Should people use sunscreen?
- The CDC recommends using a sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 15 or higher and reapplying if 'out in the sun for more than 2 hours and after swimming, sweating, or toweling off.'
- Besides staying out of the sun, there are two ways to protect skin from sun damage: chemical sunscreen and physical sunblock. Chemical sunscreen, with active ingredients such as avobenzone, octinoxate, and oxybenzone, 'absorbs UV rays, converts the rays into heat, and releases them from the body.' Physical sunblock, composed of active ingredients titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, 'sits on top of the skin and reflects the sun's rays.'
- After getting a sunburn from mountain climbing, Swiss chemistry student Franz Greiter developed the first sunscreen in 1938. American airman and pharmacist Benjamin Green quickly followed suit in 1944, creating a sunscreen to protect soldiers during WWII. Green's formulation would later become the popular Coppertone suntan cream brand.
- People become suntanned when melatonin, 'a chemical pigment in the skin that absorbs ultraviolet radiation and limits its penetration into tissues,' becomes activated and travels to the surface of the skin.
Your body’s skin serves multiple purposes, and applying sunscreen is one of the best ways to protect it from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. Even on cloudy days, your skin is susceptible to sun damage that can cause premature wrinkles, scarring, and other more dangerous conditions. Daily application of sunscreen with an SPF 15 or higher can reduce the chances of developing skin cancer by 40% or more. Many malignant tumors are directly caused by excessive sun exposure, and properly applied sunscreen reflects ultraviolet radiation away from the skin while also providing some degree of protection against cell damage.
The sun’s rays are particularly harmful to cell DNA, while the depleted ozone offers less and less protection. Overexposure to the sun can even suppress the immune system and the skin’s natural defenses. Up to 80% of the sun’s most dangerous rays can pass through the thickest clouds and bounce off the earth’s surface to be absorbed by the skin. Even snow reflects most of the sun’s rays, leaving unprotected skin susceptible to permanent damage.
All skin types need protection from the sun, and certain factors can increase the need for additional protection. Altitude, geography, sensitivity, and medications can all leave your skin susceptible to damage from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Applying sunscreen can help keep you looking young by keeping your skin tone even, preventing age spots, and protecting against more dangerous conditions arising from prolonged sun exposure. Your skin is your body’s largest organ, and regularly applying sunscreen is one of the best ways to care for it.
We need to protect ourselves from excessive UV radiation when out in the sun, but chemical sunscreens are not the answer. A typical bottle of sunscreen contains several novel chemicals (those that would never exist naturally), including homosalate, avobenzone, and oxybenzone. All three of these chemicals are proven endocrine disruptors that absorb into our skin. Oxybenzone, in particular, is classified as a skin, eye, and respiratory irritant and toxic to our organs. And many of these chemicals are analogs of benzene, which is linked to cancers such as leukemia.
A recent study using human volunteers found these chemicals quickly enter the bloodstream and accumulate over time, prompting a review by the FDA. The review results are not yet published, but the FDA has stated that these products cannot be considered generally safe.
But it is not only human health at risk. The 4,000 to 6,000 tons of sunscreen that enter coral reef areas each year kill corals and marine life. In corals, sunscreen chemicals are genotoxic (alter DNA) and cause corals to bleach or render larvae immobile. Similarly, these chemicals have been shown to cause abnormalities in developing fish embryos. This is putting even more stress on the planet’s most threatened ecosystems.
Due to the toxicity of these chemicals for marine environments--and as we better understand their long-term effects--some coastal regions and even countries are banning sunscreens outright.
Chemical sunscreens are not the best way to protect yourself, regardless of what companies put on their labels to convince you otherwise. Staying in the shade during peak sun hours, wearing protective clothing, and using a mineral-based sunscreen such as those made from zinc or titanium oxides are all better choices.