It’s hard to believe that the month of May is quickly coming to a close. As we prepare to enter into June, the realities of being out and about in the sun raise a number of pressing issues. Most parents who are worried about protecting their children from the sun’s harmful rays commonly douse their children in layer after layer of sunscreen, reapplying when “needed.” However, trusted authorities such as Health Canada consider sunscreens a kind of last resort during “unavoidable exposure” to the sun.
A surprising reality check for many, the benefits of using sunscreen have become increasingly questionable over the years. Despite more and more people using sunscreens, the rate of first-time melanoma diagnoses continue to rise. This number has actually tripled over the past 35 years according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG). To make matters worse, it is believed that any protective benefits sunscreens may provide against the sun are outweighed by their harmful side effects.
Vitamin A is a common ingredient in many sunscreens rooted in the belief that is possesses anti-aging properties. However, the National Toxicology Program has found that Vitamin A can also cause an adverse reaction when combined with sunlight that actually speeds the growth of cancerous tumors. Oxybenzone is another chemical filter used in many sunscreens, this ingredient has been found to soak through the skin, which can trigger allergic reactions. Oxybenzone may even function as a hormone disrupter, having been found in both urine and breast milk samples (Calafat 2008).
Rather than giving a potentially harmful chemical-filled product such as sunscreen the absolute authority to determine when it is appropriate to go out into the sun, there are other methods that are just as (if not more) effective. The hours between 11am and 4pm are when the sun’s rays are at their strongest, limiting the time spent in direct sunlight by finding a shaded area will give you chemical-free protection from the sun when its rays are at their most dangerous.
Regardless of the time of day, the UV index is also an important indicator of the strength of the sun’s rays. If the UV index is higher than 3, wearing protective loose-fitting clothing and sunglasses that provide 100% UVA and UVB protection is an effective alternative to repeatedly slathering on the chemicals.
Some parents may still feel that it’s necessary to use some sort of sunscreen on their children. In this event, stick to the topical lotions rather than sprays or powders because the FDA has expressed concerns regarding the safety of these products. Also, the false sense of security that accompanies a high SPF number is not necessarily going to protect you any better than a lower SPF sunscreen – these products simply contain higher concentrations of the same chemicals. Sunscreens with an SPF of around 30 are more than adequate. The EWG provides an annual list of sunscreens which meet the criteria listed above. When in doubt, always read the list of ingredients on the back of your sunscreen bottle before use, keeping in mind that they are commonly listed by quantity, the first few ingredients are present in higher quantities that the last few on the list. Having fun in the sun is that much more beneficial when you are not inadvertently exposed to harmful chemicals.
The Environmental Working Group – Best Sunscreens
Health Canada – Sun Safety Basics
The Weather Network – UV Report (by Region)
The National Toxicology Program
Calafat – 2008
Calafat AM, Wong L-Y, Ye X, Reidy JA, Needham LL. 2008. Concentration of the sunscreen agent, benzophenone-3, in residents of the United States: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2003-2004. Environ Health Perspect 116(7): 893-897.