You know we are in the midst of our mid-year hiatus. But, we do have this edition of Her Q’s for you since it’s Thursday! We’ll be back to regular posts sometime next week.
Each Thursday we answer one question from a reader for both StyleBlueprint and the Her Q’s blog found at HerNashville.com. We also answer two questions each Tuesday just on the Her Q’s blog. Check out this past Tuesday here. Please send us your questions at: [email protected]
I am utterly and completely confused about which sunscreen to buy. Each year there seems to be more warnings about the harm that sunscreen does and I can’t seem to find any simple answers. I just want to know what to buy and preferably it is one available at a local drugstore. Thanks! -Martha, Nashville.
I need to be blatantly honest and tell you that I didn’t really know there was all this confusion out there over sunscreens. I did know that the American sunscreens have historically not protected as well against UVA rays as the European and Canadian sunscreens have. In fact, years ago, I used to special order sunscreen from Europe. I guess it was considered black market sunscreen after Dr. Gupta on CNN convinced me that it really was that much better to have those UVA rays blocked. After the FDA approved the use of broad spectrum sunscreens (and therefore nixed my need for black market sunscreens) I fell into the habit of buying sunscreen based on what was on sale and I preferred the spray bottle because I could quickly coat multiple kids. Now, I’m not so sure that is the best idea…or is it? Alright, Martha, I’m confused too.
I knew I needed some professional help, so I arranged a chat with Dr. Jason Robbins, one of the founding doctors of Nashville Skin and Cancer. I have some answers for you. Grab your coffee, this is a long post:
First of all, Dr. Robbins was very upfront in that his specialty is skin cancer. Therefore, his bias is going to be in protecting his patients against UV light, a known and scientifically proven carcinogen vs. the unknown effects of chemicals found in some sunscreens. He says, “If you could see the 20 year old patients I have with Melanoma, you’d understand why my kids wear long sleeve swim shirts, hats, and are slathered down with sunscreen each day. It’s a real danger.”
So here is the gist of what I learned: there are two types of sunscreens: a physical sunscreen and a chemical sunscreen. Physical sunscreens are the mineral sunscreens. They actually block the UV rays from penetrating the skin. Just like shade or clothing, they create a barrier. Chemical sunscreens absorb the UV light and create a chemical reaction that disables the UV rays from penetrating the skin. Dr. Robbins points out that many people today feel more comfortable with the thought of a physical barrier vs. a chemical reaction happening on their skin. But, he reiterates that both protect and it’s better to protect the skin with sunscreen than fear the chemical reaction. One causes known harm, skin cancer, while the chemical reactions potentially cause harm.
However, and this is where all the information does start to get confusing, mineral sunscreens (the physical barriers) are not outside of criticism. If you think back about zinc sunscreen, you will remember the white noses of lifeguards. Sunscreens today, which contain zinc, do not provide that same white shield. This is because the particles have been micronized. Some people are concerned that with such a small particle, which is thus able to be absorbed more easily and is thus more user friendly, that the body is absorbing some of these particles. Dr. Robbins points out that again, one is a proven harm: UV light causes skin cancer and one is a theoretical problem. His line of work, and the skin cancer he sees with regularity, insists that he fight the known harm and urges sunscreen use.
The brands and formulas Dr. Robbins suggests are broad spectrum with an SPF of at least 15, but 25 or greater is best. This brings us to confusion of broad spectrum. Our sunscreens only protected against UVB rays, with no UVA ray protection, until the FDA approved ingredients for UVA protection about 4 years ago. Now, you can find UVA protection in many American sunscreens; these are the ones you want to buy. However, there is no way for us, the consumer, to know how much UVA protection is in that bottle of sunscreen. The parallel I can think of would be years ago when organic food was not regulated so companies using one organic ingredient would call the whole thing “organic”. The good news for the future is that the FDA is changing the consumer awareness on sunscreen bottles to have both an SPF – for UVB ray protection – and a star system, for UVA ray protection. 1 star will mean not much with 4 stars being the best. In the meantime, you just need to do your research.
In the midst of my research on this topic, I found The Environmental Working Group (EWG) site full of information on the potential problems with many sunscreens including 1) those that are not broad spectrum 2) hormone disruption issues 3) chemical and nano particle issues. However, if you don’t have time for all that, because not all of us do, one list to become familiar with is the top 10 list of sunscreens from the EWG listed here on a site that allows you to see the products and order them directly off Amazon.
And, if you are concerned about Vitamin D deficiency, Dr. Robbins warns that this is no reason to forgo sunscreen use. In fact, after a few minutes of sun exposure, your body has produced all the Vitamin D it can and further non-protected sun exposure actually breaks down the Vitamin D your body just made. There are many theories on why Americans have low Vitamin D. Vitamin D is fat soluble so it may be that as our society’s waist bands increase, those same fat cells are leaching our vitamin D. It may be something else. But, we are in no way a vigilante sunscreen society, so sunscreen being the culprit simply doesn’t make sense. Further, Vitamin D supplements are readily available and have no cancerous side effects.
So, depending on how you are wired, this information has either left you reaching for more sunscreen or being more wary about what you are rubbing on each day. If you are more wary, there are other ways to protect: clothing, shade, and limiting your outdoor activities during the brightest times of the day. Australia had an epidemic of Melanoma and now the playgrounds there are covered with tents and the kids run on the beaches with full body swimsuits. Here, in America, your kids may be teased for full body swim wear, but long sleeved rash guards are becoming commonplace.
One of the new UV ray deterrents I am most excited about is SunGuard. SunGuard is a powder you add to your laundry load to make all your clothes have an SPF of 30. As regular clothing only offers an SPF of 5, this is one thing that I will be doing to all my family’s clothing. The higher SPF level in your clothing is maintained for about 20 washes.
Another way to boost your ability to fight UV rays is surprising: tomatoes. I just read this in the Tennessean article on July 6th:
Eating tomatoes can help prevent sunburn… Tomatoes contain high amounts of lycopene, which is thought to protect the skin from harmful UV rays. A study at the universities of Newcastle and Manchester in England found that participants who ate five tablespoons of tomato paste daily for three months had 33 percent more protection against sunburn.
Lastly, I have heard the argument that sunscreens obviously don’t help with skin cancer because our skin cancer rates have been rising steadily over the past three decades, from when sunscreen was introduced. When I asked Dr. Robbins about this, he explained that our society has become one that spends more time indoors, in offices and schools, with bursts of leisure times. The leisure time sunburns actually increase your chances of getting Melanoma.
Oh- one last thing, there is no such thing as a good base tan. Don’t hit tanning beds. They are addictive and harmful and provide no protection for your upcoming beach trip.
Dr. Jason Robbins co-founded Nashville Skin and Cancer in 2005. And for all of you reading that are thinking “Yes, I need a Derm whose specialty is skin cancer, but I like Botox also.” Well, Dr. Robbins and all of the partners at Nashville Skin and Cancer do that too!