With everything else worth worrying about in today's world, remembering to slather on the sunscreen when you go outside probably isn't very high on the list—especially since we live in a culture obsessed with maintaining perfectly bronzed skin and whatever status goes with having the darkest tan. It's tempting to skip the sunscreen and burn to a crisp rather than take those few extra steps to ensure healthy, fresh-looking skin. So this summer, as you're heading to the beach with friends and family, pause for a second and decide whether or not you want to look like a tortoise in 25 years. If the answer is no, then keep reading.
To begin, your skin makes up six pounds of your overall body weight. It is the largest of our organs, stores water and acts as the central heating and cooling system for our bodies. As amusing as these skin facts can be, it is important to remember that not all the skin data in America is so pleasant. For example, each year more cases of skin cancer (about 1 million) are reported across the country than incidences of breast, prostate, lung and colon cancer combined. Also, 40 to 50 percent of Americans over age 65 will have had skin cancer at least once in their lifetime, and one American dies every hour from this illness.
However, don't swear off going outside just yet; skin cancer is the most preventable and curable form of cancer in the world. As long as you're smart about your time in the sun, everything should be fine.
Suntan lotion offers a very important and easy way of protecting yourself from the sun's harmful rays. However, not all sunscreens are healthy for you or for the environment. When selecting a safe sunscreen, look for a cream-based, non-oxybenzone, non-retinyl palmitate formula. Spray and powder sunscreens emit dangerous chemicals into the air. Studies have been done on the toxicity of oxybenzone in both humans and rats; although they haven't been conclusive, they've evoked some doubt about how healthy for the skin the chemical is in large doses.
Retinyl palmitate (chemical-speak for Vitamin A) in various lab tests has increased hormone secretion and the risk of increased development of tumors and lesions on the skin when applied topically. Also, don't be distracted by sunscreens marketing SPF at 65 and above. The magic in sunscreen is virtually all the same once you reach SPF 50; the higher you go after that, the more unhealthy chemicals there will typically be in the formula. Finally, you want to look for sunscreens marked "broad-spectrum." Those protect the skin from both UVB and UVA radiation, which are responsible for sunburns and other types of skin damage.
Ideally, look for a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a zinc or titanium oxide formula base that is between SPF 15 and 45, and you'll be golden! According to the Environmental Working Group, some examples of healthy sunscreens are Badger Sunscreen for Face and Body unscented SPF 30, All Terrain Aquasport Performance Sunscreen SPF 30, and California Baby Sunscreen Lotion No Fragrance SPF 30. Comparatively, EWG's list of less healthy screens includes Banana Boat Baby Max Protect SPF 100 and Hawaiian Tropic Baby Cr?me Lotion SPF 50. Be cautious about any sunscreen marked with the Skin Cancer Foundation's seal of approval because it is placed on a large number of sunscreen bottles, often without sufficient proof of effectiveness. However, no matter which sunscreen is available, if you follow the rules of good sunscreen behavior, generally all will be well. Make sure to apply the screen at least 30 minutes before going into the sun. Once out there, make sure to reapply it every two hours and after swimming or excessive sweating.
In addition to sunscreen, there are other options for preventing skin damage. Dressing in tightly woven, loosely fitting clothing may help much more than applying gobs of suntan lotion. It is especially important to shield babies and young children with hats, long sleeves and pants so as not to contaminate their skin with some of the sunscreen chemicals listed above.
Another, more obvious way to avoid ultraviolet radiation is to shun the sun completely. The most dangerous hours for getting sunburns are between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Staying in the shade or putting up an umbrella during these times can decrease your skin's risk of overexposure dramatically. The EWG strongly emphasizes keeping babies in the shade during these hours because their skin hasn't developed enough melanin to permit even a little bit of tanning.
What happens when you follow the rules of sun safety and still get sunburned? It is a fact of life for most Americans, South Africans and Australians, but unless the burn is severe (in which case you should seek medical attention), the best thing to do is gently sit back and try to relax until the skin has healed. To alleviate pain it is helpful either to take a cool shower or place cool, damp washcloths on the affected area. In the worst cases, blisters can form from two hours to two days after the sunburn. Place dry bandages over the blisters to prevent infection. Avoid any moisturizing products containing petroleum, like Vaseline, and instead opt for the old faithful remedy of aloe vera.
After all is said and done, we will all venture outdoors this summer to take advantage of the sun's warmth and vitamin D benefits. So long as you remember which sunscreens are safest, when to reapply them and when to seek shade, this summer will be as fun-filled and safe as all the rest.
After 33 years of debate, last month the federal Food and Drug Administration handed down criteria for claims by makers of sunscreens that their products offer "broad-spectrum" protection and that they help prevent cancer and sunburn. The new standards go into effect in a year. For more information, check www.fda.gov/forconsumers/consumerupdates/ucm258416.htm.