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Killer sunscreen? What your mama never told you about sun protection!

It's enough to drive parents crazy: "Slather your kids in sunscreen!" we are told. Yet, we are learning that the majority of popular sunscreens might NOT provide protection from the worst of the skin cancers and might actually increase our children's chances of getting some cancers.

According to the EWG,  (Environmental Working Group) popular sunscreens known to contain ingredients possibly linked to cancer, birth defects & hormone disruption include: Panama Jack, Origins, No-Ad, Neutrogena, L'Oreal, Hawaiian Tropic, Coppertone, Bareminerals, Banana BoatAveeno. (There are many many more).

The issues with sunscreen

The FDA says it is "not aware of data demonstrating that sunscreen use alone helps prevent skin cancer," according to a recent Huffington Post article. It gets worse. A 2007 meta-analysis of 17 (out of 18 known) studies on the subject concluded that: "there was no statistically significant effect of use of sunscreens on risk of melanoma." The study further found that in latitudes greater than 40 degrees (New York and north-i.e. Vancouver and all the rest of Canada) the use of sunscreen might actually "contribute to the risk of melanoma." (Malignant melanoma is the deadliest of skin cancers accounting for about 4% of skin cancers but 75% of skin cancer related deaths.)

Sunscreens are effective at blocking UVB rays, but do not do such a good job of blocking UVA rays. The skin doesn't get "burnt" because the burning rays are blocked, but it still gets zapped. So, though sunscreens are effective at reducing the risk of squamos-cell carcinoma (associated with exposure to UVB rays), this is neither particularly abundant (at 16% of skin cancer cases) nor particularly deadly. UVB rays are also the ones associated with Vitamin D production in the body. No one seems to know for sure if this is why sunscreen wearers have as much or more chance of developing melanoma.

Dirty sunscreen

Ibeware of sunscreenn an independent investigation, EWG researchers reviewed 500 popular sunscreens and recommended only 39 of them as safe for consumers. The worst offenders were often the market leaders: None of the 39 received a perfect score. Even worse, they found that many brands made inaccurate and misleading claims such as "water-proof," "broad-spectrum protection," and even "chemical-free." Other words to be wary of: "for babies," "natural," and any SPF over 50. Many sunscreens, including those marketed specifically to children and babies, had known carcinogens, neurotoxins, ingredients known to become unstable and reactive when exposed to sunlight, and chemicals linked with endocrine disorders (gender-bending effects), and birth defects. Some of the worst offenders include the more popular brands (Neutrogena, No-Ad, Coppertone, Banana Boat) and their packages were littered with the above-mentioned meaningless statements.

The FDA has been working on comprehensive sunscreen safety regulation for 33 years, but it still hasn't been finalized. This leaves U.S. sunscreen wearers with few standards, little oversight, and little availability to better options now commonly available in the E.U., Asia, and even Canada. "Sunscreen chemicals approved in Europe but not by the FDA provide up to five times more UVA protection; U.S. companies have been waiting five years for FDA approval to use the same compounds," reports the EWG. Some of the chemicals providing this much-improved UVA protection include Bemotrizinol and bisoctrizole (a.k.a. Tinosorb) and Mexoryl SX. Sunscreens containing these UVA blockers are available in Canada but not the US.

The science of sunlight

Ultraviolet (UV) light is divided into 3 wavelength ranges that are referred to as UVA, UVB, and UVC rays. UVC is the most energetic and shortest of the UV rays. It burns quickly and in small doses. It is also absorbed entirely by the ozone layer. Thus when talking sunscreen, we are primarily dealing with UVA and UVB rays.

UVB is the UV ray that is primarily responsible for sunburn. It also stimulates the body's production of Vitamin D; melanin, which protects human skin from sun damage; and Melanocyte Stimulating Hormone (MSH), an important hormone in weight loss and energy production. Only 5% of the UVB light range goes through glass and it does not penetrate clouds, smog, or fog. Most sunscreens only protect against UVB rays and the SPF (sun protection factor) rating refers to efficacy in protecting against UVB light.

UVA is primarily responsible for aging and darkening the pigment in our skin. UVA is less energetic than UVB, but has a longer wavelength. This means UVA rays penetrate deeper. UVA rays are less likely to cause sunburn, however UVA rays are now considered to be a major contributor to non-melanoma skin cancers. Until recently, UVA was not blocked by sunscreens (and still isn't blocked by most sunscreens sold in America) and 78% of UVA can even penetrate through glass windows. UVA sunscreen ratings are measured by PPD (persistent pigment darkening), theoretically a rating of 10 would allow you to stay out 10 times longer.

