It amazes me that people think they can simply slap on sunscreen and head out into the sun in the middle of the day, for hours on end, without getting burnt or damaging their skin. With deaths from skin cancer so high, I just can’t believe people do this.
It’s really simple: if your skin has changed colour, then you have damaged it, sometimes irreparably.
Add water to the combination — which reflects and scatters UV rays — and you have increased your UV exposure by 25%.
You may as well have just slapped your body on the barbie along with your steak and sausages!
Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, at nearly four times the rates of the US, UK and Canada. Skin cancers account for 80% of newly diagnosed cancers and two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the time they’re 70.
Melanoma is the most common cancer in people aged 15 to 44. Melanomas kill, there’s no doubt about that.
What there is some doubt about, is what kind of sunscreen to use and whether it can prevent melanoma.
Studies have shown a lower rate of squamous cell carcinoma, a slow-growing tumour that is readily treatable by surgery, in sunscreen users. However, scientists give mixed reports about whether sunscreen can stop the deadliest form of skin cancer, melanoma.
People seem to think they can apply a chemical-laden SPF 30+ sunscreen and then they’re fine to stay in the hot sun all day with no other protection — she’ll be right, mate! But if your skin is exposed to the simmering, hot Australian sun for hours on end, between 10am and 4pm, you will damage your skin, even if you’re constantly reapplying sunscreen.
Sunscreens allow people with pale skin to stay in the sun for longer without burning, but they are still being exposed to UVA rays, which don’t cause burning but do inflict subtler forms of skin damage (Autier 2009, Lautenshchlager 2007).
Higher SPF (Sun Protection Factor) ratings are not necessarily a good thing, as they give people a false sense of security about staying in the sun for longer periods of time. The SPF number on the bottle does not relate to the strength of the sunscreen — it’s not a measure of your invincibility against the sun!
The SPF relates to how long you can stay in the sun without burning if you correctly apply it. For example, if it takes ten minutes for your skin to turn pink, applying an SPF15 means it would take 15 times that amount of time, or 150 minutes, to burn. In reality, most people don’t apply sunscreen correctly; they don’t apply enough, or don’t reapply it often enough after swimming (and just because you’re wearing sunscreen, it doesn’t mean the sun is not damaging your skin).
Do sunscreens cause skin cancer?
Just to confuse matters even more, there is now evidence that some sunscreens actually cause skin cancer, rather than protecting you from it.
Yes, you read that correctly.
Very little is known about the safety and efficacy of sunscreen, and some researchers have found an increased risk of melanoma among sunscreen users. This could be because sunscreen users stay out in the sun longer, or because free radicals are released as sunscreen chemicals break down in sunlight.
Vitamin A in the form of retinyl palmitate is a common sunscreen ingredient thought to speed the development of skin cancer (30% of all sunscreens contain this chemical).
Some popular sunscreen brands contain oxybenzone, which blocks UVA and UVB rays, but acts as a photosensitser when absorbed into the skin. According to a report by the Envionmental Working Group, oxybenzone is likely to be a photocarcinogen, and it’s also a hormone disruptor.
There’s also a chemical present in 90% of sunscreens called OMC (octyl methoxydibenzoylmethane), which is particularly toxic when exposed to sunshine, according to Dr Mercola. In this blog post, Mercola lists 13 chemicals commonly found in standard sunscreens that are potential health hazards.
In addition, nanoparticles of zinc and other materials used in many sunscreens may be absorbed into the lungs when using spray-on sunscreens that contain them. Friends of the Earth Australia have released the Safe Sunscreen Guide 2012, which lists sunscreens that don’t contain nanoparticles.
Then there’s the issue of sunscreen blocking absorption of vitamin D, which is essential for a healthy immune system. The American Medical Association recommends 10 minutes of direct sun (without sunscreen) several times a week (AMA 2008). However, the American Academy of Dermatology says there is no safe level of UV exposure that allows for maximum vitamin D exposure without increasing skin cancer risk (AAD 2009).
With doubts about which types of sunscreens are safe and whether they actually prevent melanoma, I believe we should be using other preventative measures more often, like avoiding the sun during the hottest hours. In addition, you should:
- Cover up with a hat and clothing made of breathable cotton or silk, and always carry a hat and an umbrella in the car.
- If you need to be outdoors between 10am and 4pm, stay in the shade as much as possible.
- Always use good quality sunglasses to protect your eyes, and to prevent squinting, which leads to early formation of crow’s feet.
- As a final defence, use a chemical-free sunscreen listed in the Friends of the Earth Safe Sunscreen Guide.
What to do if you are sunburnt:
- Make a cool bath and add sodium bicarbonate, which acts as a neutraliser.
- Cut the fresh leaves from an aloe vera plant — every household should invest in one. Scoop out the flesh and apply directly to the skin.
- Drink lots of water and even add some electrolytes to assist with rehydration.
- Once the burning has eased and the redness dissipated, moisturise every day after bathing to minimise peeling.
There is nothing smart about a tan. You may think you look healthier when you are tanned, but you are putting yourself at risk every time you go out into the sun unprotected.