Warning: Not All Sunscreens Protect Against Skin Cancer

By Mel Sole | July 8, 2010

Rory Sabbatini of South Africa sprays himself with sunscreen at the Quail Hollow Championship, April 30, 2010 in Charlotte, NC.

Did you read The Bottom Line on Sunscreens, the recent report by the Environmental Working Group? The alarming report found that only 8% of 500 sunscreens reviewed could be recommended for consumer use.

Growing up in South Africa, I was unaware of the need to protect my skin on a regular basis from the sun. Back in those days, the message was not out yet and we played happily in the sun and got a tan. We applied sunscreen only when we went on vacation to the ocean and wore swimming trunks which exposed lily white skin normally covered by shorts and shirts.

Today, there’s much more awareness about the dangers of frequent sun exposure, but many people aren’t aware that all sunscreens are not created equal. Most will prevent sunburn, but not all sunscreens protect against skin cancer!

Protect Against UVA and UVB Rays

There are basically three types of sunblock: those that provide protection against UVA rays, which cause skin damage and premature wrinkles; those that provide protection against UVB rays, which cause sunburn; and the rarer broad-spectrum sunscreens, which provide both UVA and UVB protection.

UVA penetrates the skin more deeply than UVB and has long been known to play a major part in skin aging and wrinkling (photoaging.) Studies over the past two decades, however, show that UVA contributes to and may even initiate the development of skin cancers.

UVB rays are the main cause of skin reddening and sunburn, and tend to damage the skin’s more superficial epidermal layers. UVB plays a key role in the development of skin cancer and a contributory role in tanning and photoaging.

Since both UVA and UVB are harmful, you need a sunscreen of at least SPF 15 that provides protection from both. These broad-spectrum sunscreens are available at health food stores and are a little more expensive than the common brands, but obviously well worth it to prevent skin cancer!

Unfortunately, the choice between different kinds of broad-spectrum sunscreens still forces some compromise. Mineral-based sunscreens often contain micronized- or nano-scale particles of zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide. The EWG report gave mineral sunscreens the best safety profile of today’s choices as they offer UVA protection and are stable in sunlight. However, there’s concern about the nano particles and whether or not they can penetrate the skin. Research done by EWG concluded that they “do not appear to penetrate.” To be extra safe with regards to this, avoid applying these sunscreens close to mucous membranes of the face, or look for non-nano mineral sunscreens. The disadvantage of non-nano mineral sunscreens is that they form a white layer on the face. For those who’d prefer to avoid mineral products, the EWG recommends sunscreens with 3% avobenzone.

Sunscreens to Avoid

Despite FDA approval, there’s enough evidence to recommend avoiding sunscreens with oxybenzone or 4-MBC, which are known hormone disruptors. Scientists have called for parents to avoid using oxybenzone on children due to toxicity concerns.

Also, there are new concerns about a form of vitamin A called retinyl palmitate that’s found in almost half of the available sunscreens in North America. This compound may actually accelerate skin damage and elevate skin cancer risk when applied to skin exposed to sunlight. The evidence is still inconclusive, but it’s recommended to avoid sunscreens with vitamin A.

The Future of Sunscreens

Dr Michael Prager of the British Association of Cosmetic Doctors believes there’s an alternative to the broad-spectrum sunblocks currently on the market: antioxidant-based sun protection. Studies have shown that tomatoes, which are rich in antioxidants and the lycopene, could prove a weapon against sun damage. When 20 people were given 5tbsp of tomato paste every day for 12 weeks while they were exposed to ultraviolet light, there was a significant improvements in their skin’s ability to protect itself.

Nina Goad of the British Association of Dermatologists noted, “While the protection offered by lycopene is low, this research suggests that a diet containing high levels of antioxidant rich tomatoes could provide an extra tool in sun protection.”

However, in the future, sunscreens will almost certainly contain antioxidants, with labels detailing a product’s DNA protection levels and its ability to boost the skin’s immune system.

Sun Protection for Golfers

As a teaching golf professional who stands out in the sun all day, I use a SPF 30 sunscreen called TerraSport by All Terrain. It contains nano-particle titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. It’s non-greasy and sweat proof—even if applied while on the course, it will not leave your hands slippery!

I recently had a conversation with Mark Wishner, President of the Sun SafeTee Program. The Sun SafeTee Program is a non-profit organization that provides sun protection education and skin cancer awareness programs specifically for the golf community. They give educational seminars, distribute sunscreen samples and published literature, provide informational hand-outs for tournament attendees, deliver power point presentations and conduct one to one consultations concerning the effects of over exposure to the sun. By educating individuals on how to protect themselves (and their loved ones) from blistering sunburns, dehydration, and permanently damaging their skin, Sun SafeTee helps people reduce the risks that can lead to morbidity and mortality.

The best sun protection is staying in the shade, but for those of us out on the golf course, it’s important to cover up and use the best sunscreen protection available. Be pro-active: Check out your local health food store and pick up some broad-spectrum sunscreen for you and your loved ones.

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