Different cultures and periods in history have had different opinions of tanned skin. But today in the U.S., the majority of people find a suntan to be attractive. But what does tanning actually doing to our skin? We have all learned that a suntan is our body’s attempt to protect the skin from the sun’s harmful UV radiation. But the key message is that we tan in response to damage, and a tan is just a signal that damage has occurred. Excess exposure to harmful UV lights will age our skin and put us at risk for developing cancer. Yet despite our understanding the risks, we still go in search of the perfect summer tan.
Skin cancer is on the rise, and melanoma has become the most common form of cancer among Americans age 25-29. But it is highly a preventable form of cancer. A major reason the rates are on the rise is the increased popularity of indoor tanning beds. Research has finally confirmed suspicions that indoor tanning increases the risk of developing skin cancer. In fact, indoor tanning almost doubles the risk of melanoma, with risk being directly related to the number of hours spent tanning.
But what about those of us who try to buy products to protect our skin from the harmful UV rays?
Research shows that consumers may not be getting the level of protection advertised by manufacturers. The surprising truth is that the FDA has never finalized sunscreen safety standards, a task the agency has been working on for over three decades. But many consumers have been relying on these lotions, creams, and sprays completely unaware that the SPF values may not give us the promised protection from the sun.
The Environmental Working Group, an environmental non-profit organization, analyzed a variety of sunscreens for safety and effectiveness and came up with some unsettling results. Of the 500 ‘beach & sport’ sunscreens they tested, they only gave 39 a passing score. You can find their recommendations for protecting your skin here.
Some concerns about sunscreens:
- Sunscreens may increase the risk of certain cancers. The exact reason is still not known, but scientists suspected that the use of sunscreen leads people to stay out in the sun for longer periods of time. The sunscreen protects against UVB, taking away our key indicator that we’ve been in the sun too long, a sunburn, but at the same time this change in behavior increases our exposure to the more harmful UVA rays which sunscreens frequently fail to protect against.
- Sunscreens could reduce our vitamin D levels. Vitamin D is known as the sunshine vitamin because light is essential to its production in your body, and sunscreen inhibits the process. Vitamin D is essential for our health, but experts disagree over whether short periods of unprotected sun exposure are the best solution.
- Avoid sunscreen formulations containing Vitamin A. Preliminary data from an FDA study suggests that Vitamin A in sunscreen could, in fact, increase cancer risk
- Certain active ingredients raise toxicity concerns. Studies have found non-mineral (i.e. not zinc or titanium oxide) sunscreen chemicals at detectable levels in our bodies and that of the most common ingredients, oxybenzone, is a potential hormone disruptor.
- Higher SPF does not guarantee higher protection. Again, the higher level of protection gives sun worshipers the false sense of security increasing time spent in the sun, and consequently, UVA exposure. Also, those higher SPF values are achieved by simply using a higher amount of the active chemicals, increasing our exposure to chemicals would could potentially have health effects.
- Avoid sun exposure during peak hours (10am-4pm)
- Clothing, hats, and sunglasses are your best line of defense
- For exposed skin, use a suntan lotion with an SPF higher than 30. And remember, SPFs over 50 haven’t been proven to provide any additional protection.
- Apply the sunscreen 15-30 minutes prior to sun exposure. Some ingredients need time to begin working.