Vitamin D and Sunlight

Vitamin D might be referred to as the miracle Vitamin. It does it all: contributes to strong bones, healthy immune and endocrine systems, and can help prevent a plethora of today's diseases from diabetes and obesity to depression and infertility.

As you read above, Vitamin D can be absorbed from sunlight: UVB rays to be exact. However, getting enough Vitamin D from the sun is hard. Unlike the UVA rays which are steady throughout the day and penetrate through just about anything, UVB rays are fickle-you have to get them at just the right angle and without clouds, clothes, or other barriers. For a person who lives in the "northern latitudes" (think Chicago, New York, all of Canada) to get a healthy daily dose of Vitamin D from sunlight, a light-skinned person would have to spend 10 to 20 minutes in full sunlight between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. A dark-skinned person 90 to 120 minutes. That's right-the exact hours our mothers told us to stay indoors. Any earlier or later and the angle of the UVB rays would mean spending more time and more time means more exposure to those deep penetrating UVA rays. Oh, and it has to be the WHOLE body exposed-85%-not just hands and feet.

Ingredients to watch for in sunscreen and the problem with label reading.

In the U.S. and Canada sunscreens are regulated as drugs. This means it has taken longer for both of the countries to approve some of the newer chemicals thought to be safer and provide more UVA protection. This also means that they are not required to list all of the ingredients on their labels in either country.

Fragrance or Parfums are considered trade secrets so even in Canada where ingredients are supposed to be listed, dozens of chemicals-including suspected neurotoxins and endocrine disruptors-can be hidden behind these seemingly innocuous terms.

High SPF factors. High SPF ratings were found by the FDA to be "inherently misleading." These high-SPF products often contain more of the above offending ingredients and can encourage people to stay in the sun longer without providing any additional protection.

Nanoparticles. Micronized or nanoscale particles of minerals are often found in titanium or zinc based sunscreens. These tiny particles are easily absorbed into the body and blood.

Oxybenzone. Found in almost all sunscreens, oxybenzone is an allergen, potential endocrine disruptor. It is easily absorbed through the skin, particularly in children, and can interphere with hormone development.

Parabens. Parabens, such as methyl paraben and butyl paraben, are endocrine-disrupting chemicals that mimic the female hormone estrogen and are linked with reproductive disorders in boys and possibly cancers in women.

Para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA) has mostly been phased-out of sunscreens because of high incidence of allergic reactions in response to its use.

Retinol or retinyl palmitate. Found in many name-brand sunscreens, this type of Vitamin A is photocarcinogenic and might actually speed the development of skin tumors and lesions.

The Green Mama's advice on sun safety

The information is scary and the science inconclusive, but here is some good advice that even your mother will agree with.

1.Look up your sunscreen on the EWG's cosmetic database. If it isn't safe, chuck it. Choose a better sunscreen that protects against UVA rays and doesn't contain any of the above ingredients to watch for. Europe has better sunscreens available.)
2.Invest in a sun hat, consider sun protective bathing suits, and try out protective clothing.
3.Eat your sunscreen. Foods high in carotenoids provide natural sun protection. These include many fruits and vegetables, especially leafy dark greens and those that are yellow-orange like apricots, carrots, and yams. Other good sources include eggs, spirulina, and algae. The red pigment found in salmon, trout, and shrimp is another potent carotenoid.
4.Get your Vitamin D. You would have to spend about 15 minutes between the hours of 10 and 2, with 85% of your body exposed for optimal Vitamin D absorption (for a fair skinned person, much more for a dark skinned person). Foods high in Vitamin D include "intestines, organ meats, skin and fat from certain land animals, as well as shellfish, oily fish and insects." To get Vitamin D from the animal they must have be exposed to sunlight or in the case of fish have been fed on phytoplankton. Most modern diets don't include a lot of intentional insect eating (fortunately) or a lot of animal flesh actually exposed to sunlight (unfortunately). Most people will not get enough Vitamin D from sun or diet. (You can ask your doctor to test your Vitamin D levels.) A good cod liver oil is one of the most absorbable forms of Vitamin D supplementation.
5.BEWARE of sunscreens labeled over 50 SPF. Most of these are disingenuous at best and are possibly loaded with more of the most hazardous ingredients. It is better to use an SPF between 15 and 30 and reapply frequently and generously.
6.Do not apply sunscreen to infants under 6 months of age. There skin is super absorbent and even subtle exposures to their developing organs can have lasting effects AND fair-skinned babies do not have melanin proteins for sun protection. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that you avoid using sunscreen on children younger than 6 months.

Article courtesy of Manda Aufochs Gillespie:The Green Mama Health Posted: Aug 23rd, 2010

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