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The Truth About Sunscreens

June 26, 2008
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Summer is finally here! While this glorious season may only last a few months, for sunworshippers, it is undoubtedly the best 94 days of the entire year. Unfortunately, as satisfying as our beach-filled memories can be, it is still possible (and likely in this case) to get too much of a good thing. Unless you have been living in the Dark Ages, you know that too much sun (more specifically, sunburn) is linked to skin cancer. We are constantly being warned to cover up or slather on sunscreen, the higher the UV protection the better, according to traditional dermatologists and of course, product manufacturers. Sales of sunscreen and products containing sunscreen have hit all time highs, yet ironically, the incidence of skin cancer has virtually tripled in recent years. How can this be?

The answer is simply that most sunscreen products do more harm than good according to research. In fact, studies published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute and the American Journal of Public Health clearly show a direct link between sunscreen use and the incidence of melanoma (skin cancer). Worldwide, these studies reveal the greatest rise in melanoma is actually experienced in countries where chemical sunscreens are heavily promoted. Another study published in Preventive Medicine estimates that the 17 percent increase in breast cancer seen in the US alone between 1981 and 1992 could be the result of the persistent use of sunscreens over the past decade.

So how can a product that is supposed to prevent cancer actually increase your risk of developing the disease? In short... chemicals.

Most traditional sunscreens contain UVA and UVB blockers made from toxic chemicals now shown to increase the risk of skin cancer. A study published in the Journal of Chromatography in April 2004, showed that when you apply sunscreen, approximately 35 percent of the chemicals designed to block the penetration of UV rays, pass through your skin into your bloodstream. Because we are told to reapply sunscreen every few hours, this constant bombardment of toxic chemicals quickly becomes dangerous. And the longer you leave the sunscreen on, the more dangerous it becomes according to a study published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology. In fact, several studies including one published in the International Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, shown a higher incidence of skin cancer among men who regularly use sunscreens and a higher rate of basal cell carcinoma (another form of skin cancer) among women who use sunscreens.

The Journal of the National Cancer Institute also states that octyl methoxycinnamate (OMC), a dangerous chemical used in 90 percent of all sunscreens, is known to kill mouse cells, even at very low doses. These studies show when OMC penetrates the skin, it increases the production of free radicals (byproducts proven to cause cellular changes to DNA, which are directly linked to cancer). Free radicals are also one of the primary causes of premature aging.

Another problem with coating our skin with sunscreen is that it blocks the body's natural ability to produce vitamin D by more than 95 percent. Not only is vitamin D imperative for strong bones, effective calcium absorption, proper cell growth and maintaining a healthy heart, but studies also show vitamin D can prevent an amazing 77 percent of all cancers according to Creighton University School of Medicine. And the best way to get vitamin D is through natural exposure to sunlight. Depending on your skin tone (darker skin needs more exposure) and how close you live to the equator, even as little as 10-20 minutes of sunlight a day is enough to produce the daily requirement of vitamin D your body needs to function properly.

One of the biggest concerns of sunscreens however is their hormonal effect, which is only beginning to come to light. Many of the chemicals used in sunscreens have an estrogenic effect, meaning they mimic the effects of the natural female hormone estrogen. Ultimately, this means the body's hormone receptors recognize the estrogenic chemicals found in sunscreens as "true" estrogen and feminize any new cellular growth. Studies conducted at the Institute of Pharmacology and Toxicology in Switzerland, show that not only do these chemicals cause such things as birth defects in children (including smaller genitals in boys and other developmental defects), but their effects can also lead to lower sperm counts in men and a higher risk of certain cancers, effects that are similar to many banned chemicals such as DDT, Dioxin and PCBs, according to numerous well published studies.

What is truly scary though is that the dangerous chemicals found in sunscreens accumulate in your body (including in breast milk). As parents, we are told to always cover our children in sunscreen, the higher SPF the better. Yet, because children are still growing and their cells still developing, they are the most susceptible to toxic effects.

So what is a responsible parent to do? There are many ways to naturally boost UV protection. There are also many natural sunscreens available, but they do still block vitamin D production so make sure you allow your child to get at least some natural sunlight each day (even as little as 10 minutes). The key is to not get burned.

Natural Sunscreen Tips

Boost your skin's "internal sunscreen" with antioxidants found in such foods as whole fresh vegetables and fruits including goji berries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, spirulina and carrots for example.

Take an additive-free vitamin C complex that contains bioflavonoids. Studies show vitamin C is effective in blocking UVA radiation.

Take Grape Seed Extract. Grape Seed or Pycnogenol (pine bark) are powerful antioxidants shown to combat free radicals.

Increase your consumption of omega-3 rich foods such as fish, flaxseeds, olive oil, squash and walnuts and reduce the amount of omega-6 foods (mostly found in vegetable oils). According to the National Academy of Sciences the omega 6:3 ratio is the key to preventing skin cancer. Ideally, you should eat a 1:1 ratio of omega 6 and 3 fatty acids.

Exercise caution when in the sun. Start out gradually (as little as 10 minutes a day) then progressively increase your time in the sun until you are able to withstand normal sun exposure. Again, the key is to never get burned. If you see your skin turning a light pinkish color, then you have had enough sun for the day.

Avoid long-term exposure when the sun is the most intense - typically, between 10:00 am and 2:00 pm (depending on where you live) or use a shade or clothing to protect yourself during this time.

When using sunscreen, always use a safe, natural sunscreen found at most health food stores. Always read the ingredients.

Sunscreen Chemicals to Avoid

  • Benzophenones (dixoybenzone, oxybenzone)
  • PABA and PABA esters (ethyl dihydroxy propyl PAB, glyceryl PABA, p-aminobenzoic acid, padimate-O or octyl dimethyl PABA (OD-PABA))
  • Cinnamates (cinoxate, ethylhexyl p-methoxycinnamate, octocrylene, octyl methoxycinnamate- OMC)
  • Salicylates (ethylhexyl salicylate, homosalate, octyl salicylate)
  • Digalloyl trioleate
  • Menthyl anthranilate
  • Avobenzone (butyl-methyoxydibenzoylmethane (B-MDM))
  • Homosalate (HMS)
  • 4-methyl-benzylidene camphor (4-MBC)

The bottom line is that the sun is not our enemy. As humans, we need sunlight to survive and flourish. When it comes to sun exposure, a little common sense can go a long way. So enjoy the sun and the nice, warm weather because it won't be long before it is time to pull out the sweaters again!

Cynthia McMurray is a professional natural health writer and publisher. She founded and published a national natural health magazine and has written numerous books for leading health professionals. Cynthia was also the author of a weekly health and lifestyle column before she started Three Dogs Press. Cynthia currently works as a publishing and editorial consultant and teaches writing courses as she continues to write about relevant natural health issues that affect us on a daily basis.

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