Loving the Sun …means knowing your sunscreens


Psssst, summer’s coming, so it’s time to study up on sunscreens.

There are debates swirling about the health impacts of sunscreens. What’s up with that? Are some safer than others? How should sunscreens be used? Or should we just stick to the shade?

The key is balance and, importantly, avoiding the wrong sunscreens.

Plans vary. But fortunately there are resources and tips to help.

Smart sunning requires finding that level of exposure that gives our body the sun-derived Vitamin D it needs while avoiding three types of skin cancer: melanoma, squamous cell and basal cell.

First off, we have to recognize that vitamin D is a key nutrient the body needs to fight a variety of diseases such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, high blood pressure and some forms of cancers. And experts say a surprising number of people lack Vitamin D. So, generally speaking (and there are always exceptions) we do need some sun … sans sunscreen.

Calculated Sun Time

With that in mind, what are the sunscreen rules?

Michael F. Holick, Ph.D., M.D., has been researching this and discusses it in his book, The UV Advantage. Holick, who’s also professor of medicine, physiology and biophysics at Boston University School of Medicine, says more than 120 peer-reviewed studies demonstrate that moderate exposure to UV (that’s ultraviolet) light will give the body the vitamin D it needs without significant skin damage.

Holick says that slathering SPF 15 sunscreen all over your body (about one ounce) prevents its ability to make vitamin D by 95 percent. For that reason, he says everyone needs a little unprotected time in the sun, depending on the latitude, time of day, season and degree of skin pigmentation. His book offers tables for knowing how much to get but, he says, there’s a rule of thumb: Typically for very light skin Caucasians — who will get mild pinkness after a half-hour in the sun — he recommends only a fraction of that, some five to 12 minutes, two to three times a week. After that, with a base tan built up, he says, the fair skinned can stay in the sun about twice that time. Then bring on the hats and sunscreen. Those of you with darker skin extrapolate accordingly (or buy his book).

Toni Bark, M.D., medical director for the Center for Disease Prevention and Reversal in Chicago, recommends if you’re going to be in the sun, start your day by putting antioxidant vitamin lotions on your exposed skin. “Many studies have shown vitamins C and E to be protective against cellular damage caused by either the sun or free radicals in general,” she says.

As an avid hiker and skier of sunny slopes, the doctor, 45, swears by her personal program that includes, first thing in the morning, using a lotion with 20 percent vitamin C if she’s going to be outside. With that, she mixes pure vitamin E oil, putting it on the parts of her body that will be exposed to sun. She’ll do her time in the sun without sunscreen and then apply it. All the while, giving her body the protective “force field” of the antioxidants, vitamins C and E.

Absorb or Block Those Rays?

When shopping for a sunscreen, experts say consumers should buy broad-spectrum products that block both UVB and UVA rays. And, this is where it starts to get dicey … know your sunscreens!

Importantly, Bark says, sunscreens are lumped into two categories, the chemical types and the physical or mechanical types. Chemical sunscreens, she says, generally absorb UVB radiation, the so-called “burning rays” of the sun and then disperse that energy through chemical reactions generating those maverick “free radicals” that rust our cells from the inside out. “There has been a growing body of evidence that this free radical formation causes DNA damage and or breakage,” she advises. (Some sunscreen brands are better than others; we’ll get to that.)

In contrast, says Bark, physical or mechanical sunscreens — notably called sun blocks — come in the old-fashioned form of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, white creams that reflect radiation rather than absorb it. As founder of Plan-It-Green and Apothecare, companies that sell healthy, enviro-friendly products, the physical sunscreens are Bark’s favorite form of sun protection.

Even so, the problem for sunscreen makers is that the white stuff wears like clown make-up (not always a popular look) so companies have shrunk the molecules to eliminate the problem. “But this was done at the expense of toxicity,” Bark notes, “and these smaller-molecule physical sunscreens have been shown to cause some DNA damage as well.” So if you use the mechanical sun blocks, maybe start a beach trend and wear the Bozo make-up (she says it does come in different fun colors!).

The Dark Side of Sunscreens

Manufacturers use a confusing mix of chemicals to make sunscreens. But the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a frequently cited watchdog organization, has authored a report to help us know what’s, ahem, getting under our skin.

In a remarkable interactive database, entitled Skin Deep (see info box), EWG offers a safety assessment of 166 sunscreens and tanning oils. The report, which contains info about specific products, found that:

• 80 of the reviewed products may pose cancer risks.
• 11 contain ingredients that damage the skin and may increase risk of skin cancer.
• 52 products contain ingredients that may contain impurities linked to breast cancer.

To help consumers get wise, the EWG has also flagged 10 products it says carry the highest potential danger. Topping the list is “Murad APS Oil-Free Sunblock Sheer Tint” containing a cocktail of questionable chemicals, including triethanolamine, which EWG says may form cancer-causing nitrosamines when rubbed into the skin. In fact, six of the 10 products identified as those “you may want to avoid” contain triethanolamine, including Banana Boat and Coppertone products marketed for kids.

Complicating matters, the report says many sunscreens contain chemicals that have not been assessed for safety. For example, the Banana Boat product, “Baby Magic Sunblock Spray, SPF 48” ranked high for potential health dangers, containing 16 unstudied chemicals.

So know what you’re getting and seek out the least questionable products. The EWG helps by listing what it says are “Better Choices.” Ironically, both Coppertone (Sport Sunblock Gel, SPF 30) and Banana Boat (Protective Tanning Oil Sunscreen, SPF 15) have products on this list as well. Among natural-products companies, Jason and the French company Mustela make the grade.

It’s important to remember that health data is very limited on many of the chemicals used in sunscreens (and other personal care products). Think of groups like EWG as erring on the side of caution, calling attention to the fact that ill-understood and potentially harmful chemicals may present cumulative health impacts after consistent, long-term use—not single applications.

Kelly Hearn writes from and suns himself in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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