Over the past three decades, more people have been diagnosed with skin cancer than all other cancers combined. Today, one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in the course of his or her lifetime. This is an alarming fact, considering what little we actually know about sun safety and how our protection from the sun is inherently flawed. Here are some important sun safety tips about what you can do to protect your skin and even safe your life.
As consumers, we trust sunscreen products far too easily, doing little to assess what the numbers after the "SPF" sign mean or caring to look at the ingredients list at the back of the package. The math isn't adding up in the way you might think, and the chemicals used to make sunscreen aren't exactly the purest of the bunch.
Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the U.S., afflicting more than 2 million people per year. This means there are more new cases of skin cancer than the combined incident of breast, prostate, lung and colon cancers. Between 1992 and 2006, the treatment of non-melanoma skin cancers rose by nearly 77 percent. Meanwhile, half of all adults report at least one sunburn in the past 12 months.
Higher SPF, Not Much More Protection
Theoretically speaking, using a SPF 100 sunscreen would offer you twice the protection of SPF 50 sunscreen, or so most consumers believe. However, this is not the case. Values greater than 50 offer negligible extra protection. SPF 50 sunscreen can shield your skin from 98 percent of sunburn rays, while SPF 100 sunscreen blocks 99 percent - not much of a difference. Any sunscreen between SPF 30 and SPF 50 will offer strong protection from the summer sun.
However, what remains alarming is the fact that SPF products may not actually offer the protection they advertise. Researchers found that testing SPF sunscreens in very subtly altered testing conditions can dramatically influence the effectiveness of the calculated SPF. These changes range from light transmission to thickness of application.
Furthermore, what most people don't realize with sunscreen is that it is aimed at blocking ultraviolet B rays, which are responsible for sunburn and non-melanoma skin cancers. Ultraviolet A rays penetrate deeper into the skin and are much more difficult for sunscreen to block, regardless of its SPF number. Back in the 20th century, it was assumed that the more plentiful, but less powerful UVA rays played little or no role in skin cancer, but research is now suggesting otherwise. While few conclusions have been made concerning the effects of UVA rays in comparison with UVB rays, there is a general agreement among researchers that UVA rays are likely more dangerous. Don't let a high SPF give you a false sense of security.
Defeat the Purpose
But then again, the problem with sunscreen goes deeper than how and when to apply it. Sunscreens can contain harsh chemicals, the kind that can actually promote toxic buildup in the body, depending on how deep the particular sunscreen penetrates the skin.
There are two active type of ingredients in sunscreen that are hazardous to your health, and they come in the form of mineral and chemical filters. Most sunscreens contain chemical filters and usually include the likes of oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate. Mineral sunscreens use zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.
Long-term use of chemical-based sunscreens and increased sun exposure can actually defeat the purpose of sunscreen to begin with. Most U.S. sunscreens contain oxybenzone, which penetrates the skin quite deeply and can cause allergic reactions or disrupt hormones.
Loco for Sunscreen
This leads us to another conundrum - are U.S. sunscreens even worth it? In the U.S., it is difficult to access UVA-shielding sunscreens. If you've ever vacationed in Europe and have used the sunscreens available there, perhaps you've noticed that they are far more effective and have a better consistency. Europeans treat sunscreen as a cosmetic, so it does not go through the bureaucracy that is the FDA. The filters approved in Europe and Canada, such as ecamsule, Tinorsorb S and Tinosorb M - are better at blocking UVA rays. Filters such as ecamsule are able to absorb light waves at 344 nanometers, which is just in the range of UVA rays. The FDA, however, has been slow to approve such filters even when, in 2002, it created a new process to fast-track the approval of chemicals that have long been on the market abroad.
While no large-scale studies have been conducted on these chemicals to document their short and long-term effects, no adverse events have occurred in the countries where such chemicals are used. The Public Access to Sunscreens (PASS) Coalition has recently emerged as a vehicle to push the FDA to act on pending applications for sunscreen ingredients. And while the FDA can and should be strict about the chemicals entering the U.S. market, they should also be speedy, because people have the right to protect themselves from both UVB and UVA rays if the technology exists.
Whether it's a European or American brand, the sunscreen you use should be chosen wisely. What matters when choosing a sunscreen are several factors: how deep will it penetrate the skin, if it disrupts the hormones, if it affects the reproductive and thyroid systems, if it causes skin allergies and if it is toxic?
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) assessed these factors among a variety of chemicals. The EWG found that oxybenzone and octinoxate were the UV filters with highest toxicity concerns; homosalate, octisalate and octocrylene have moderate toxicity concerns; and the UV filters with the lowest toxicity concerns were titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, avobenzone and mexoryl SX. Those on the lower end of the scale also have minimal skin penetration and little if no allergy skin allergy concerns.
Aylin Erman is founder of GlowKitchen. There she shares step-by-step picture recipes of her plant-based creations. Aylin lives and works in Istanbul as a writer and editor at the country's first-ever green-living and sustainability platform, Yesilist. Like her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter to keep up with food news and recipes.
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Photo Credit: Liz Lawley