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With the sun shining these last few days and the weather warming up you just know summer’s just around the corner. Best to find that sunscreen in the bathroom cupboard, or pop out to buy a new one so you don’t get caught out with that early season sunburn! But there’s been a lot of controversy around what sunscreens are safest, why natural over others, UVA vs UVB protection,15+ vs 50+, and what about infants and young children, or Vitamin D exposure? Not to mention the latest left field train of thought, that perhaps it’s better not to wear any at all… So we thought we would take this opportunity to demystify the sunscreen spectacle and simplify the whole thing.
To wear or not to wear….
Let’s start with the most important thing. It is a well known fact that excessive exposure to the sun causes skin cancer, and that is why wearing sunscreen is so important. However, you may or may not have come across a theory that it is the sunscreens causing the cancer, and not the sun itself. Interesting concept, but not backed by evidence. Several recent studies and reviews have examined the effects of sunscreens, both chemical and natural containing nanoparticles, on skin cancer rates and found that the use of sunscreen reduces risk of skin cancer, and not the other way around. So really, when it comes to skin cancer, sunscreen is the ultimate preventative medicine. Having said that, if you’re not convinced, there is a simpler approach, and that is to protect yourself from the sun by wearing long loose fitting clothing, broad rimmed hats, and staying in the shade.
Natural vs Chemical….
The basic difference here is that sunscreens labelled as ‘natural’ are not absorbed into the skin, while the others are. Natural sunscreens contain zinc or titanium dioxide as their active ingredient which act as a physical barrier on the skin protecting it from the sun. We all know the white or coloured zincs of the swimming and sports carnivals -well that’s essentially the same stuff they use in natural sunscreens, except in much smaller particle size, some using nanoparticles, which is why they appear to rub in clear, and not leave that thick pasty form on your skin. Chemical sunscreens contain chemicals that are absorbed into and act below the surface of the skin. The ‘sunscreens cause skin cancer’ theory started with these, because who wants chemicals with long unpronounceable names being absorbed into their body. And while the studies show that sunscreen does not cause skin cancer, it does leave something to think about. There is little research out there investigating the overall end stage effects of applying these chemical products to our skin, so while sunscreens have been given the all clear in not causing skin cancer, is there links other detrimental health effects? And essentially that theory can be applied to any chemical product applied to the skin, but that’s a whole discussion for another time. It is for this reason we recommend always using a natural sunscreen over a chemical one.
UVA vs UVB….
UV radiation from the sun reaches the earth in 2 main forms – UVA and UVB. It’s the short wave UVB that is mainly responsible for the redness and sunburn, while the long wave UVA damages the collagen in the skin causing aging and wrinkles, and is also responsible for tanning the skin. Before you get too excited about that golden sun kissed skin without the skin cancer risk (albeit with early onset aging), recent studies have also started linking UVA to skin cancer causing changes. Basically, sunscreen should effectively block both types of UV rays to effectively protect you from sun damage.
SPF 15+ vs. 30+ vs. 50+ ….
It sounds like the SPF 30+ must be twice as good the 15+ right? And that must make the 50+ just incredible! But the truth of the matter is that the difference between all 3 is really rather small. And it is for this very reason that until recently companies in Australia could not market anything above SPF 30, and why the “+” was introduced in the first place. SPF 50+ only came on the market recently due to demand from overseas tourist consumers.
SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor, and is a ratio rating how long it takes for skin to go red upon exposure to UVB radiation (remember though that both UVA and UVB are bad for your skin). That is, for a person wearing SPF 15 sunscreen their skin will take 15 times longer to go red upon exposure to the sun compared to if they were not wearing sunscreen at all. The actual difference between the different SPF’s is that SPF 15 will block about 93%, SPF 30 will block about 97%, and SPF 50 will block about 98% of UV rays. The other thing is that some may misconstrue the ratings as meaning their sunscreen need not be applied as liberally or as often because it has a high rating. This is not at all the case, and can place you at greater risk of sunburn. Sunscreen should be applied at least 15 minutes before sun exposure, and reapplied as directed on the label, usually every two to four hours. So you see the protection is really very high with all of them, and the key here is as long as you are wearing a sunscreen with an PSF rating, and applying and reapplying as directed, you will be well protected..
Sunscreen for infants and young children….
The main concern here is that infants and young children have extremely sensitive skin. That means they are more likely to react to any product that goes onto their skin, not only sunscreen. The Cancer Council recommends that applying sunscreen to young children is safer than exposing them to the sun, and many toddler and sensitive skin sunscreens are available with formulations that are gentle for little ones. Having said that however, going back to the chemical vs natural paragraph, we recommend always choosing a natural sunscreen for your little ones, and always patch test first on their skin to ensure no reactions occur. Better yet, keep them covered with loose light clothing, broad rimmed hats, and in the shade where ever possible, because sensitive skin not only reacts more readily to products, but also burns much more easily in the sun.
Very quickly, you should get enough incidental sun exposure on your hands and face when not wearing sunscreen, or when it’s between applications, to provide your body with adequate Vitamin D. Vitamin D is an important vitamin involved in critical bodily functions to do with your bones, muscles, heart and immune system, so if you are concerned with your Vitamin D levels you should get them checked.
Moral of our story….
– Wear sunscreen to protect yourself from skin cancer
– We think natural sunscreens are a better option than chemical ones
– Both UVA and UVB rays are damaging to the skin and your sunscreen should protect you against both
– Wear sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15+
– Keep your little ones out of direct sunlight with hats, long loose clothing and shade
– You should get enough Vitamin D from incidental sun exposure but if you are concerned about low levels make sure to get them checked.
For more detailed information check out these References:
Dennis, L.K., L.E. Beane Freeman, and M.J. VanBeek, Sunscreen use and the risk for melanoma: a quantitative review. Ann Intern Med, 2003. 139(12): p966-78.
Green, A., et al., Daily sunscreen application and betacarotene supplementation in prevention of basal-cell and squamous-cell carcinomas of the skin: a randomised controlled trial. Lancet, 1999. 354(9180): p. 723-9.
Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), Safety of sunscreens containing nanoparticles of zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. 2006, Australian Government – Department of Health and Ageing.
Understanding UVA and UVB available at http://www.skincancer.org/prevention/uva-and-uvb/understanding-uva-and-uvb
Skin Cancer Foundation: Does high SPF always protect your skin better? Available at http://www.skincancer.org/skin-cancer-information/ask-the-experts/does-a-higher-spf-sunscreen-always-protect-your-skin-better