Friday, April 4, 2008

Sunscreens.....Are They Safe?

Well, that time of year is rapidly approaching when we will all be outside more often enjoying our warm weather as we launch into spring. Cabin Fever is rooted well within my psyche as this has been a particularly long winter for Idaho. As the days grow longer and I continually watch the weather channel in anticipation, waiting for the temperatures to rise and weather to stabilize, I am reminded that during the warmer days, sunscreen will be a large part of my daily routine. Looks like we may go above 60 degrees today! ;~D

After wearing long pants and long sleeved shirts for the past 7 months, I will have to remind myself to protect the now delicately pale bare skin that will become exposed to the suns’ rays. I love the sun…. its’ warmth as it beams down on my face. I love basking in all its’ glory, allowing the chill of my bones to fade away after a long cold winter. I simply can’t wait to be outside enjoying the warm weather and sipping a cold drink by the pool. I just do it with caution and time my sunbathing accordingly.

My mineral makeup has been excellent for my face and neck, but it is not practical for all over skin care. And even though my minerals provide a natural and decent level of sun protection (depending on use), it is still recommended to supplement with a sunscreen lotion, especially when I know I am outside in the garden for extended periods during the peak hours of sun exposure. Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide are physical sun blockers and do their job quite nicely in mineral makeup. However, without layering on the minerals to the point of a heavy, overly made up, caked look, you simply cannot reach the level of SPF that is claimed on some mineral makeup company labels. Mineral Cosmetics simply are not worn this way by most women.

Also, there is much debate on the safety of sunscreens due to the use of micronized minerals (article on this subject) in order to make the product less opaque. Studies have shown that penetration into the skin is less evident and that harmful effects are practically non-existent due to the stability of Titanium and Zinc. And the truth of the matter is they do physically block the sun UVA and UVB radiation by scattering and reflecting the suns’ rays, and case in point, they are the only ingredients that do this.

Chemical sunscreens only protect you from one or the other of these rays and have been found to simply be less effective than physical sun-blockers. This is why you will see them used in combination with each other so that a broad spectrum sunscreen can be accomplished. However, the level of safety of a chemical sunscreen still remains unclear and their level of effectiveness is argued that many of the chemically formulated sunscreens simply do not hold up and begin to break down in a matter of minutes to hours once exposed to the sun. We are advised to be wary when it comes to claims made by companies that produce sunscreens as their claims are not always proven and their hype exceeds their official SPF rating. Plus, these are also a chemical absorber of ultra violet rays whereby creating concerns of free radical damage and metabolic changes to the body. Also, be aware sunscreens can degrade within the tube or bottle and should be discarded each year and new one purchased for maximum effectiveness. Also keep your sunscreen out of the sun and away from heat exposure as this will further degrade the product.

Unfortunately, the FDA has yet to propose guidelines for stability of sunscreens, and I personally have yet to find a sunscreen with titanium and zinc combined, yet I have found zinc or titanium mixed with chemicals with different UVA and UVB sun protection. This is a list of ingredients which identify what UV rays they will protect you from.
  • Avobenzone (UVA – yes, UVB – no)

  • Cinnamates (UVA – no, UVB – yes)

  • Salicylates (UVA –no, UVB – yes)

  • Oxybenzone (UVA – yes, UVB – no)
These help fill the gap in skin protection against the suns’ harmful rays. The one concern for me is Avobenzone in particular, due to its’ ability to absorb UV radiation was studied and shown to convert this light energy into free radical changes causing further damage to the skin. Plus this ingredient begins to degrade within 1 hour and becomes completely ineffective.

The real kicker for me is the FDA has not made any requirements for companies to protect us against UVA radiation, which is astounding since these harmful rays make up 90% of the ultraviolet light that reaches the earth. UVA rays cause premature aging due to deeply penetrating the skin tissue and in high doses can suppress our immune system. It is left up to the manufacturer to provide the UVA level of protection needed.

You may be wondering “what’s the answer?” Well, the answer, unfortunately, is not simple. With due diligence by reading ingredient labels, always try to locate a sunscreen using either Titanium Dioxide or Zinc Oxide within the formulas. Without these, you just are not getting the level of sun protection needed to protect you from UV damage. And until the FDA brings about some criteria needed for sun safety, we are on our own for protecting ourselves. To date the FDA has only approved 17 ingredients for sun safety, while the European Union has approved 29.

