Now that we’ve made it to the consistent sunny days of summer, it’s time to slather on the sunscreen, right??
When it comes to wellness and navigating the ‘right’ thing to do, it can be confusing and overwhelming at best. This also applies to the rules surrounding sun safety and sunscreen…just a few years ago I wrote a newsletter explaining how sunscreen was highly suggested, whereas nowadays there is some speculation surrounding it’s overall safety and efficacy.
According to the American Dermatological Association, the main guidelines still stand:
- Protect yourself from the sun’s harmful UV rays by seeking shade, wearing protecting clothing and using a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.
- In addition to applying sunscreen before you go the pool, it’s important to reapply every two hours, or after swimming or sweating
- Use one ounce of sunscreen, about equal to the size of your palm. Thoroughly rub the product into the skin, not forgetting the top of your feet, neck, ears, and top of your head.
- Get vitamin D safely. Eat a healthy diet that includes foods naturally rich in vitamin D, or take vitamin D supplements. Do not seek the sun.
- Seek shade. Remember that the sun’s rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. If your shadow is shorter than you are, seek shade.
On the flip side, the Environmental Working Group has released additional information about the possible dangers surrounding sunscreen:
- There’s no proof that sunscreens prevent most skin cancer. Although several researchers have found that regular sunscreen use lowers the risk of squamous cell carcinoma (Gordon 2009, van der Pols 2006), and diminishes the incidence of actinic keratosis – sun-induced skin changes that may advance to squamous cell carcinoma (Naylor 1995, Thompson 1993), Researchers have not found strong evidence that sunscreen use prevents basal cell carcinoma (Green 1999, Pandeya 2005, van der Pols 2006, Hunter 1990, Rosenstein 1999, Rubin 2005).
- Americans are being diagnosed with melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, at steadily rising rates. While the exact cause of melanoma is not known, scientists have established that risk factors for melanoma include family history, indoor tanning, the number of moles on a person’s skin, fair skin, freckles, ultraviolet radiation, and severe sunburns.
- Sun exposure appears to play a role in melanoma, but it is a complex disease for which many questions have not been answered. One puzzling instance is that melanomas do not usually appear on parts of the body that get daily sun exposure.
- The use of artificial tanning beds dramatically increases melanoma risk (Coleho 2010). The risk of melanoma goes up when you use a tanning bed at any age, but the International Agency for Research on Cancer calculates that if you start using tanning beds before age 30, your risk of developing melanoma jumps by 75 percent.
- Higher SPF does NOT mean more protection. Sunbathers often assume that they get twice as much protection from SPF 100 sunscreen as from SPF 50. However, that extra protection is negligible - properly applied SPF 50 sunscreen blocks 98% of UVB rays, whereas SPF 100 blocks 99%. When used correctly, sunscreen with SPF values in the range of 30 to 50 will offer adequate sunburn protection.
- Because they think they are getting more protection, users of high SPF sunscreen tend to spend more time in the sun, and end up getting a sunburn from the long-term exposure.
- The use of sunscreen additive vitamin A may speed development of skin cancer. A study by U.S. government scientists suggests that retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A, may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions when applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight (NTP 2012). Conversely, officials in both Germany and Norway have cautioned that retinyl palmitate and other vitamin A ingredients in cosmetics could contribute to vitamin A toxicity due to excessive exposure (German BfR 2014, Norwegian SCFS 2012a).
- Vitamin A is an antioxidant added to skin products because manufacturers believe it slows skin aging. Oral ingestion of vitamin A can reduce the risk of squamous cell carcinoma in people at high risk for skin cancer (Moon 1997), but the 2012 federal study raised the possibility that it may speed the growth of cancerous tumors when used on skin exposed to sunlight.
- Scientists have also found that vitamin A can spur excess skin growth, known as hyperplasia, and that in sunlight, retinyl palmitate can form small molecules called free radicals that damage DNA (NTP 2000).
- Avoid oxybenzone. Oxybenzone is a synthetic estrogen that penetrates the skin and can disrupt the hormone system. Instead look for products with zinc oxide, 3 percent avobenzone or Mexoryl SX.
Whew! That is a lot of information! So what now??
The Environmental Working Group offers a few general tips to keep you all-around protected:
- Wear clothes. Shirts, hats, shorts, and pants can protect the skin, without needing to add anything additional
- Play in the shade. Utilize trees, umbrellas, and sun shields to protect yourself – especially for babies and small children are especially vulnerable to sun & heat damage.
- Plan around the sun. UV radiation peaks at midday, so spend your time outdoors in the morning or late afternoon when the sun is lower.
- Wear Sunglasses. Good shades can protect your eyes from exposure to UV radiation.
- Yes, People of Color need Sunscreen Too. Although melanin can give a level of protection, ultraviolet exposure can still affect the skin.
*For tips on picking a good sunscreen, check out the Environmental Working Groups sunscreen guide. They evaluate the safety and efficacy of SPF-rated products, including more than 880 sunscreens for beach and sports use.
So, hopefully this has filled in some blanks surrounding sun safety. For additional information, and to see if you personally are in any danger of skin cancers, I highly recommend contacting your health practitioner directly.
Have fun out there, kids!
Ayanna Quamina is a board-certified naturopathic doctor specializing in family practice. She utilizes her scientific background and laboratory techniques to treat her patients with a variety of noninvasive and effective modalities, including botanical medicine, homeopathy, and lifestyle management.