As the temperatures begin to climb and the sun graces our sky with more intensity, I start to get a lot of questions about sun safety. Did you know skin cancer rates have been increasing steadily each year, despite sunscreen use? Or that sunscreens don't protect us from basal cell carcinoma? Or that high SPF sunscreens are being banned in many countries? Why is it that skin cancer rates are higher in people who regularly wear sunscreen?!?
Sun safety is a big, complex and confusing topic. Here's what you should know:
- SPF refers only to UVB rays, NOT UVA or UVC. UV (ultraviolet) rays come in a spectrum of A, B and C. UVB rays penetrate close to the surface of the skin- these are the rays that cause our skin to burn. SPF (sun protection factor) ratings are specific to only UVB rays and in theory mean that if the rating is SPF 50, that you can spend 50 times longer in the sun before you burn. There are 2 major problems with SPF: One is that it doesn't protect us from UVA or UVC rays which penetrate deeper and cause more harmful forms of cancer. The second is that high SPF ratings are misleading and create a false sense of security, meaning that people stay in the sun longer than they normally would because they think their sunscreen is keeping them safe.
- Broad spectrum protection is the MOST important component of a sunscreen. Broad spectrum means that it protects you from all types of UV rays- UVA, UVB and UVC. In North America, regulations for what constitutes broad spectrum are weak and companies can have minimal protection against UVA and UVC and still be approved to market themselves as 'broad spectrum'.
- Chemical sunscreens can disrupt hormones. There are two types of sunscreen- chemical and physical. Chemical sunscreens use chemicals to absorb and dissipate UV. Physical sunscreens use minerals to block UV rays from entering the skin. Most chemical sunscreens use oxybenzone or avobenzone and these mimic and disrupt hormones. Research has found these chemicals to be toxic to the reproductive system.
- Physical sunscreens may use nano particles. Since physical sunscreens use minerals (zinc or titanium) to provide a physical barrier, they leave a white streak on the skin-think lifeguard nose. To avoid the this, many companies use nano-sized particles. Nano-size is really small. Like so small that many scientists and environmentalists don't think we should be releasing them into the environment because we don't know how they will affect ecosystems. In sunscreens, the smaller the particle, the less effectively it protects us from the sun.
- Added vitamins in sunscreens cause skin cancer. Many sunscreens add retinyl palmitate (a vitamin A derivative) to their formulas. Retinyl palmitate when exposed to UV becomes carcinogenic. Research studies have shown it to cause skin lesions and tumors!
- Vitamin D is an important antioxidant that protects us from cancer. There has also been research into the cancer protective role of vitamin D. Vitamin D is made on the surface of our skin when UV light hits it. If we always use sunscreen, we won't be making any vitamin D, potentially increasing our risk of developing certain cancers. For more on vitamin D, read this post.
Confusing, right?! If you'd like to delve deeper into the research around sun safety, I'd suggest the Environmental Working Group. They have comprehensive info, link to research studies and have a database of sunscreens they have tested and rated according to safety, so you can look up your favourite brand and see how it measures. They also have a downloadable guide you can take to the store with you to make the safest choice.
Here are some of my general tips for being sun smart this summer:
- Eat antioxidants and lots of them! Antioxidants protect us from UV damage and cancer. Include a rainbow of colours in your diet- brightly coloured vegetables and fruits contain an assortment of antioxidants to protect us.
- Get enough vitamin D! Vitamin D is essential for our health, if you are covering up or wearing sunscreens when you're outside, you are NOT making it and you may need to add a supplement to maintain healthy levels. If you can stay in the sun without burning, it may be more beneficial to expose your skin in the midday sun from time to time to let your body make this super important and often deficient antioxidant.
- When under the sun for extended periods, cover up! Your best sun defence is to not bare your skin. Wear a hat, long sleeves or sport a parasol!
- Choose broad spectrum, non-nano sized zinc sunscreens. Zinc offers better protection against UVA than titanium. Choose non-nano sized formulas and reapply often.