Sunscreens and Sun Safety Tips

All of us, no matter our complexion type, need to be smarter about following sun safety tips. Your dermatologist will tell you were wearing lots of sunscreens is the best protection against skin cancer.

In recognition of the 33rd summer without FDA sunscreen safety guidelines, the Environmental Working Group has released its annual report on sunscreens, labeling some as “modern day snake oil”. They worry about the effectiveness, never mind the common sense of slathering yourself with potentially hazardous chemicals that break down in sunlight. Is your favorite product on EWG’s list, now’s the time to find out.

It might also interest those in the U.S. to know that Europeans have more options for sunscreen than we do, by a lot.

What’s more, these products would earn four-star ratings from the FDA for UVA protection, providing up to five times more protection that what we’re using today.

Only too willing to use the same types of compounds, U.S. sunscreen makers have been cooling their heels for five years as they wait for the FDA to approve them.

According to the report, 92% of the sunscreens sold under the brand names you know either don’t provide sufficient protection from the sun or are made with hazardous chemicals – or both.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has yet to finalize its 1978 sunscreen safety standards for sunscreens. Though UVB labels already exist, it’s the UVA rays that are associated with wrinkles and sagging, and also with skin cancer. UVB rays lead to sunburn and can also up the risks of skin cancer.

The Food and Drug Administration’s draft of safety regulations from 2007 says that the agency isn’t satisfied that sunscreen use by itself will help prevent skin cancer. The International Company for Research on Cancer (IARC) agrees.

There have also been studies that find an increase in melanoma (the deadliest form of skin cancer) in sunscreen users. Maybe people stay out in the sun longer, thinking they are protected… or maybe the free radicals created by the breakdown of the sunscreen chemicals are to blame… no one can say for sure.

Also, troubling is a recent FDA study that finds a form of vitamin A (added by manufacturers to 41% of products) might speed the development of skin tumors and lesions. While the vitamin might be perfectly fine in your night cream or skin lotion, exposing it to sunlight seems to bring on alarming potential. To be safe, avoid products with retinyl palmitate or “retinol” on the label.

The report also highlights the fact that while there are more high SPF (sun protection factor) sunscreens on the market than ever before… beware.

Nearly one in six products you’ll find on store shelves boasts an SPF over 50, as compared to just one in eight in 2009. The higher numbers don’t bring any better protection. It may, in fact, leave you with a misleading sense of security.

The EWG report is intended to bring these issues to the attention of sunbathers everywhere. The group is quick to point out that they do not recommend ditching your sunscreen – rather they’re encouraging consumers not to rely on these products as a single defense against the sun.

Be sure the product you use offers both UVA and UVB protection, and use enough to fill a shot glass – 30 minutes before going out, and every two hours you’re out in the sun. And while there’s no sunscreen on the market today that meets EWG’s criteria (blocking UV rays, remaining productive for several hours, no harmful ingredients when degrading), the mineral type (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) are preferable to chemical sunscreens. Spray sunscreens are easy to apply but less efficient.

If you’re worried about skin cancer, you’ll also want to look for shade, avoid the peak hours of the day and wear protective clothing (a hat too) if possible.

Remember, exposure to the sun is also critical to the body’s production of vitamin D, an entirely natural, beneficial process that sunscreens tend to block. In 2008, the American Medical Association recognized the value of natural sunlight and continued to recommend 10 minutes of exposure, without sunscreen, a few times a week.

Don’t wait until you get outside to start slathering on the sunscreen. It takes some time to absorb into your skin, so remember to apply it about a half an hour before you head out into the sun.

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