The sunscreen blues: why you should soak up the sun - safely
But, of course, there are two sides to the sunscreen story. Sunscreens have a plethora of chemicals in them, ranging from the hazardous oxybenzone to the so far, so good zinc oxide. And recently, the Environmental Working Group published a sobering report that recommended only 8% of sunscreens on the market due to “a surge in exaggerated SPF claims” and “possible hazards” of sunscreen ingredients. The irony of all ironies would be a cancer-causing sunscreen. Unfortunately, the idea is not farfetched at all. On top of dubious ingredients like oxybenzone, there are also fears about vitamin A in sunscreens being linked to an increase in skin cancer. Preventing wrinkles while poisoning yourself doesn’t have as nice a ring to it as beauty and health for the price of one.
So while supermodel Gisele Bündchen was criticized mercilessly by the press for referring to sunscreen as poison, we here at TIA felt the need to back the girl up a bit. After all, she was speaking the truth about some sunscreens, at the very least, even if her choice of words was a little blunt – and even if she did retract her comments later.
The sunscreen debate isn’t helped much by the lackadaisical FDA, which has failed to make sunscreen a priority. We’re painfully in need of more studies, more research and, overall, more knowledge about the benefits and drawbacks of sunscreen. While Europe has 28 approved sunscreen agents and Japan has over 40, the United States has a measly 17. Clearly, it’s time for an update.
The people who take things to an extreme by calling out doctors for being persuaded by commercial interests (only 65 years ago, doctors were promoting cigarettes – Camels in particular) are often the ones labeling sunscreen as a hoax and slamming the sunscreen industry for being in bed with the cancer drug industry; they are often thought of as conspiracy theorists and plain old nut jobs. But, to be honest, I don’t see a huge difference between their version of extremism and the other end of the spectrum, where people blindly follow the guidelines that are handed down to them by authority figures and defend sunscreen with every iota of their beings, despite lacking the knowledge to back their defense up rationally. There must be a middle ground: a healthy dose of skepticism never hurt anyone but, on the other hand, shunning authorities based on fear and past instances isn’t going to help matters.
If you’re anything like me – a skeptic who wants nice skin and a cancer-free future – then consider some alternatives to sunscreen. First, there are sun protective accessories. There are a ton of protective sunglasses (one of my favorite accessories) on the market that will protect you from both UVA and UVB rays. Not only will they protect you from retinal damage, but also you might delay the onset of crows’ feet.
When I was thinking about writing this article, I wanted to be able to recommend sun protective clothing, but couldn’t find anything that wasn’t rather frumpy or matronly looking. Enter Mott 50, a new sun protective clothing line that combines style with safety. Not an easy feat, I’m sure. According to dermatologist and The Skin Cancer Foundation spokesperson, Dr. Amy Ross, “For people who don’t like sunscreen, [sun protective clothing] is a great alternative.” Mott 50 sells everything from dresses and tunics to jackets and hats. The company also has a small collection for men.
If you want something to slather directly onto your skin but are still weary about sunscreen, keep a look out for products with green tea in them. Both topical application and consumption of green tea “has been shown to afford protection against chemical and UVB-induced carcinogenesis and inflammatory responses.” And raspberry seed oil may be even better than green tea; “Raspberry seed oil showed absorbance in the UV-B and UV-C ranges with potential for use as a broad spectrum UV protectant.”
Even if you’re a diehard sunscreen advocate (a position that certainly has its merits), consider the fact that as of 2009, three-quarters of American teenagers and adults are vitamin D deficient. Adit Ginde, co-author of the study that published the startling fact, blames the deficiency on “increasing use of sunscreen and long sleeves following skin cancer-prevention campaigns.” The study claims that “using a sunscreen with as little as a 15-factor protection cuts the skin's vitamin D production by 99 percent.” A lack of vitamin D has been linked to multiple ailments and diseases including rickets (marked by growth retardation and skeletal deformities), cancer, diabetes and heart disease. Most recently, it was found that 70% of people with early Parkinson’s Disease have insufficient amounts of vitamin D in their systems, though causation is not clear as of yet. Still, another study found that people with high levels of vitamin D have a reduced risk of developing Parkinson’s.
According to a 2006 report by the World Health Organization, Ultraviolet Radiation (UVR) accounts for only 0.1% of the world’s burden of disease in disability-adjusted life years (DALYs), which “measure how much a person’s expectancy of healthy life is reduced by premature death or disability caused by disease.” However, WHO noted that a much larger burden of 3.3 billion DALYs result from very low UVR exposure rates. This annual burden includes issues with the skeletal system (like rickets), autoimmune diseases and cancers.
The latter is especially alarming; while skin cancer can be directly caused by too much sun exposure, a lack of sun (especially in high altitudes where sun exposure is limited) has been linked to an increased risk of death from cancers like Hodgkin lymphoma, breast, ovarian, colon, pancreatic and prostate. “As you head from north to south, you may find perhaps two or three extra deaths [per hundred thousand people] from skin cancer,” says nutrition professor Reinhold Vieth. “At the same time, though, you’ll find thirty or forty fewer deaths for the other major cancers. So when you estimate the number of deaths likely to be attributable to UV light or vitamin D, it does is not appear to be the best policy to advise people to simply keep out of the sun just to prevent skin cancer.”
All of this is not to say that you should be cavalier about sun exposure. At the end of the day, melanoma is still an incredibly dangerous form of cancer that can and should be prevented. As I said earlier, it’s about finding a middle ground. A little bit of common sense goes a long way. Allow your skin to make direct contact with sunlight when the sun is strongest for between 10 and 30 minutes per day (in order to get some vitamin D), depending on your skin color. Pay attention to what your body is telling you; after you’ve spent some time in the sun or once you start feeling your skin begin to heat up, don’t ignore that uncomfortable sensation. Move into the shade before you get burned.
Personally, I wear sunglasses all the time and love hats. I’ll forgo the sunscreen if I won’t be outside for too long. However, after my sister’s rave reviews, I plan on using Suntegrity anytime I’m at the beach or will be exposed to the sun for long periods of time. It’s all about moderation, being aware of your body’s limits and taking the necessary precautions, which include not only sunscreen and sun protective gear, but also visiting a dermatologist at least once each year to get screened for skin cancer. As the father of toxicology, Paracelsus, said, “The dose makes the poison.” That goes for both sunscreen and the sun.