The Sunscreen Dilemma
Over the last few years, I’ve been asked more and more: “With all the chemicals in sunscreen, should I be using it?” My answer was always yes- but that was just a hunch, I didn't know the facts. So, as a health-conscious sun worshipper, I set out to research to learn more.
Depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer started about 100 years ago. Scientists have shown that less ultraviolet radiation (UVR) is being absorbed and that more is reaching the Earth.
What does UVR do to the skin?
Even a tan is considered a sign of skin damage as more melanin has been produced to protect the skin from radiation. UV-B radiation is responsible for sunburns and pre-cancerous DNA mutations. UV-A radiation is sneaky- it doesn’t burn the skin but acts deeper causing DNA damage, skin aging (a.k.a wrinkles), immunosuppression and cancer. Sunscreen works by absorbing UVR.
Not-so-fun fact: After a sunburn, the newly ‘healed’ skin is more sensitive and prone to UV damage.
It’s been estimated that the risk of melanoma (the most aggressive and invasive type of skin cancer) doubles if you’ve had more than 5 serious sunburns. Melanoma affects all age ranges, but it is the most common cancer in the 25-29 age group. In Canada, melanoma rates are on the rise. Of course, everyone has their own individualized risk -take the Fitzpatrick skin type test to see where you stand!
Sunscreen’s Bad Rep
Specific ingredients have been linked to negative health outcomes such as hormone disruption and skin allergies in humans, as well as behavioural disturbances and endocrine issues in animals. These chemicals have also been found in breast milk.
Some sunscreens in North America are advertised as ‘broad spectrum,’ meaning they’re capable of absorbing the deeply penetrating UVA rays (in addition to UVB). Avobenzone is most common, and it turns out that it’s not very stable in the presence of sunlight. Europe has much higher standards and it’s been estimated that half of our ‘sport’ sunscreens wouldn’t be approved due to low quality UVA filters like avobenzone.
Another issue has to do with the claim ‘hypoallergenic.’ The American Contact Dermatitis named methylisothiazolinone allergen of the year, and yet it’s been found in children’s sunscreen.
If you’re feeling unsettled, you’re not alone- I am too! I love being out in the sun and I’ve never thought twice about the sunscreen I put on. THE GOOD NEWS? Next week’s post is going to be a practical guide on selecting safe sunscreen with specific product recommendations! It will also include which ingredients (and brands) to avoid.
Bottom Line: There are serious consequences to spending too much time in the sun but don’t let that stop you from soaking it up! Use common sense and seek shade, appropriate clothing, and re-apply frequently. Perhaps consider sunscreen brands that are safer and just as effective (stay tuned). In terms of skin cancer, prevention is the best medicine! Share the facts with friends and loved ones. Monitor moles and freckles for changes and don’t hesitate to book an appointment with your doctor if you have any concerns.
1.World Health Organization. Climate change and human health: risks and responses: summary.
2. World Health Organization. Ultraviolet radiation and the INTERSUN Programme. World Health Organization, Geneva, Switzerland. 2014 Dec.
3. Skin Cancer Foundation. Skin Cancer Facts and Statistics
4. Skin Cancer Foundation. Where Does Your Skin Fit In? Quiz. April 2016
5. Skin Cancer Foundation. Sunscreen Explained. May 2012.
6. The Environmental Working Group. The Trouble with Sunscreen Chemicals. 2016.
7. The Environmental Working Group. Does Europe have Better Sunscreens? 2016.