The recommendations about sun exposure are confusing. With epidemic increases in melanoma and other skin cancers, public health officials have been recommending — strongly — that people increase their sunscreen use. In the past, sunscreen had mostly been reserved for beach vacations or days at the lake, but newer public health guidelines suggest it be applied daily and often, particularly in sunny climates.
On one level, that sounds like a good idea. Sunscreen can prevent the DNA damage caused by too much sun exposure, right? Maybe — but unfortunately, there’s more to this story. While the right kind of sunscreen can help protect against skin cancer, many brands contain chemicals that can damage cells, disrupt hormones and even cause cancer. Essentially, we may be trading one bad outcome for another.
What’s In Sunscreen?
Recently, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) analyzed 500 sunscreens and recommended only 39. They found a number of problems. First, they questioned the SPF (sun protection factor) ratings, noting that many of them were exaggerated. But even more concerning, many of the sunscreens contain potentially harmful ingredients that undermine their anticancer benefits.
For example, 41 percent of the products tested contained retinyl palmitate, which the Food and Drug Administration believes may damage skin cells and cause cancer. Many sunscreens also contained oxybenzone, which can alter hormones.
Beyond the EWG analysis, sunscreen chemicals are thought to increase the prevalence of free radicals, the unstable atoms and molecules that damage DNA. In addition, compounds like titanium dioxide have been shown to cause gene damage in mice. Other sunscreen chemicals have been linked to endocrine disruption. In other words, we need to be mindful of the chemicals we are putting on our skin; and this caution extends to countless other commercial body products as well.
Dangerous compounds aren’t the only problem with sunscreens. Other issues concern SPF ratings. While most people are familiar with SPF scores, relatively few people understand how they’re calculated. SPF can be a useful measure; but it can also be somewhat misleading, because we assume that these ratings are proportional.
In other words, doubling the SPF number means double the protection, right? Wrong. In reality, increases in sun protection slow as the number rises. For example, SPF 15 blocks 93 percent of UV rays, while SPF 30 blocks 97 percent, an incremental gain.
Another consideration is whether the sunscreen is protecting from all dangerous UV (ultraviolet) rays. SPF measures a product’s ability to block what are called UVB rays, but not UVA radiation. So it’s important to invest in products that block both.
Perhaps the best topical protection against sun damage is old, reliable zinc oxide, which provides broad-spectrum protection and is safe. Of course, the downside is that these products can be difficult to apply. That makes it hard to put on a squirmy toddler.
I also recommend taking a healthy, systemic approach to sun protection. There are a variety of natural compounds that can help boost the body’s ability to protect us against dangerous rays.
Since UV rays damage cells through oxidation, it’s a good idea to stock up on antioxidants, a number of which have been shown to increase our ability to resist UV damage. Lycopene, a pigment that’s abundant in tomatoes, is a good choice. Another example is resveratrol, the so-called anti-aging compound found in red wine, grape skins and other sources. Green leafy vegetables are a great source of carotenoids, which enhance skin pigmentation and sun protection.
Vitamins D and E are important supplements; they increase the skin’s ability to resist sun damage.
But you shouldn’t avoid the sun altogether. Lack of sun exposure or overzealous sun-screening can impair the body’s ability to produce vitamin D. A little extra of this nutrient can do us a world of good.
Another interesting supplement that has been receiving attention recently is an extract from a fern plant called Polypodium leucotomos. High in antioxidants, oral intake of this extract is shown in studies to significantly protect against sunburn and UV skin damage. Supplemental omega-3 fatty acids are also shown to help protect the skin against sun damage. Honokiol extract from magnolia bark is a powerful antioxidant compound shown to help protect against skin cancer.
With all the conflicting information about sunscreens, it can be difficult to sort through the many choices. My best recommendation is to bolster the body’s existing defense mechanisms with nutrients shown to protect against sun damage, and use a broad spectrum sun blocker rather than a sunscreen. As our summers continue to heat up, sun protection becomes essential. As such, it should be comprehensive — not a trade-off between dangers.
For more health and wellness information, visit www.dreliaz.org.