With Skin Cancer Rates Rising, Are You Sunscreen Savvy?

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Screen Shot 2016-07-20 at 10.26.46 AMWith so many sunscreens on the shelves today, it’s surprising that skin cancer rates are rising. Maryland ranks 7th highest for new melanoma skin cancer diagnoses. The Skin Cancer Foundation states it best, “skin cancer is primarily a lifestyle disease.” Check out the surprising sunscreen must-knows below, and keep you and your family sun safe. 

1. Sunscreen 101

Developed in 1928, sunscreens stopped sunburns by blocking the skin burning ultraviolet B rays (UVB).  Sunscreens come in two formulas; minerals that reflect the sun’s damaging rays (zinc oxide and titanium oxide), or synthetic chemicals (oxybenzone) that absorb the sun’s rays.

Interestingly, the sun protection factor rating system (SPF) used in measuring the efficiency of sunscreens only measures UVB protection. But, it’s UVA rays that count because at sea level, 95 percent of ultraviolet rays are ultraviolet A (UVA). Due to both UVA and UVB being dangerous to our skin, it’s vital to protect against both.

Prior to the Food & Drug Agency’s sunscreen regulation in 2012, many sunscreens didn’t fully protect against UVA rays. While you wouldn’t assume this, improved testing, clearer labeling, and better regulation that all sunscreens must be broad protection for both UVA and UVB, is a recent phenomenon. 

2. Skin cancer rates are rising

 According to the Center for Disease Control, between 2000-2009, skin cancer rates have increased significantly for both men and women.  Many factors play into skin cancers: genetics, skin tones, time in direct sun and tanning beds and cultural norms to name a few.

3. We only apply 25 percent sunscreen that’s needed

Scientific studies confirm that people don’t apply enough sunscreen. The FDA standard for SPF ratings assumes a certain sunscreen layer, or thickness. Multiple studies confirm that people only apply between 25 to 50 percent of the recommended amount of sunscreen. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends one ounce, or one shot glass, of sunscreen application for exposed skin.

4. SPF’s false sense-of-safety

A recent American Academy of Dermatology study concluded that people wearing super-high SPF sunscreen increased intentional sun exposure between 13 to 39 percent. We sunbathers have gained a false sense-of-safety that applying super-high SPF formulas translates to even more time in the rays. In reality, the SPF ratings are confusing. For instance, SPF 30 protects against 97 percent of UVB rays, while a SPF 50 protects against 98 percent. New FDA rules no longer allow over SPF 50 sunscreens. 

5. Two-hours doesn’t equal all-day

Another critical need-to-know is that sunscreen chemicals don’t work after two hours in the sun.  There is no such thing as all-day protection. Reapplication is a must, especially after water sports.

6. Are spray sunscreens effective? T.B.D.

For kids, it appears a universal hatred is applying sunscreen lotion. Sprays seem like the ideal answer. A few swish-swishes and you’re done. Yet, sprays most likely don’t work and are dangerous to inhale. The environmental health non-profit Environmental Working Group claims that sprays may cause “serious inhalation risks.” As mentioned above, people apply too little sunscreen with sprays because it’s tough to gauge coverage.  Unfortunately, the 2012 FDA rules punted on addressing spray sunscreens. Truth is, the FDA doubts sprays work and the agency has officially asked manufacturers for efficacy data.

7. Toxic chemicals? Oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate (vitamin A)

Oxybenzone is widely-used as chemical-based sunscreen. Many countries have limited its use, and scientific studies suggest the chemical is estrogenic hormone disruptor. Yet, the Journal of American Academy of Dermatology states that no consensus exists regarding oxybenzone’s effective estrogenicity.  The bottom-line is that it’s still up-in-the-air if oxybenzone is unhealthy. Europe mandates that sunscreens which contain 5 percent or more of oxybenzone must print the percent on the bottle’s label. 

Retinyl palmitate (vitamin A) is an anti-aging antioxidant included in as many as 41 percent of sunscreens. Though some scientific studies reveal that high doses of retinyl palmitate increased skin tumors in mice, the opposite was found at different retinyl concentrations in the same studies. According to a commentary in The Journal of American Academy of Dermatology, “there is no convincing evidence to support that retinyl palmitate is photocarcinogenic. ₅ (a carcinogen when in contact with light.)”

8. Good News: Sunscreen safety database

An advocacy leader is addressing sunscreen safety, the Environment Working Group (EWG) offers a consumer-friendly sunscreen guide pulling together sunscreen research. Even better, EWG has safety tested hundreds of sunscreens and built a searchable sunscreen database to help you shop smarter. Their decade-long advocacy work focusing on sunscreen regulation and toxins has seen results in the marketplace; vitamin A usage is down, and there’s been a one-third increase in mineral-only (no oxybenzone) sunscreens. On the flip side, there are 25 percent more spray sunscreens available. 

Bottom-line:
1. Cover up, especially during the midday sun hours.  Though a sun-kissed tan is desired, the Skin Cancer Foundation is pretty clear, “tans are caused by harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun or tanning lamps, and if you have one, you’ve sustained skin cell damage.”

2. Buy “broad spectrum” sunscreens only.  Choose SPF between 30 to 50.

3. Apply sunscreen liberally.  Use one shot glass of sunscreen per application.

4. Re-apply at least every 2 hours – it doesn’t work after 2 hours.

5. If you choose a spray, spray heavily and rub in well. Don’t breathe spray in.

6. To avoid oxybenzone and sprays, choose lotions with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

Take sun safety seriously

Greenlaurel isn’t a doctor, and please review these sun safety suggestions with your doctor or dermatologist. It’s smart to visit a dermatologist once a year to have a skin check and to discuss the latest sunscreen research. 

I consulted a Baltimore-based dermatologist to point me in the direction of key American Academy of Dermatology sunscreen research papers. If you’re interested, email [email protected] and I will email the three American Academy of Dermatology studies used as support for this article. 

Laurel Peltier
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Laurel Peltier

Laurel writes the environmental GreenLaurel column every other Thursday in the Baltimore Fishbowl. A graduate of UVA's MBA program, she spends her time with her family and making "all things green" interesting.
Laurel Peltier
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