Every time I research a health topic, I uncover something that surprises the crap out of me. I assumed that sunscreen protects us from the damaging effects of the sun. Turns out the opposite may be true — cases of skin cancer have actually increased since its introduction to the general market.
The ancient Egyptians used plant extracts to protect against sun damage. Zinc oxide paste has been applied to noses for thousands of years. But it wasn’t until the late 1920s that inventors began producing synthetic commercial sunscreens. One of the first was invented in 1938 by Franz Greiter, the man who also invented SPF (sun protection factor.) He called his formula “Glacier Cream.” It had an SPF of 2.
In 1944, Benjamin Green gave us Red Vet Pet, a sticky and largely ineffectual substance that was supplied to GIs in WWII. In 1950, Coppertone improved and reintroduced Red Vet Pet to the public as Coppertone Girl and Bain de Soleil. The first Coppertone ads featured a 4-year-old girl with her lips pursed in surprise as a cocker spaniel pulled her swimsuit down, revealing a pure white bottom in contrast to a burnished brown tan. “Don’t be a paleface!” the ad teases. It promises “a magic ingredient that screens out harmful burning sun rays.” People took this invitation at its word.
In 2011 the US Food and Drug Administration finally released standards for sunscreen labels. By now it was known that sunscreen was not the protective panacea it had been heralded to be. In truth, those advertising campaigns may have been responsible for many preventable cases of skin cancer. Here are the facts: Damage from the sun is caused by UV rays. There are two different types — UVA and UVB. The SPF of a sunscreen can be misleading — conventional sunscreens offer UVB protection against sunburn, but they block very few of the UVA rays that increase the rate of melanoma and cause the invisible damage that causes premature aging. A broad spectrum suncreen includes UVA blockers, but it doesn’t offer 100% protection.
• According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, sustaining five or more sunburns in youth increases a person’s lifetime melanoma risk by 80%.
• The rate of new melanoma cases has tripled since the 1970s.
How is that possible? Shouldn’t the widespread use of sunscreen have slowed the rate, at least a little?
The problem with sunscreen is that when people use it, they spend more time in the sun. Research shows that the higher the SPF, the safer people feel exposing themselves to dangerous amounts of radiation. But even an SPF of 100 doesn’t provide an impenetrable shield. Sunscreen is a viscous liquid that easily rubs or washes off of our sweaty summer skin. Even water resistant sunblock needs to be applied repeatedly. Properly used, broad spectrum sunscreen can provide protection against certain types of cancer, but it is surprising how few people use it as directed.
• Outdoor workers report lower rates of melanoma than indoor workers.
• Cancer rates are higher in northern cities with less year-round UV intensity than in cities with tropical sun.
Why? Studies have found that Vitamin D actually helps prevent skin cancer. Ironically, sunscreens often block the Vitamin D producing rays, but allow the cancer causing rays through.
Here are the recommended rules of prevention:
• Don’t use sunscreen as an excuse to fry yourself.
• Pick a product with strong UVA protection.
• Cover up! Think big hats and diaphanous white clothing.
• Boycott tanning beds. They dramatically increase the risk of melanoma and premature aging.
• Avoid sunburn for yourself and especially protect children! Early life sunburns are worse.
• Get a healthy dose of vitamin D. This varies from 10 minutes a day for very fair skinned people to 20 minutes for people with darkest skin.
Remember: The skin you’re in is yours forever.