Sunscreen: The Good The Bad and the Skin Cancer

Which sunscreen is safe to use at the beach?If you, like us, have been routinely slathering your kids with sunscreen to protect them from cancer causing skin damage, you might find this article on skin cancer research worrying.

Researchers have found that since the use of sunscreen became general in the mid-70s rates of skin cancers have increased significantly, rather than decreased as expected. One theory was that because they take longer to burn, people spend longer periods in the sun. Another that the sunscreen blocks most of the UVB rays but not so much of the UVA, which penetrates deeper into the skin.

One of the main risk factors identified here though, was some of the chemical ingredients in the sunscreens themselves. Certain of the active ingredients act as free radical generators once they are activated by the UV rays. Free radicals are the big bad wolves of the cancer world, loose cannons in the body that can cause changes in cell structure.

If you are interested in more detail, go read the original article, which is full of information and references to current research. But for easy reference here is a list of things to look out for:

Chemicals to avoid in sunscreen
Benzophenone, oxybenzone or benzophenone-3 – all free radical generators when activated by UV light. These, or derivatives of these, are found in most common chemical sunscreens.
Psoralen – high risk of melanomas shown in several studies that rate this chemical four times worse than those listed above..
Look out for these ingredients in face creams that have an SPF too.

Physical sunscreens
These use minerals such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide and reflect the UV light away from the skin. They tend to look white on the skin. They work as sunblocks and are much safer than chemical sunscreens.

Natural tan
The article concludes  with saying that the safest protection against skin cancer is to build up a natural tan gradually without risking severe sunburn. Most severe skin damage was seen in people with infrequent but intense exposure to the sun. For example the holidaymaker from a less sunny climate who sunbathes too long and gets badly burned. Those with regular, moderate exposure to the sun are less likely to suffer from skin cancer.

Vitamin D
We all need vitamin D and our body manufactures it from the sun shining on our skin. Using sunscreens prevents this natural process. We all should spend a minimum of 10 minutes a day  in the sunshine without any blocking sunscreens on our skin, to get a basic level of vitamin D. Vitamin D helps suppress the growth of malignant melanomas and possibly other cancers too, so getting enough sunlight on our skin helps fight, rather than causes, skin cancer.

Once again it’s all about moderation, getting out in the sun and fresh air, but not overdoing it, minimising the chemicals we expose ourselves to and reading that tiny small print on the ingredients lists.

Photo: © Radu Tania | Dreamstime.com

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