Having fun in the summer sun
Summer time is a time where most of us spend time with family and friends enjoying sandy beaches and sunny days. While enjoying the warm air and company of loved ones, it is important to protect ourselves from the damaging rays of UV radiation. The International Agency for Research on Cancer recommends clothing, hats and shade as primary barriers to UV radiation, and writes that “sunscreens should not be the first choice for skin cancer prevention, and should not be used as the sole agent for protection against the sun” (IARC 2001a). UVA radiation is always present, and can stifle our immune system after exposure. Skin immune cells such as the Langerhans cells, are damaged as well, and the use of high-SPF products can tempt us to think that we are protected when staying in the sun too long, suppressing sunburns, overexposure, and increasing health risks as well as aging.
Do You Really Know Your Sunscreen?
There is no consensus on whether sunscreens prevent skin cancer. In 2007, the Food and Drug Administration’s draft sunscreen safety regulations say: “FDA is not aware of data demonstrating that sunscreen use alone helps prevent skin cancer” (FDA 2007). There is no data to prove that higher SPF is better, and is why the FDA published draft regulations that would prohibit companies from labeling sunscreens with a higher SPF than “SPF 50+.” The agency wrote that higher values were “inherently misleading,” given that “there is no assurance that the specific values themselves are in fact truthful…” (FDA 2007). Despite the proposed FDA regulations, companies continue to substantially offer increased high-SPF ratings.
The common sunscreen ingredient Vitamin A may speed the development of cancer. Recently, available data from an FDA study indicate that when retinyl palmitate, a form of Vitamin A, is applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight, may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions (NTP 2009).
The sunscreen industry adds Vitamin A to 30 percent of all sunscreens, and includes Vitamin A in its formulations because it is an anti-oxidant that slows skin aging, but studies have shown that when Vitamin A is exposed to sunlight, can form free radicals that damage DNA (NTP 2000). The FDA recently conducted a study of Vitamin A’s photocarcinogenic properties, and the possibility that it results in cancerous tumors when used on skin exposed to sunlight. In FDA’s one-year study, tumors and lesions developed up to 21 percent sooner in lab animals coated in a 0.5% Vitamin A cream than animals treated with a vitamin-free cream. Both groups were exposed to the equivalent of just nine minutes of maximum intensity of sunlight each day. The FDA data is preliminary, and is why caution should be taken when using sun screen products that contain retinyl palmitate or retinol.
The Ideal Sunscreen
The ideal sunscreen would completely block the UV rays that cause sunburn, immune suppression, damaging free radicals, and would remain effective on the skin for several hours and not form harmful ingredients when degraded by UV light. Currently, there is no sunscreen that meets all of these criteria. The major choice in the U.S. is between “chemical” sunscreens, which have inferior stability, penetrate the skin, and disrupt the body’s hormonal system, and “mineral” sunscreens which are zinc and titanium. Mineral sunscreens also known as physical blockers have the best safety profile of today’s choices, and are stable in sunlight, do not penetrate into the skin, and offer UVA protection. For consumers who don’t like mineral products, options would include avobenzone. Chemical sunscreen ingredients such as oxybenzone and 4-MBC, can disrupt the endocrine system, and should be avoided on children due to penetration and toxicity concerns.
References: EWC web site
E:Sunscreens Exposed 9 surprising truths EWG’s 2011 Sunscreen Report EWG’s Skin Deep.mht
Linda Gulla can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.