With summer right around the corner, sun protection is on everyone’s mind. We all are aware that too much sun exposure can lead to increased risk of skin cancer, but we are becoming more aware of the risks of sunscreen use. So how do you choose?
One way that Ultraviolet rays increase the risk of skin cancer is by creating free radicals in skin cells which damage DNA. Antioxidants, such as those present in dark berries, are important in neutralizing these free radicals. In an attempt to counteract this effect a lot of sun block companies add vitamin A (retinol, retinol palmitate) to their product. However, research is showing that this actually increases your risk for cancer by speeding the growth of skin cancer cells when it is in direct sun light. So products with vitamin A should be avoided not only in sun block, but also in make-up and face creams. Furthermore, most sunscreens don’t protect you from this free radical damage except for the mineral based ones (like zinc or titanium oxide based sun blocks).
Another consideration is that the risk of skin cancer from sun exposure is more related to sun burns than it is to total exposure. So this means that sun exposure is relatively safe if you are careful not to overdo it. When you are going to be exposed to the sun for an extended period of time, sun block can be helpful in preventing sunburns and thus reducing your skin cancer risk. But if you are only going to be in the sun for a shorter time, then it is not necessary. In fact the sunlight is used by your body to produce vitamin D which is important in calcium absorption, immune system health, and mood stabilization.
So what about the chemicals in sunscreen?
Unfortunately, some of the chemicals used in sun blocks are endocrine disruptors, or chemicals that interfere with hormones in your body. Other chemicals cause immunotoxicity, hurting the immune system. Other chemicals accumulate in tissues and cause organ compromise and also increase the risk of cancer. So how do your protect yourself from sunburn and skin cancer without increasing your risk of other diseases and cancers? Only use sun block when you are going to be in the sun long enough to burn. Include plenty of brightly colored fruits and vegetables especially dark berries in your diet to reduce the effects of free radicals on your skin and other tissues. Lastly, avoid sun blocks that contain vitamin A, and choose the safest sun block you can, and apply it often during long sun exposures. The Environmental working group has compiled a list of the safest sun blocks on the market along with a key to tell you what effects different ingredients can have on your body so you can make a fully informed choice before heading to the amusement park or the beach. For more information on sun blocks please visit the Environmental Working Group at