One of my friends just celebrated being skin cancer free for three years.
Another friend of mine is currently spending too much time at her dermatologist’s office where she is having large patches of skin painfully and bone-deep cut out to be biopsied. You get where this is going…sun damage! One must have been living under the proverbial rock to not have heard about the health risks of prolonged sun exposure. However, with summer fast approaching, I thought it couldn’t hurt to offer a little reminder.
Skin cancer, premature aging and other dangerous side effects of the sun
Broad-spectrum UV (ultraviolet) radiation from the sun or from tanning beds are considered a carcinogen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the World Health Organization. While invisible to the eye, UV rays penetrate the atmosphere and can cause sunburn, premature skin aging, eye damage, and skin cancers by damaging our cell’s DNA. They also suppress the immune system, reducing your ability to fight off these and other ailments.
According to the American Cancer Society, skin cancer is the most common of all cancers. UV radiation is considered the main cause of non-melanoma skin cancers, including basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma. About 3.5 million cases of these types of skin cancer are diagnosed in the US alone each year. Furthermore, many experts believe that, especially for fair-skinned people, UV radiation also frequently plays a key role in developing melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, which kills more than 8,000 Americans each year.
And unfortunately, it does not stop there. Prolonged sun exposure wreaks havoc on your beauty, too. Over time, the sun’s UV light damages the fibers in the skin and once they break down, the skin begins to sag, stretch, and lose its ability to bounce back into place. The skin also bruises and tears more easily and takes longer to heal. And while sun damage to the skin may not be apparent at a young age, it will definitely show later in life in the form of significant dryness, wrinkling, lichenification (leathery skin), elastin and collagen damage, skin discoloration such as age spots, sallowing of the skin and other cosmetic changes.
Protect yourself and your kids!
The American Cancer Society urges everyone to avoid long exposure to intense sunlight and practice sun safety. So, whether you do it for your health (no skin cancer, please!) or for your vanity (cancer schmancer!), remember to stay in the shade especially between the hours of 10:00am and 2:00pm and wear protective clothing such as a shirt, hat and sunglasses. Get your skin checked annually by a qualified physician as early detection can save lives, and finally swear off that fake baking habit. I’m shocked by how many people still do this. Most of all, get on board with wearing sunscreen on a daily basis. No more excuses. Just do it already!
But beware: Not all sunscreen is created equal.
The Environmental Working Group states that, as with any other product, the ingredients in sunscreen matter. Sunscreen must offer true broad spectrum protection from sunburn and other types of skin damage but must not pose other potential health risks. That means that poor quality sunscreen, a high SPF and false advertisement claims (labels like “waterproof” or “sweatproof”) lead people into believing their skin is adequately protected. Furthermore, many sunscreens contain ingredients that may be toxic.
Active ingredients in sunscreens come in two forms – mineral and chemical filters with the most common sunscreens on the US market containing the latter of the two. These products typically include a combination of two to six of these active ingredients: oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate.
Nearly every chemical sunscreen in the United States contains avobenzone because it is the best available agent for filtering skin-damaging UVA rays. Avobenzone appears to be relatively non-toxic and non-irritating to the skin but may break down when exposed to sunlight. Therefore, avobenzone must be stabilized with other chemicals such as octocrylene, which offers a greater risk for skin irritation and low level toxicity.
Perhaps the most problematic of the sunscreen chemicals used in the U.S. is oxybenzone, found in almost every chemical sunscreen. The EWG recommends that consumers avoid this chemical because it can penetrate the skin, cause allergic skin reactions, may be toxic to the reproductive system and may disrupt hormones.
While more research is needed to determine the exact health risks of sunscreen ingredients, chemical sunscreens in general deserve special scrutiny as most are known to permeate the skin to some degree.
Mineral sunscreens are made with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, usually in the form of nanoparticles, and generally rate better than chemical sunscreen in terms of safety. Zinc oxide is the EWG’s first choice for sun protection. It is stable in sunlight and can provide greater protection from UVA rays than any other sunscreen chemical approved in the U.S.
Nanoparticles in sunscreen have gotten a bad rep as they can harm living cells and organs. However, according to the EWG, the large number of research studies conducted to date have produced no evidence that zinc oxide nanoparticles can actually cross the skin. It is important to note though that sunscreen in spray or loose powder form is a different story as inhalation of nanoparticles is dangerous for many reasons. Therefore, the EWG strongly discourages the use of loose powder makeup or sunscreens using titanium dioxide or zinc oxide of any particle size.
Final thought: What about vitamin D?
You have probably heard of the controversy that has been going on among physicians and scientists about whether sun exposure is a beneficial source of vitamin D. Vitamin D is important to immune health and strong bones. Our bodies manufacture vitamin D when the sun’s UVB rays interact with 7-dehydrocholesterol (7-DHC) present in the skin. An organic compound, Vitamin D is fat-soluble and if it lacks in the body, it puts us at risk for painful, weak muscles, inadequate bone mineralization, and skeletal deformities in children, as well as mineral loss and soft bones in adults.
How much vitamin D do we need? The Institute of Medicine of the National Academies’ Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for vitamin D is 600 IU (International Units) a day for people between the ages of 1 and 70, and 800 IU a day for people ages 70 and older. For children under 1 year, adequate intake is 400 IU a day. While there is a significant amount of active research contesting that these levels may actually be too low, evident supports that the current recommended levels of vitamin D can easily be obtained from food sources such as fatty fish, vitamin D-fortified milk and/or dietary supplements.
Furthermore, The Skin Cancer Foundation cautions the public against intentional exposure to natural sunlight or artificial UV radiation as a means of obtaining vitamin D, since the health risks of UV exposure are significant and well proven and outweigh the benefits. If you are interested in learning more about the “Vitamin D Dilemma”, I encourage you to read this article HERE.
*Sources: FDA, American Academy of Dermatology, Skin Cancer Foundation, American Cancer Society, Environmental Working Group*
**Photo Credit: © Antonb | Dreamstime.com**
Stay tuned for the “I Scream for Sunscreen! – Part 2” post in which I review my favorite non-toxic, EWG approved sunscreen brands.