The skin is the largest organ of the body, with a total area of about 20 square feet. The skin protects us from microbes and the elements, helps regulate body temperature, and permits the sensations of touch, heat, and cold. It is important that it be protected from chronic damage.
Sunshine is essential to our health and wellbeing, but it also has a dark side.
Too much sun is a major culprit in causing skin damage, so we must be wise in how we enjoy being outside. Sunscreen is vital protection. Being outdoors without adequate sunscreen protection can have dire effects, ranging from painful sunburn to developing skin cancers. Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, has been steadily on the rise since the 1970s, and since 2000, melanoma incidence has risen at a rate of 1.6 percent per year.1 And about half of young adults report getting at least one sunburn per year.2 Recurrent sunburns increase skin cancer risk.
One of the main problems is the erroneous belief that sunscreen use is just for summer time, at the shore, or outdoor activities. Actually, sun rays can be harmful all year round without adequate sunscreen protection.
Sun and aging skin goes hand in hand. Women of bygone years who wore hats, gloves and used umbrellas to keep their skin away from the sun knew what they were doing. About 80% of a woman’s visible facial skin aging is due to sun exposure, and a 2013 study concluded that the diligent, everyday application of sunscreen can slow or temporarily prevent the development of wrinkles and sagging skin. The study involved 900 white people in Australia and required some of them to apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen every day for four and a half years. It found that people who did so had no detectable increase in skin aging over that time than those assigned to continue their usual practices.3,4
Minimizing UV damage is especially important for children and fair-skinned individuals and those who have sun sensitivity for medical reasons. Unfortunately, too many people regard tanning as safe, and associate it with outdoor activities and beauty. When outdoors this summer, it’s important to remember to avoid excessive sun exposure to protect yourself from free radical damage and skin cancer.
How to enjoy being outdoors and stay safe from sun’s rays:
1. Seek shade often
2. Wear protective clothing
3. Avoid mid-day (10 a.m. – 2 p.m.) sun or too much time in the sun.
4. Choose a safe and effective sunscreen, based on my guidelines below.
Remember that no sunscreen stops all UV rays. UVB rays cause sunburn; both UVA and UVB rays contribute to skin cancer. Many sunscreens do not protect against UVA rays. The Sun Protection Factor (SPF) listed on sunscreens refers only to UVB protection. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires sunscreens to be tested to determine whether a product can be labeled “broad spectrum,” meaning that it protects against UVA and UVB rays. The FDA recommends choosing a broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 to help prevent skin cancer.5
5. Avoid sunscreens containing Vitamin A.
Vitamin A is often listed on sunscreen labels as an antioxidant that can fight skin aging. Vitamin A is an antioxidant, but in isolation it could be dangerous, both in supplements and for the skin. According to animal studies, sunscreens may actually promote the progression of skin cancer if they contain vitamin A.6,7
6. Avoid sunscreens containing Oxybenzone and OMC
The chemical sunscreen ingredients oxybenzone and OMC (octyl methoxycinnamate) are the most concerning; they are endocrine disruptors – chemicals that have the ability to mimic, inhibit, or alter the action of the body’s natural hormones.8Exposure to endocrine disruptors, for example BPA and DDT, have been linked to early puberty in children and hormonal cancers in adults.9,10 Endocrine disrupting effects of chemical sunscreens have been reported in animals, and they are likely to affect human health as well.11,12
A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found oxybenzone in the urine samples of 96 percent of the Americans tested; this suggests that oxybenzone is absorbed into the blood when chemical sunscreen is applied to the skin, and could therefore disrupt hormones in the body.13
Other studies have found sunscreen chemicals in breast milk.11,14 In observational studies, urinary oxybenzone has been linked to endometriosis, possibly due to its estrogenic effects.15 In addition, there seem to be significant rates of skin allergy to oxybenzone.16,17
7. Avoid Spray Sunscreens
The FDA is investigating whether sunscreen sprays are adequately effective, and the potential risks they may pose if inhaled.5 They may not coat the skin evenly or thickly enough. Until this is clarified, they are bested.
8. Use Mineral Sunscreen as its Safer than Chemical Sunscreen
Mineral sunscreens most commonly contain either titanium dioxide or zinc oxide or a combination of these two, and these are preferable to the chemical sunscreens currently available in the United States.
These minerals do not penetrate as deeply into the skin as chemical sunscreens. They lie on top of the skin and penetrate only into superficial layers, absorbing UV rays before they can damage the skin beneath.18 Zinc oxide has been found to be superior to titanium dioxide in absorbing UVA rays.19
Certain products use nanoparticles of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide to make the sunscreen more easily absorbed by the skin and therefore more transparent; there have been concerns that these small particles could penetrate the skin and enter the bloodstream.
The available evidence suggests that zinc nanoparticles do not penetrate the skin, but that nanoparticles do break down while on the skin surface, which could lead to zinc penetrating the skin and entering the circulation.20,21
There are conflicting reports on whether titanium dioxide nanoparticles are able to penetrate the skin,22-27 however, they could damage lung tissue or other organs if inhaled (as in spray sunscreens) or ingested.27-30 Additional studies are needed in order to definitively determine whether nanoparticle-containing sunscreen products are safe.