Arizonans are smart about using sunscreen to prevent sunburn and presumably, skin cancers.
But now it turns out that until recently, most sunscreen products didn’t filter out ultraviolet A (UVA) rays enough to prevent skin cancers (melanoma), although they did a great job protecting users from ultraviolet B (UVB) rays, which cause sunburn. Sunburn is a significant risk factor for developing melanoma.
It’s quite possible that this is partly responsible for a nearly 1% annual increase in deaths (about 170 people per year) from melanoma in Arizona among residents over age 50, according to a 2011 skin cancer information sheet put out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Men are at particular risk for developing melanoma and are diagnosed at a rate that is 75% higher than women’s. Coconino County has the highest rate of melanoma diagnoses in the state–54% higher than the state average.
This year, new labels on sunscreen products ordered by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) give consumers more information on whether they are getting the right kind of protection from sun burn and skin cancer.
So why didn’t all that sunscreen we’ve globbed on all this time didn’t do the job so well?
It’s because while sunscreen is a good tool, it isn’t a “magic bullet,” but “just one of the defenses against the harmful effect of UV radiation,” Dr. Stephen Q. Wang told The New York Times. Dr. Wang is the director of dermatologic surgery and dermatology at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and the spokesperson for the Skin Cancer Foundation, which receives financial support from the sunscreen industry.
You need to apply a lot of lotion–defined as a “golf-ball sized dollop”–to get adequate protection from the sun. Most people don’t do that.
We also paid too much attention to the sun protection factor (SPF) and were unaware of the UVA issue. Higher SPF sunscreens can mislead consumers into thinking they are getting more sun protection and neglecting to re-apply the stuff. The industry certainly stressed SPF factors. But the FDA isn’t certain that higher SPFs provide markedly higher protection.
At one time, the FDA proposed banning sunscreens with SPF factors over 50, but has backed down from this, according to the Environmental Working Group, a health research and advocacy organization. An FDA spokesperson told The Times that the agency is still researching this. In the meantime, it has taken sunscreen powders off the market.
Here are the key factors to consider when you look over the ever-growing rows of sunscreen products:
- Use only sunscreens labeled for “broad spectrum protection” which protects against UVA and UVB rays. UVA protection may be weaker than the UVB protection.
- Use only sunscreens with a sun protection factor (SPF) greater than 15.
- Avoid sunscreen sprays. They may not provide enough protection and can be inhaled. The FDA is studying sunscreens to get more answers.
- Don’t buy sunscreens with fragrances; you’re just adding more chemicals to the mix.
- Don’t buy sunscreens with vitamin A, retinol or derivatives such as retinyl palmitate and retinyl acetate. The FDA hasn’t said they are harmful, but the Canadian agency that regulates health products hint that these products increase sun sensitivity. I’ve noticed that prescription medications with these ingredients include warnings to stay out of direct sunlight.
- Waterproof products provide less protection. Water-resistant ones are acceptable.
Do not put sunblock of any kind on infants under six months. Keep them in the shade at all times. Their skin just isn’t tough enough to absorb the sun’s rays.
The EWF recommends that consumers also take into account these factors when choosing a sunscreen:
- Avoid products with oxybenzone, a chemical that may disrupt hormones.
- Use products that list zinc oxide and titanium dioxide as active ingredients. They will leave a milky film on the skin.
- Endorsements from sources like the Skin Cancer Foundation aren’t necessarily based on science. The Foundation gives a seal of recommendation to products from manufacturers who give $10,000 to the group.
And as every Zonie knows, wear a hat when you’re in the sun, keep the kids out of the sun as much as possible, and stay inside from 10 am til 2 pm, when the sun is strongest. Don’t forget to drink lots of water.