Best advice dermatologists give is to limit your stay in the sun during peak hours between 10 am and 4 pm and use the best sunscreen you can find with at least an SPF of 15 or higher, along with continued protection on your face using your minerals. Also, sitting in the shade does not necessarily protect you from sunburn since you can get reflection from sand, concrete, boats on the water and pool areas. Also you can get some of the worst burns on overcast or cloudy days in the summer months. Don’t think if you can’t see Mr. Sunshine, you won’t get sunburned. And as we step outside from winter hibernation, our pale skin newly exposed to the first rays of sunshine during peak daylight hours, can literally get a burn in less than 20 minutes. That's all it takes! Simply put, with melanoma and other skin cancers on the rise, we have no other choice but to utilize the sunscreens that are available to us, as frustrating as this may be. However, based on the information I have located, I would avoid sunscreens that include Avobenzone altogether.

How Much Do I Apply and How Often: The recommended application of sunscreen is a shot glass size of lotion, approximately 1 ounce for the entire body. Basically you want to slather it on and then wait about 15 minutes before going into the sun or water for the best in sun protection. Also, don’t rely on statements that say “All Day” or “Waterproof”. If you are out in the sun playing, swimming, doing sport activities, the sunscreens will wear away, breakdown, sweat off, and wash off in water. Heavy activity should warrant a reapplication every 2 hours no matter what the bottle says. And if you are swimming, reapply every hour. If you are a lounge potato then, every few hours should be sufficient.

Those Sensitive Areas We Tend To Overlook: Pay close attention to the top of your head for those who have thinning hair, the ears and nose, nape of the neck, back of the knees, and last but not least, the top of your feet. Also, remember to keep your children well slathered since their skin is so much more delicate than ours, especially infants. However, when it comes to infants it is best to leave them in the shade even with the use of sunscreen.

In light of all this information, I do not believe in avoiding the sun completely. I have read further literature on the subject, some of which is provided by the Mayo Clinic and Dr. Michael Holick, director of the Vitamin D, Skin and Bone Research Laboratory and professor of Medicine, Dermatology, Physiology, and Biophysics at Boston University Medical Center, of getting about 10-20 minutes a day of sun exposure since it is excellent for providing the essential vitamin D, building our immune system, and to give us a sense of well being. Studies have also shown a higher rate in cancer risk, especially as it pertains to colon cancer, equated to deficiencies of vitamin D in patients. With slow sun exposure you will get sufficient amounts of the necessary vitamin while it will also gradually bring the melanin in our skin to the surface giving us a layer of protection against UV radiation and will help to fight free radicals we are exposed to, naturally. However, for those with very little melanin in their skin such as those from Northern European descent, you must limit your exposure since you’re unable to tan and simply burn. You are at the highest risk for skin cancer.

So be safe and use discretion when venturing outside to enjoy the warmth from the big fireball in the sky, preferably still avoiding the hours of daylight that put us most at risk. My favorite time of day for getting a healthy dose of sunshine on my body is in the early morning hours while sipping my coffee, and last thing at the end of the day having a cold drink.

Take care all and have a lovely weekend. Here’s hoping it is warm in your neck of the woods. I am headed out to the drugstore now to hunt down the latest and safest sunscreen concoction I can find. I will let you know if I find something natural and beneficial to the skin without all the junk.

Just a little eyecandy! I do so enjoy the warm weather ;~)

Reference for sunscreen information provided by: Diffey BL; Grice J; "The influence of sunscreen type on photo-protection," Regional Medical Physics Department, Dryburn Hospital, Durham, U.K. The British journal of dermatology, 1997 Jul, 137(1):103-5. and the Mayo Clinic and Skin Deep Data Base.

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  1. I have found a sunscreen with both Titanium Dioxide & Zinc Oxide. It is called Natural Sunscreen by Mercola. It is free of chemicals and preservatives.

    Hope this helps

  2. Thanks for that referral Dustin. I know my readers will appreciate it. I myself, will certainly look into this one as well.