Think of summer, and pool parties, beach time and afternoons lounging in the sun come to mind. But these days, outdoor fun comes with a warning. After all, dermatologists insist that too much sunshine could increase your risk for skin cancer.
But wait, many public health advocates now believe that chemicals in popular sunscreens could actually be responsible for the significant rise in melanoma rates in recent decades. The conflicting advice is enough to make your head spin. How can you enjoy you enjoy some fun in the sun, but still stay safe? Here are some things you need to know about the real causes of skin cancer (and how to protect yourself).
Why is skin cancer on the rise?
Skin cancer rates have been rising in recent years and no one seems to be able to in down precisely why. However, a number of factors have been implicated:
According to the American Dermatology Association, “Evidence from multiple studies has shown that exposure to UV radiation from indoor tanning devices is associated with an increased risk of melanoma and nonmelanoma skin cancer, including squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma.” In fact, scientists estimate that indoor tanning salons may be responsible for up to 400,000 cases of skin cancer every year. The risks are especially acute for young women. Females under 30 who tan indoors regularly face a six-fold risk for developing deadly melanomas.
Climate change and ozone depletion
Both the United States Health Department and the World Health Organization insist that ultraviolet radiation (from sunlight) is a risk factor for skin cancer. Unfortunately, both global warming and erosion of the ozone layer mean that more people are exposed to higher levels of sunlight from the UVB spectrum, which is believed to be the most hazardous form of solar radiation because it is most responsible for sunburns that can damage cellular DNA directly.
According to the American Melanoma Foundation, rates of the deadliest forms of skin cancer have been increasing about 3.5 percent since 1992. Ironically, “this rise in melanoma has been paralleled by a 4.2 percent increase in sunscreen use.” Correlation is not causation, of course, but numerous public health advocates are deeply concerned that many of the chemicals in popular sunscreens may be toxic enough to disrupt hormonal balance and damage cellular DNA
People need sunlight to synthesize vitamin D (which protects against cancer)
The hazards of tanning salons seem clear-cut, but the risks associated with sunlight and sunscreen are a little bit cloudier. In fact, the sun’s rays are absolutely essential to human health since it the main source of vitamin D, which the body cannot manufacture on its own.
Adequate vitamin D is vital to many bodily functions, but especially immunity. Ironically, 60 percent of Americans are deficient in a nutrient that helps improve mood, cardiovascular health and skin protection and rejuvenation! This point is worth reiterating, vitamin D (the sunshine nutrient) is essential to the skin’s immune system, which neutralizes the oxidative stress that can cause wrinkles, premature aging and even skin cancer.
This has led many to wonder if commercial sunscreen — which actually blocks the rays that help make immune-boosting vitamin D — may be inadvertently contributing to cancer. No definitive link has been established, but most brand-name sunscreens contain synthetic chemicals that have many scientists worried. Here’s a quick look at worrisome ingredients in many “protective” lotions:
- Oxybenzone: A number of studies have found that this ingredient seeps into the body and disrupts hormonal balance. According to researchers at the University of Zurich, “oxybenzone may also mimic the effects of estrogen in the body and promote the growth of cancer cells.”
- Retinyl-palmitate: U.S government scientists have determined that this compound could speed the development of skin lesions and tumors when applied topically in the presence of sunlight.
- Parabens and phthalates: These are synthetic musks (fragrances) that may also act as hormone disruptors.
The commercial sunscreen industry vigorously defends the use of these additives and insists that most studies support the use of sunscreens to prevent sunburn and prevent skin cancer.
It is true that chemicals like oxybenzone do help block UV light, which can be harmful in excessive amounts. But according to a study by the Environmental Working Group, 84 percent of sunscreens tested contained chemicals are known to pose risks because they mimic natural hormones, which can throw the body’s hormonal balance off.
Plant-based sunscreen alternatives
You can avoid the risks of synthetic sunscreens by opting for plant-based alternatives. As the authors of a study published in the International Journal of Cosmetic Science explain, a number of plant species contain naturally occurring compounds that can protect the skin from burning, UV radiation, oxidative stress and other forms of damage. The protective ingredients include antioxidants, essential oils, polyphenols, flavonoids and carotenoids.
Coconut oil, aloe vera, carrot seed oil and raspberry seed oil are among the plant-based compounds that offer UV protection. Unfortunately, the FDA has stood in the way of sunscreens that use plant-based ingredients. However, people are making their own homemade sunscreens from all-natural ingredients, but it can be difficult formulate a recipe that offers full spectrum protection.
For example, coconut oil offers moderate UV protection, and it’s highly effective in soothing sunburn, but skin experts insist that it should be supplemented by other essential oils in order make a truly effective sunscreen. You can click here for a homemade sunscreen recipe idea. If you’d like some tips on choosing natural sunscreen products, you can check out some tips by the Environmental Working Group by clicking here.
Here are some further suggestions for staying safe in the sun and avoiding skin cancer:
- Limit your time in direct sunlight to only 15 to 20 minutes at a time. Most people can get all the vitamin D they need within this time frame.
- Try to stay in the shade between 12 a.m. and 3 p.m. when the sun’s rays are harshest.
- Stay properly hydrated to avoid overheating.
- Use a plant-based sunscreen with a UV protection rating of 15 or above.
- Eat a plant-based diet. Plants contain antioxidants and phytonutrients that combat oxidative stress, inflammation and disease. By staying healthy, your body’s tissues (including your skin) will be better able to repair themselves.
- Be careful to avoid sunburn at all costs (this is what causes long-term skin damage).
- Wear light white clothing and a hat if you will be in the sun for a prolonged time.
- Use coconut oil or aloe vera gel to treat sunburn as soon as possible.
- Don’t use tanning salons, which are linked to melanoma.
— Scott O’Reilly