Brooke Shields explains how her skin cancer diagnosis changed her outlook on sunscreen

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For Skin Cancer Awareness Month, ELLE.com spoke with Brooke Shields about how her diagnosis of precancerous cells led her to change her relationship with sunscreen. Below, the actress explains her childhood sun philosophy and how she rewrites the narrative with her children, in her own words.

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During an annual routine check-up with my doctor, I was diagnosed with solar keratosis. [Solar Keratosis–also known as Actinic Keratosis–is the most common precancerous diagnosis, which is caused by long-term exposure to UV rays, per Skincancer.org ] Initially, my doctor had to remove cells from my lips twice to determine the diagnosis. At first we tried to go a conservative route and removed cells from part of my lip. But as I came back I had to do a slightly more invasive procedure that would go into the deeper layers of my skin. The test came back as a pre-cancer diagnosis. An untreated diagnosis can turn into a type of skin cancer.

What shocks me is that I am still discovering small points that must be checked. The spots are results from 30-40 years ago. Thank goodness we are still able to fix this problem, but the idea of ​​preventative skin care is so important.

In fact, I learned much later about the importance of annual check-ups. I come from a time when we used to put skin oil on our skin and bake in the sun. I come from a generation that has never been educated about the severity of skin cancer. Even though we were young, we did not understand that we were setting up the long term and severe diagnosis of skin cancer.

As a young girl, I never used sunscreen. We didn’t use sunscreen in high school because it kept us from having the sunny look we all wanted.

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unspecified circa 1980 photo by brooke shields photo by michael ochs archivesgetty images

Michael Ochs Archives

So, I have never been an avid sunscreen user. The irony is that my mom never really enjoyed the sun; she was uncomfortable in the sun. She never knew the importance of skin cancer and that it is one of the most common types of cancer in the United States. I was truly shocking and, admittedly, embarrassingly ignorant. I was like, ‘I’m not going to get cancer because of this, come on. And I think what was so shocking because I always thought I had taken care of my skin; keep it clean, hydrated, all the things you think you’re doing right. But no one has talked about skin cancer and the use of sunscreen. I mean, the most shocking thing for me about the diagnosis was that it resulted maybe 40 years later. So the damage that I had done back then that I thought I was invincible affects me now. I consider myself lucky.

I use sunscreen now, every day, even in winter. I have been a long-time user of the EltaMD line of sunscreens. I always apply in the morning and once a day. I even use a thin layer before putting it on my foundation.

Now, with my kids, using sunscreen is a struggle. I tried to scare them into using more sunscreen, but they think they are invincible. Being Italian, I tend to get darker in the sun, while my kids are mostly Irish and more blonde. I have to fight this and try to bribe them to wear more sunscreen. “I’m going to buy you something really cool, but I still need you to include sunscreen,” I said.

brooke shields and daughter grier henchy

Brooke Shields and her daughter Grier Henchy.

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A misconception that people have about using sunscreen is that they think they only need to wear it on sunny summer days. But the damage from the sun is undeniable. There is that kind of a fight between needing vitamin D and protecting yourself from harmful rays. Sunscreen can save your skin and save you from future damage.

From my experience, I want to raise awareness that the harmful effects of the sun are real. No one is exempt from this. And that doesn’t mean you still can’t get vitamin D or that you can’t get out in the sun. But, if you really want to fully enjoy the activities we are all dying to return to, protect your skin and teach your kids. Teach people about the bad effects. Prepare and take care of your skin. It shouldn’t be a chore. It should be considered part of your beauty routine.

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