In the past, suntan lotion was used to enhance the tanning rays of the sun to “give you a healthy glow.” Now sunscreens and sunblocks are used to “protect you from the harmful, burning effects of the sun.” What changed?
First, of course, was the thinning of the ozone layer, which created a scare about the increased risk of skin cancer. Next was the increased use of tanning beds (in 2009 approximately one third of high school girls in the US used indoor tanning) and spray-on tans. With a more dangerous atmosphere and other options for tanning besides going to the beach, the marketers focused on protection, as sunburns are a risk factor for developing skin cancer. Consider that in 2004 in Idaho 48.5 percent of white adults had developed at least one sunburn in the previous year and, consequently, from 2001 to 2005 the highest melanoma death rate in the US was in Idaho.
Let’s talk about skin cancer, which is the most common cancer in the US. The most common types of skin cancer are basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas; fortunately both have high cure rates. Another type, melanoma, is extremely dangerous. The CDC reports that 59,695 people in the United States were diagnosed with melanomas in 2008, with 8,623 deaths. The rates of all skin cancers are rising in other countries as well. Between 1985-87 and 2004-06 in the UK, the number of people diagnosed with skin cancer increased from 9,417 cases to 24,356, and the number of deaths from this type of cancer increased from 2,868 to 4,485.
Now let’s look at 10 shocking facts (other than clever marketing) that you may not be aware of about sunscreens.
1. There is no convincing evidence that sunscreens prevent skin cancer.
According to a statement from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2011, “there are no clinical studies demonstrating that any sunscreen alone can prevent skin cancer.”
2. Sunscreens can indirectly increase the risk of skin cancer.
Because those who use sunscreen often expose themselves to more intense sun levels, they are at an increased risk of developing skin cancer.
3. Sun protection ratings are misleading.
The FDA says that there is no proof that a sun protection rating (SPF) higher than 50 has any “additional clinical benefit.”
4. Sunscreen may reduce vitamin D3 levels.
One good reason to expose your skin directly to sunlight is to increase Vitamin D3 levels (the CDC reports that 25 percent of Americans are deficient in D3 and that 8 percent have a serious deficiency). However, sunscreens can interfere with the body’s production of this important vitamin.
5. Vitamin A in sunscreens is bad news
. The FDA says that the addition of retinyl palmitate (a form of vitamin A) in sunscreens may increase the risk of developing skin tumors and lesions. The reason is that vitamin A can form dangerous free radicals when exposed to sunlight.
6. Sunscreens can disrupt hormones.
Chemical sunscreens can penetrate the skin and may disrupt the body’s hormonal system.
7. Some sunscreens can cause allergic reactions.
About half of commercially marketed sunscreens contain fragrances, and these may cause allergic reactions.
8. The US and Europe have different standards for sunscreens.
Many sunscreens available in the US cannot be sold in Europe due to the US products’ weaker protection from UVA (the most dangerous rays from the sun).
9. Europe has more options for sunscreens.
In Europe, there are 27 chemicals approved for their formulation, but only 17 in the US. Europe has seven UVA filters; the US has only three.
10. The FDA is not moving fast enough on its sunscreen rules.
In June 2011 the FDA announced new labeling rules, such as banning the claims “waterproof” and “sweatproof” from their labels, but implementation will not begin until December 2012.
For a list of the best sunscreen lotions, check out the Environmental Working Groups’ website (ewg.org
), where you’ll find additional information and references. Although sunscreens are used with the best intentions, it’s important to carefully evaluate their ingredients before applying them to your skin.