The People's Perspective on Medicine

Do Sunscreens Create a False Sense of Security?

Do sunscreens create a false illusion of safety? A new lawsuit charges that many sunscreen manufacturers are misleading Americans into thinking that their products can protect people from sun damage.
Decades ago there were few effective sunscreens. If you spent too much time in the sun you were bound to burn. That’s why farmers wore hats and long sleeves, vacationers took umbrellas to the beach and lifeguards put white zinc oxide on their noses.
Now, the chemicals in most sunscreens prevent sunburn so well you could spend all day outside with no clothes on and still not get pink. Because of this protection people spend more time in the sun biking, swimming, gardening or golfing.
Just because you don’t burn, however, does not mean your skin is safe. The lawsuit against the makers of Banana Boat, BullFrog, Coppertone, Hawaiian Tropic and Neutrogena brand sunscreens claims that longer ultraviolet-A rays can still damage skin. UV-A is associated with skin cancer, wrinkling and aging. The lawyers point out that despite increasing use of sunscreen over the last few decades, skin cancer has been rising at an alarming rate.
Consumers are understandably confused. On the one hand, they are told to slather on the sunscreen to protect their skin from sun damage. Now they are being told that many sunscreens won’t protect them very well.
To make matters even more baffling, scientists have announced new health benefits from vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin. Two studies have found that women who have the highest levels of vitamin D have the lowest risk of breast cancer. Sun exposure during adolescence seemed to protect women later in life, reducing their risk of breast cancer by 25 to 45 percent.
These new studies confirm previous research suggesting that cancers of the colon, breast, prostate and lung are less common among people who get regular sun exposure. It’s harder to get adequate amounts of vitamin D from the diet, because the amounts in fortified milk or fish like salmon, tuna or sardines are small.
Vitamin D may also help protect people from developing type 2 diabetes (Diabetes Care, March 2006). A large study followed the diets and health habits of more than 80,000 women for 20 years. Women who got the most vitamin D and calcium were least likely to develop this condition.
What should consumers do with this conflicting information? Dermatologists warn that excess sun exposure is harmful, but some vitamin D is beneficial. Sunscreen can keep the skin from making vitamin D, but it might not provide real protection from skin cancer.
One possible way out of the dilemma is to be sensible about sun exposure. As little as 10 or 15 minutes of sun on arms and face three or four times a week without sunscreen should be enough to provide adequate vitamin D. The alternative is to take supplements adding up to approximately 1000 IU daily.
After 10 minutes, make sure you have complete protection from harmful solar rays. Look for a physical sunblock with zinc oxide, titanium dioxide or both. Choices include Blue Lizard Australian Suncream, Solbar Zinc or Vanicream.
It’s possible to get enough vitamin D and protect your skin from damaging UV rays.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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