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Let the Sun Shine In…or Not?

Sunscreen safety can be complex. Here is a look at the issues.

Who doesn’t love soaking up the sunshine? Something about it warms the soul and lightens the mood. We might be relaxing on the deck on a warm summer morning, grabbing lunch at an outdoor cafe after a hike, or taking the dogs for an afternoon walk. We turn our faces to the sun, we feel the tension begin to drain away, and we revel in the golden gift.

And, of course, we applied sunscreen before we headed outside, right? We pulled out our bottle of super-duper SPF 50 and slathered it on every exposed square inch of skin, thinking, “There, I’m protected.”

But are we protected? Is sunscreen safe? And don’t we need vitamin D from the sun that the sunscreen will block? Given recent concerns about risks to both our health and our planet’s vital coral reefs, how can we be sure using sunscreen is the right thing to do?

According to a 2018 American Chemical Society article, some sunscreen compounds may put us at increased risk for cancer—the very thing we’re trying to prevent—by disrupting hormone signaling in our bodies. Add to this the World Health Organization report that skin cancer rates are increasing worldwide, with 132,000 cases of melanoma and 2–3 million cases of other skin cancers occurring each year, and we have cause for concern.

And that’s only on land. As reported in a 2018 Sierra Club article, common synthetic chemical sunscreen ingredients oxybenzone and octinoxate have proven to be toxic to living coral. In essence, “chemical sunscreens serve to amplify one of the worst effects of climate change in the sea.” The governor of Hawaii recently signed a bill to ban the sale of sunscreens containing these two ingredients.

The article tells us that 14,000 tons of sunscreen enter the ocean every year. And we need not be anywhere near the ocean to contribute to this. Whether we’re “enjoying the crisp alpine air, desert vibes, or epic swell,” says the article, at some point, we’re going to rinse off all that our skin has collected—dirt, sunscreen—and that water runs into streams, rivers, and eventually, the ocean.

So What Can We Do?

Ginger S. Mentz, a board-certified dermatologist with Colorado Springs Dermatology Clinic, says, “The cause of skin cancer is sun exposure. The number one cause of aging skin is the sun. Both are caused by the chronic daily accumulation of sun damage over the years. Skin cancer is a preventable disease with daily sunscreen use.

“My recommendations for patients have always been for physical-barrier sunscreens, such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. As a dermatologist, I see less irritation with these products, and they also have the added benefit of not being photolabile, which means you can reapply while outside. The new FDA ruling reinforces these recommendations.”

Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are mineral sunscreen ingredients as opposed to synthetic chemical ingredients. Rather than absorbing into the skin, they sit on top of the skin and work by reflecting the UV rays. Synthetic sunscreens rub in clear and absorb the sun’s UV rays.

Dr. Mentz also recommends protective clothing as an easy way to protect our skin. “There are a multitude of skin-protective clothing options. Coolibar, Orvis, Target, and athletic stores all have garments with UPF (ultraviolet protection factor). Broad-brimmed hats are also useful for covering the face, ears, and neck.”

What About Vitamin D?

According to a July 2018 U.S. News and World Report article, vitamin D, in addition to helping keep bones strong, may protect against “a host of diseases, including osteoporosis, heart disease, and cancers of the breast, prostate, and colon.”

So what is best, getting our vitamin D from the sun, eating foods rich in it, or taking supplements?

Recommendations for getting vitamin D from the sun—thanks to UVB rays—include 10–15 minutes of unprotected sun exposure to our arms, legs, abdomen, and back between 10 am and 3 pm. Quick tip: If your shadow is longer than your body height, says the U.S. News article, you can’t make any vitamin D.

And as the article points out, “In the winter, it’s virtually impossible to produce vitamin D from the sun if you live 37° above the equator [Colorado Springs sits at 38.8° because the sun never gets high enough in the sky for its ultraviolet B rays to penetrate the atmosphere.”

Dr. Mentz suggests getting vitamin D in the form of supplements. “Personally, I am not outside enough to accumulate sufficient levels, so I supplement with vitamin D. As a dermatologist, seeing skin cancer on a daily basis, I cannot expose my unprotected skin to the sun in good conscience. With our modern indoor lifestyle, many people may require a vitamin D supplement.”

Tanning Beds: Does Anyone Still Do This?

• We shouldn’t ignore the issue of tanning beds, once touted as the ideal solution for those who wanted to maintain a bronze glow and also avoid the sun’s cancerous rays.

• “Studies clearly show tanning beds increase the risk of melanoma,” says Dr. Mentz. “In 2014, the FDA required warning labels that tanning beds not be used by people under the age of 18 due to the increased risk of skin cancer. Ultimately, I think tanning beds will carry a carcinogen warning much like cigarettes.”

• The Skin Cancer Foundation reports that more people develop skin cancer because of indoor tanning than develop lung cancer because of smoking.