Sometimes it can feel that a career of crafting prevention messages can be snuffed out in a moment. Every once and a while this work in media/messaging can take my breath away, for all the wrong reasons. Today, I realize my work educating parents and children about sunscreen use, UV radiation, aging, and skin cancer risks may pale in comparison to the potential power of a single quote on the side of a shopping bag. I mean, how can I compete with a company that sold $1.6B of merchandise last year and likely distributes tens to hundreds of thousands of reusable bags around North America everyday? Shopping bags have the luxury to walk around for years and tuck into peoples lives in remarkably intimate ways. Even I use these bags (or used to) to carry my lunch on a daily basis. It wasn’t until yesterday that I realized I’d been carrying my lunch around in a bag that goes, in part, against my entire mission. When I read about recent dermatologist outrage for Lululemon bag quotes I literally turned my head to my kitchen counter (see photo) and there sat my lunch bag on my counter just staring at me. Under the tote’s handle was the devious myth, “Sunscreen absorbed into the skin might be worse for you than sunshine. Get the right amount of sunshine.”
Now, that’s not true. In fact there is no “right” amount of sunshine and absorption concerns for sunscreen haven’t proved more dangerous than sunshine. Also, absorption varies with age and body site, here I review information about why to use physical sunscreens (and sun protective clothing) in infants when possible to reduce any risk from ingredient absorption because of their more immature barrier. That being said, I’d always recommend sunscreen over sun exposure for infants and children. The conversation about getting sunshine is centered around getting enough vitamin D. Although minutes (not hours!) in the sun provides vitamin D, we can safely get vitamin D entirely from the food we eat or a daily supplement (all children are recommended to have at least 400 IU Vita D daily). We don’t need to consume sun. In fact all sun exposure comes with UV radiation that contributes to mole production, aging, and skin cancers– even the most deadly kind, malignant melanoma. Sun protection keeps skin looking beautiful (prevents aging) and prevents skin from discoloration and cellular/immune changes that can lead to cancer. Sun-protective clothing, seeking shade, and sunscreen are our best bets for beautiful, healthy skin.
This Lulu bag controversy matters to me for 2 reasons really. One, retailers have power and I would suggest this Lululemon quote provides an illusion that more sun is better; research clearly supports that is untrue. To me, it’s frustrating this kind of messaging slips through (and/or if this is intentional) knowing how intoxicating it can be. I suspect people will misinterpret this; the quote sure is a great excuse to go fry yourself on the beach. Companies interested in sharing health messages should partner with physicians, nutritionists, nurses, and educators versed in messaging for final editing/approval. Two, this matters because this is another example of the attention economy‘s challenge — how hard it is to reach a mass of people with important information. The retailers are just lucky in that regard. They have instant reach…
A few weeks back I read a parenting blog entry on The New York Times by a mom who penned content about the need to educate and support new parents in getting grandparents the Tdap vaccine after the birth of grandbabies. The goal is, of course, to “cocoon” a newborn–surround them with people who are immunized so that their likelihood of getting whooping cough approaches zero because it doesn’t make it into the house. I’ve written about this many times in the past, specifically addressing the need for Grandparents to get the Tdap shot. In fact, I’ve even provided scripting and a sample email for new parents to send to family and friends. I’ve made youtube videos, sent dozens of tweets and updated Facebook numerous times with information about Tdap, pertussis, newborns and community immunity. I also included this information (and the sample email for parents to use) in my book published by the American Academy of Pediatrics. So when her article concluded with this call to action I felt insanely frustrated:
But for something as serious as public health, perhaps it’s time for medical professionals, government officials, and, yes, even the media to do a better job of outreach and education instead of just letting families battle it out themselves.
I had the feeling, “what more can I do?” I work in the media, I work with the Dept of Health and CDC whenever I can to contribute to the national conversation about vaccine safety and hesitancy, I see patients in clinic and I share this vaccine education and prevention health info in every talk I do, no matter what the subject. I’ve committed my career to doing this work and still, my reach clearly isn’t what it needs to be. When the NYT publishes this post without acknowledging all the hard work public health officials, spokespeople and even bloggers like me do to avoid abandonment for families “battling it out themselves.,” I can’t help wondering (out loud) how do we compete? Myths are instructional and it’s very clear it is a challenge for people unlearn things.
Precisely why shopping bags hold such staying power. Always in arms reach and literally at the lunch table.
The Lululemon bags are just a slap in the face. As a pediatrician, mom, melanoma survivor, and author committed to balanced, fair conversations about raising healthy children while staying somewhat sane I really question how could they do it and feel okay about it. Haven’t yet seen a Lululemon public response or commitment to remove the message. Until then, I’m cutting up my Lululemon bag. You, too?
I am a melanoma survivor as well, and mother of a 5 year old and an infant. I recently read an article linked from Facebook (a questionable source, I’m thinking?) about how there is NO proof that melanoma is caused by sun exposure. Totally false, I think? But I haven’t seen the actual studies. I was feeling really upset thinking that I was questioning pretty solid info from my dermatologist and kids’ pediatrician based on one silly article. Yikes. This was timely for me, thanks for the clarity!
B. Hunter says
Just out of curiosity, have you tried contacting Lululemon to discuss this with them? I’d be really interested to find out what they have to say about it and if they’d even be willing to do something about it.
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, MBE says
I haven’t. I considered this an open letter to them. I feel certain they know about the medical community’s concern at this point but my feeling may be mis-founded.
Summer Ostlund says
Don’t be too discouraged, as many of us parents do read your blog and prefer to take medical advice from doctors instead of fashion companies. While we do live in an age of information overload and it may seem in moments that it is a challenge to compete with multimillion dollar companies, research and credentials are what informed individuals will always go back to. Keep up the good work because many of us are listening. Thank you.
Sara T, MD says
Thank you for this insightful post Wendy. As a frequent Lulu shopper, I am disappointed with the inaccurate message on their popular bags. As a physician I am always concerned with misleading information and opinions about sun safety. I see teens regularly in clinic, often with evidence of too much sun exposure and little concern for the consequences in their future. Messages such as yours need to continue to be conveyed to dispel the myths about sunscreens and promote their benefits for everyone.