Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Don't Get Burned

I don't know what it's like where you live, but it's spring break season around these parts.  Thousands of college students and families with school-aged children are fleeing the stresses of daily life and heading to sunnier climes where they will offer up acres of winter-pale skin to the sun. And for the most part, everyone will be slathering and spraying on sunscreens to protect the kids and themselves from the potentially harmful effects of the sun, ranging from wrinkles and spots to serious skin cancers.

But do sunscreens actually do any good? Or do they just allow us to stay in the sun longer, thinking we are protected? And what is in sunscreen, anyway?

The answers to those questions: It depends, probably, and a lot of junk.

It depends because for sunscreens to be effective, they must be applied liberally and routinely after swimming or sweating. Probably because some sunscreens only screen out UVB rays, thereby protecting your skin from signs of sunburn while still allowing the deeper-penetrating UVA rays to wreak their own special brand of havoc in the under layers of your skin. As for the junk, well, there's a good chance that your sunscreen contains chemicals that disrupt hormones, contribute to premature puberty, and raise your risks for different types of cancers.


     Source: Skin Cancer Foundation
But this spring break, you don't have to bask in ignorance as well as the warmth of the sun. Before you pack the minivan or crowd into your friend's 1986 Volvo sedan, check out The Environmental Working Group's Sunscreen Guide. You can look up your favorite brand to check out how it rates on actually screening you from the sun as well as its levels of harmful chemicals, you can see the top recommended sunscreens, and you can visit the Hall of Shame  to gasp at the outrageous claims, the ridiculous amounts of chemicals, and sadly, the very recognizable brands.

Some quick take-aways:
  • Just say no to oxybenzone. It's a synthetic estrogen that penetrates the skin. Unfortunately, oxybenzone, also called benzophenone-3, is found in 60% of sunscreens in the 500 listed in EWG's database. Even worse, one study found 96% of people tested had levels of oxybenzone in their urine and another study found traces of it in mother's milk, showing that this insidious chemical is finding its way into our bodies and that we can pass it along to our littlest kids. Here's the page with lots of science-y background. 
  • Create a barrier. The safest sunscreens are those that create a physical barrier against the sun's rays using minerals, such as zinc and titanium. These minerals shield your skin from both UVB and UVA rays but remain on the skin, rather than being absorbed by it. Even better barriers, according to the experts, are long sleeves, hats, and shade.
  • Nix the sprays. Sprays and powders put tiny particles of sunscreen into the air, which you (and everyone around you) breathe in. If you don't want those chemicals on your skin, you definitely don't want them in your lungs. Cough, cough.
  • Don't wear your vegetables. Vitamin A, which is added to many sunscreens as retinyl palmitate, is actually bad for you when applied on the skin. Research has shown that tumors and lesions develop more quickly on skin coated with creams containing vitamin A. 
If that seems like a lot to remember, just check out EWG's useful cheat sheet. EWG has boiled down pages and pages of information into one page that gives you some overarching advice on sunscreens and sun safety. And, if you want the info to go, there's an app for that.

You can learn a lot more about sunscreens on the EWG web site, including the fact that the FDA has been been drafting sunscreen regulations since...wait for it...1978. So don't hold your breath waiting for the government to provide clear guidelines about these chemicals. Do your own research and take control over what you put on your skin, which after all, is the largest organ of our bodies (despite what some college guys will try to tell you).

Have a great break!


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