to the creator.)

Which brings me to this book. I’ve seen two main criticisms:
  1. Tris is a mess in this book. What happened to the girl I loved in Divergent?
  2. There is so much more ROMANCE in this book. Yuck! This isn’t Twilight! Get that shlocky stuff away from my dystopian YA lit!
Clearly, I’m about to disagree with these criticisms (I have my own, which I’ll get to a little later.) In Insurgent, Tris is very clearly traumatized by the events of the previous novel. I want to avoid spoilers, so suffice it to say she has some pretty damn good reasons to be messed up. It takes her most of the novel to “recover,” but she’s still not quite the same. To me, this is completely okay. I expect people who have been through that kind of crap to have a rough go for awhile, especially when the person in question is a sixteen year old girl. It is frustrating to see that kick-ass girl from Divergent go through this period, but to me it’s much more realistic that she would change based on what she’s experienced (and remember, Insurgent picks up immediately after Divergent, so she’s literally had no time to process what has happened when we meet her again in this novel) than if she had stayed exactly the same. I think her turmoil makes her a stronger (female) character, in terms of being a more interesting one. Tris continuing to kick ass without consequence would have been fun, but would this actually be a compelling, realistic human being? It is a more difficult read to be in the head of someone who doesn’t always think completely clearly, but to me, this doesn’t take away from the novel.

Regarding the romance, all I can really say is that the Twilight backlash has really ruined the ability to have romance in YA novels for awhile. Tris’ boyfriend is her emotional center in this novel out of necessity; she doesn’t really have anyone else. That doesn’t mean that the whole book is about them, but it does mean that there is a lot of gravity placed on their relationship and their interactions. It may seem melodramatic at times, but only because of the extreme situation these teens are in — they literally don’t know if they will live or die from one day to the next. So with all that said, no, I don’t think this book is “too much” about the romance. But even if the scales had tipped more in that direction, I take issue with the seeming idea that our young lady protagonists have to be compared to Bella just because part of their stories involve love.

Now — my impassioned defense thus far should make it pretty evident that I liked this book, and I did, basically for all the same reasons I liked Divergent. My main issue with it was the issue of “the secret,” and the ending reveal. Basically, there is this whole buildup where Tris is trying to get this other character to tell her the major secret that would shake up their society, and he’s all “I can’t, I have to SHOW you.” And then you find out what it is 200 pages later, and I was kind of like, “Really?” For one thing, it’s not all that shocking (I didn’t think) and for another thing, it was absolutely NOT anything that he couldn’t have just told her. The quest for the secret drives the plot in a major way, so for me it kind of made the whole part of the conflict surrounding it based on a pretty faulty premise. Despite that pretty major plot hole, though, the story is still extremely enjoyable. So even considering that AND the major cliffhanger ending, this still has been one of my favorite books of the cannonball so far.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Book review: Divergent by Veronica Roth

Amazon: In Beatrice Prior’s dystopian Chicago world, society is divided into five factions, each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue—Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). On an appointed day of every year, all sixteen-year-olds must select the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives. For Beatrice, the decision is between staying with her family and being who she really is—she can’t have both. So she makes a choice that surprises everyone, including herself.
During the highly competitive initiation that follows, Beatrice renames herself Tris and struggles alongside her fellow initiates to live out the choice they have made. Together they must undergo extreme physical tests of endurance and intense psychological simulations, some with devastating consequences. As initiation transforms them all, Tris must determine who her friends really are—and where, exactly, a romance with a sometimes fascinating, sometimes exasperating boy fits into the life she’s chosen. But Tris also has a secret, one she’s kept hidden from everyone because she’s been warned it can mean death. And as she discovers unrest and growing conflict that threaten to unravel her seemingly perfect society, she also learns that her secret might help her save those she loves . . . or it might destroy her.

This one has been reviewed already and loved by many, so I’ll not get too long-winded, and just add my voice to the chorus. I loved this one; I’m truly a sucker for dystopian YA, it seems! Books of this ilk will be inevitably compared to The Hunger Games for awhile, but while Divergent shares its tone of dark anxiety and element of dangerous competition, the novels are otherwise obviously different. I liked that the reveal of what it meant to be Divergent wasn’t given away immediately — it allowed suspense to build and the conflict to become more urgent. I did not like, as much, that some people were revealed as Divergent, a bit too conveniently, I think, toward the end; though Tris (the protagonist) still did have to force her own resolution without relying too much on these reveals.

I don’t have it in me to do a much longer review, so suffice it to say that if you’re into YA or dystopian lit, you should absolutely check this one out. I, myself, am waiting for the sequel to come off of hold at the library!