The summer sun is sizzling above and thoughts turn to spending fun times outside enjoying the warmth and taking in rays. The sun is a necessary part of life and does a lot for us. Being in the sun helps your body absorb and process vitamin D, important for bone health among other benefits. The light of the sun helps release dopamine and increases serotonin uptake, both of which curb depression. Exposure to the sun can even help lower blood pressure.
But there can be too much of a good thing. As we all know, too much sun can cause sunburns. And prolonged, repeated exposure to the sun could result in skin cancer.
Let’s talk about sunscreen.
Sunscreen has been around for a very long time, ancient civilizations used a variety of plant-based concoctions to ward off the more harmful effects of the sun, many of which are still used in products today. Even zinc oxide, an ingredient of sunscreen, has been used for over one hundred years.
The first commercial sunscreen product was made in 1936 by the founder of L’Oreal, chemist Eugene Schueller. By 1944 troops fighting in the Pacific tropics were using a version of sunscreen called “Red Vet Pet.” Coppertone improved upon this salve to create what we used to call “suntan lotion” in the 1950s. It was this product that encouraged people to spend more time in the sun without developing a sunburn.
In reality, sunscreen is not the invisible or invincible shield against the sun that the sunscreen industry would like you to believe. It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution for protection against the sun. To understand why, it’s important to have a little background in how the sun works and how our skin works.
The sun emits two types of radiation that reach earth: UVA rays and UVB rays. Both can be harmful to our skin when we are over exposed to the sun. The UVB rays hit the surface of our skin causing sunburns and have the potential to cause malignant melanomas (skin cancer). The UVA rays penetrate the skin causing wrinkles and premature aging. The UVA rays also have the potential to cause indirect damage to your DNA and cause cancer.
Your skin is the largest organ of your body. It is porous which is why you can apply lotion and skin feels softer. It also acts as a barrier, which is why you can stand in the pouring rain yet still be dehydrated. Some sunscreens are formulated to keep the sun from hitting your skin, they are not absorbed like lotion. These sunscreens are physical barriers that reflect the sun’s rays. Other sunscreens are chemical blockers that are designed to be absorbed by the skin. They are designed to absorb the UV rays and convert them into heat which is then released from the body.
If you want to prevent sunburn, the best plan is to use the same prevention that has been effective for decades: natural minerals. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are both effective for physically blocking UV rays. While you may be familiar with the thick white cover that zinc oxide provided in the past, today’s sunscreens are lighter weight and usually combined with oils or fragrance to make application easier on your skin.
Chemicals used to absorb UV rays include Aminobenzoic acid, avobenzone octisalate, octocrylene, and oxybenzone. There have been many questions in recent years about the effectiveness and potential dangers of applying these chemicals to the skin. Oxybenzone, in particular, is suspected to be a hormone disruptor that interferes with natural hormone production. Avobenzone is the only ingredient in sunscreen that has been shown to block UVA rays, yet there is some concern that the chemical itself could cause harm to people.
What does the research say?
There have only been four scientific studies that look at the use and effectiveness of sunscreens when it comes to cancer prevention. Skin cancer itself has been rising since the 1950s which is curious when you consider that we have had more and better sunscreen options since then. With the upswing in sunscreen recommendations over the years, it could be that the use of sunscreen encourages people to stay in the sun longer which then increases their exposure and risk of skin cancer.
It’s also true that people are not following the directions for maximum protection recommended on the sunscreen. Most people only use ¼ of the amount necessary with each application and don’t reapply as frequently as they should. The effectiveness of sunscreen is definitely related to actual use.
So the jury is still out when it comes to using sunscreen to prevent skin cancer.
If you really want to enjoy the outdoors and you want to be safe doing so, there are a few things you can do. The first is to know the UV ray index (UVI) before going outside. You can get this information from the National Weather Service which rates the risk factors and precautions you should take if you’re planning to spend time in the sun. A UVI of up to 2, for example, would allow you to spend about an hour in the sun with sunglasses and sunscreen. A UVI of 10 to 15 would warrant sunscreen, sunglasses, a hat, umbrella, and avoiding midday sun altogether.
Covering up is the only sure way to prevent skin cancer. You can find clothing made especially to cover you outside while still allowing you to stay relatively cool. And there are detergents that will wash in a UV blocking additive. But light-colored, lightweight clothing can also be good protection when you won’t be out for long periods of time.
Whether you’re enjoying the sun for recreation or you work outside as part of your job, taking care of your skin is important. Sunscreens may provide protection, but you should be careful about which products you choose and be sure you are following the directions for maximum protection.
Additional information on sunscreen safety: