Camping without chemicals

The Before

There were two important cans that I reached for when venturing into the outdoors: sunscreen and bug spray. Both of which were full of chemicals. DEET, oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate are commonly found as active ingredients in these products.

In the back of my mind, I was aware that these chemicals could be absorbed through my skin. I was also aware that sunscreen interferes with the body’s ability to produce vitamin D. And I certainly didn’t appreciate when people sprayed themselves with bug spray too close to my food.

When I was recently around family members with young kids, I made a point to read ingredients in their baby products. Overall, they are less toxic than conventional formulas. Instinctively, we know to use gentler products with infants and toddlers. Why does this change when we get older? Our bodies deserve the same level of mindful care.

But what else was there to use? How did people survive before modern sunscreen? Curious, I’ve since experimented with a few products to see if they were practical and effective. I list some pros and cons to give an honest representation of what it’s like to go natural.

The After

The Sun

Don’t get me wrong, I love the sun. It feels so energizing to feel the warmth and light on my skin. At the same time, I’m a fair person and a little too much quickly turns to burn. It takes a few hours for sunburn to appear on me, so I can never trust how much I’m getting in the moment. For that reason, I tend to err on the side of caution.

Time of day

When I want to be active and don’t want to deal with greasy sunscreen, it’s easiest to avoid direct sun between 10:00am and 2:00pm. This is when the sun is strongest. I like being outside in the morning anyways, when the air is still crisp and fresh from the night. This isn’t always possible, so I have some backup plans.

Sun hat

I never understood sun hats until I had a guy friend who wore one as incessantly as a baseball cap. Although my giant sunglasses protected the rest of my face, my nose would repeatedly burn. I kept thinking how my friend’s face looked so peaceful in the shade of his hat. I decided to get one.

Not being a hat person, I searched around before finding the right fit. I wanted something more functional than a beach hat but also cuter than a safari hat. Lightweight and compactable, I often take my newfound sun hat with me. It provides light shade for my shoulders and vulnerable chest, and as an unintended benefit, my head feels noticeably cooler.

Sun wrap

A what? Think beach wrap or shawl. I couldn’t find one that I liked in-store, but there are plenty online. I use it as a quick and casual sun shield. It requires less commitment than sunscreen, so it is perfect for outdoor work lunches at the dead of noon, or when I get the short stick on a boat ride and sit in full sun.

I have two sun wraps: a lacy long one with less sun coverage that I use primarily as a cover-up, and a shorter one with better sun coverage that I stuff in my purse. The ones that I bought are made of polyester, but for environmental reasons, I recommend going with linen or cotton. These are also more breathable fabrics than synthetic ones. I could replace the polyester garments that I currently have, but that would create more waste in the environment. For now, it makes sense to continue using what I have.

Natural sunscreen

Okay, I couldn’t live without it. I was doing great with my sun hat and wraps, but I was constantly thinking about how to avoid the sun. I wanted to swim and wear dresses! To do this, I needed sunscreen. I looked at ingredients in a few natural sunscreens, but many still contained concerning active ingredients – double check before buying some. I kept looking and found one at Whole Foods that contains simple ingredients and is unscented.

Pros: effective, moisturizes!

It actually works! I had never tried mineral sunscreen before, so I was skeptical. I didn’t burn once on my recent lake trip. I tanned a little through the sunscreen, which was rated SPF 30. I’m so happy that sunscreens like this without chemicals exist. The natural inactive ingredients also moisturize my skin.

Cons: greasy, time-consuming, white residue

I never found conventional sunscreens to be greasy, so “non-greasy” and “lightweight” weren’t selling points for me. But after using mineral sunscreen that contained oil and wax, I understand the difference. My mineral sunscreen is certainly greasy. Not in a bad way, because it mostly contains things that I would put on my skin, anyways.

It’s thick and doesn’t go on quickly. Especially compared to my friends, who quickly sprayed on their conventional sunscreens in a few seconds. I don’t mind the extra time, as it can be therapeutic to massage it in. I’m just mindful of heading outside a few minutes earlier than everyone else to apply it.

The active ingredient, zinc oxide, leaves a white residue. Rubbing it in thoroughly helps considerably, but it’s still noticeable. My cousin asked me if I were really that white or if it were my sunscreen. So much for discretely wearing sunscreen. But I would still rather apply a visible natural product than an invisible one that was harmful to my body. It’s just helpful to clarify to the people around me that the extra whiteness is because of my sunscreen, not because I’m ghastly and about to pass out.

The Bugs

Oh, the dreaded mosquitos. Party crashers every time. Sometimes I think I made it through a bonfire unscathed until the next morning, when I see quarter-sized itchy welts. Giving up bug spray was not an option, but nor was using DEET.

Cover skin

The obvious first line of defense that has been used for ages: jeans, sweater, and sneakers. I’ve made the mistake before of wearing thin of clothing like tight leggings, which mosquitos go right through. I also tend to forget to wear taller socks than my usual ankle socks. Those pesky bugs will slurp up even an inch of exposed skin.

Natural bug spray

On a whim, I picked up some natural insect repellent at the store. I was skeptical, but I figured I’d give it a shot. Several other people at bonfires have been happy to try it, too, after realizing they had forgotten to bring any bug spray at all.

Pros: moderately effective, smells better

It’s all natural, so I don’t have a problem closing my eyes and spraying it directly on my face. I also don’t feel the need to immediately shower after using it, and it certainly smells better than conventional bug sprays. It works enough for a suburban bonfire – I’ve gone to a few outings now without getting any bites.

Cons: short life, must apply everywhere

It needs to be re-applied at least every 4 hours. This isn’t a deal breaker, but when I applied it at 6:00pm for a campfire dinner, reapplying it in the dark around 10:00pm when I was becoming sleepy was inconvenient. In contrast to conventional insect repellant, I’ve also found that I need to spray it everywhere. Everywhere. On my ears, my face, my clothes, my hands. Before, I could get away with a quick spray around my general person. With natural repellant, I’m very aware of the spots that I missed.

I haven’t tried it in deep woods, so I can’t recommend that yet. I did try it at a campfire up north, when the mosquitoes descended in a cloud upon the group. I was being swarmed, but so was everyone else who used conventional spray. We ended up calling it a night and pouring water on the fire because the mosquitoes were so bad. I suppose if they are determined enough, nothing will really stop mosquitoes on a mission.

The Verdict

natural bugspray and sunscreen

Life goes on without chemicals for sunshine and insects. I’ve had fun exploring various sun clothing, even receiving many compliments on my hat and shawl. I’m two more things down towards my reduced chemical life. Now, on to the next!