What Are the Pros and Cons of Sunscreen?
Spring is finally upon us. The sun is out (occasionally, at least) and it’s finally warming up again. So, naturally, it’s time to talk about sunscreen.
I've mentioned before that the issue of sunscreen is not quite as simple as it may appear. On the one hand, we’re constantly encouraged to slather on sunscreen to protect against the risk of skin cancer. On the other, a little sun exposure is the best way to get much-needed vitamin D coursing through your body. These two imperatives would appear to be at odds. If you slavishly apply sunscreen—and reapply—as recommended (primarily by dermatologists), you run the risk of creating vitamin D deficiency.
It’s become increasingly clear in the past two decades that vitamin D is extremely important for numerous aspects of health, including, ironically, your risk of various forms of cancer. But, on the other hand, avoiding sun exposure (and especially, sunburn) reduces your risk of early skin aging, wrinkling, development of unsightly age spots. And, possibly, various forms of skin cancer. More on that subject later.
A little occasional, unprotected sun exposure may actually be beneficial. But the emphasis is on “a little”. Research shows that most people can generate enough natural vitamin D to last several days after as little as 15 minutes of sun exposure. People with exceptionally dark skin, the obese, and the elderly, may require slightly more time in the sun.
That said, it’s important to remember that no one thinks sunburns are healthy. Ever. Sunburn—especially severe burning—is clearly linked to a greater lifetime risk of skin cancer. This is especially true of fair-skinned people of Northern European extraction. On the other hand, the link between sun exposure and skin cancer is not as clear as you might think. In fact, according to the non-profit consumer advocacy organization, Environmental Working Group (EWG), cases of deadly melanoma have risen steadily over the past three decades: New cases have tripled in that time. The death rate from melanoma has also spiked. EWG speculates that part of the problem is overconfidence among consumers who use sunscreen sparingly, in the mistaken belief that it will allow them to spend unlimited time basking in the sun, with no ill effects. While sunburn is a known risk factor for skin cancer, it’s unclear why disease rates keep climbing, especially now that the sunscreen industry generates up to $1 billion a year.
New regulations imposed by the FDA two years ago were supposed to make manufacturers’ sunscreen claims more transparent, but there’s still room for improvement, evidently. For the first time, manufacturers are allowed to make the following claim if their product is “broad-spectrum,” meaning it blocks both UVA and UVB rays, and has a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or greater: “If used as directed with other sun protection measures, this product reduces the risk of skin cancer and early skin aging, as well as helps prevent sunburn.” Note that “other sun protection measures” are assumed. This means that you also wear protective clothing, hats, sunglasses, etc., in addition to applying sunscreen. Otherwise, you may not be protected enough to reduce your risk of skin cancer.