What’s going on? The use of sunscreens and the spf factors have both increased, yet the rate of skin cancers is also increasing. There are lots of theories about this. One is that we are just not applying them properly or that we are overestimating their ability to protect our skin.
Another theory is that some of the chemicals found in many sunscreens are actually harmful and may be contributing to skin damage. For example, vitamin A (listed as retinyl palmitate) applied topically has been shown to actually accelerate the development of tumors. And several additional ingredients found in very popular sunscreens actually generate free radicals themselves when they absorb the sun’s UV radiation.
Then there’s the issue of blocking our bodies’ ability to produce vitamin D when we’re not letting in the sun’s rays. Vitamin D is so important for a strong immune system and bones, and it’s thought to help prevent several types of cancer. In addition, there is still no compelling evidence to suggest that when used properly, sunscreens reduce the risk of skin cancer.
From someone who has had melanoma, this is something I’m particularly interested in. To take matters in my own hands, here are the things that I do and recommend for you and your family. You’ve heard many of these before, but it’s always nice to get a reminder…
Avoid direct sun at its hottest - You know that the sun is hottest when it is at it’s highest–usually between 10 am and 2 pm, depending on where you are. Try to stay out of the direct sun during those hours. If you can get your yard or garden work done or your bike ride in early or later in the day, you’ll need less cover-up and the temperature will be more bearable.
Cover up - We’ve all experienced tan lines from a bathing suit, so we understand how effective clothing can be at preventing sun exposure. If I’m at the beach these days, you’ll find me wearing a hat, sunglasses, and a long-sleeve, linen cover-up. Alternatively, I’m under an umbrella. Avoiding the direct sunlight is the best way to prevent sunburn. Also remember that an overcast day won’t prevent the sun’s rays from reaching you, so cover up on a cloudy day as well.
Wear sunglasses - Many people don’t realize that like the skin, UV radiation can also damage the eyes. An “eye sunburn” from excessive amounts of UV radiation over a short period of time can cause photokeratitis–a condition that can feel like grittiness or a foreign object in the eye. This is something that usually clears up. However, excessive, long-term exposure to the sun can increase the risk of cateracts or macular degeneration.
For the safety of you and your family (even small children), wear sunglasses that block out 99 - 100% of both UV-A and UV-B radiation as well as 75 - 90% of visible light. For more information, check the American Optometric Association’s website.
Wear a safe sunscreen - Although there is still no compelling evidence to suggest it prevents skin cancer, keeping your skin burn-free is certainly one way to lower the risk. When choosing a sunscreen, the Environmental Working Group recommends choosing one that is free from several ingredients, including oxybenzone or vitamin A.
Of all the products they’ve evaluated, they recommend non-mineral sunscreens with avobenzone or mineral-based formulas using zinc or titanium (however, not in spray or powder form). Check their site for a list of the safest bets to choose from.
Don’t forget to apply it to the feet and the ears–this is actually a common spot for skin cancer. For women, it’s the back of the legs, which is where I had it. Reapply after going into the water or after sweating.
Eat your fruits and veggies! - Studies have shown that carotenoids and flavonoids, which protect plants from photo damage, also help prevent UV damage in humans and animals. One study showed that mice who were fed the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin had a reduction in the UV-B induced inflammatory response and also exhibited less cell death and less inappropriate cell development.
Lycopene, which is abundant in tomatoes (and is found in watermelon), has been shown to decrease the sensitivity of UV-induced erythema (redness of the skin). In addition, a meta analysis of seven studies also concluded that beta-carotene supplementation protects against sunburn. And the longer the duration of supplementation, the better the protection.
What better way to protect ourselves from the damaging rays than from the inside out? A strong arsenal of internal antioxidants will help to offset the damage that sunscreens don’t prevent and a consistently healthy diet that includes lots of vegetables and fruits will ensure that we’re getting the best natural protection.
I wish you all a happy and healthy and sunburn-free summer!