Because the sun's UV rays are known carcinogens, it's essential to cover up with clothing, hats or an effective sunscreen if you spend more than half an hour outdoors. Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the U.S., where one in five of us will develop it in our lifetimes. In 2010, one million new cases of skin cancer were diagnosed, including more than 68,000 potentially lethal melanomas, up to 90 percent of which are caused by UV rays, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
And, better late than never, I just learned that skin and eyes can receive harmful UV even when the sun's not shining bright. Although it's well known that UVB, the rays that cause sunburn, are strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., who knew that UVA, the aging rays, can do damage at any time of day, as well as when it's overcast and through glass? Both UVA and UVB contribute to the development of basal and squamous cell skin cancers, which are relatively easy to get rid of, and melanoma, which isn't. From now on, I'm donning my green, least-toxic sunblock along with my rash guard when I paddle out to surf in the early morning and evening.
Even if you aren't a beach goer and you don't live in a sunny state like Hawaii, which I call home, you're still in danger -- perhaps more so! Rates of getting melanoma last year were highest in northern states, including some interior ones.
While the Big C is the big threat under the sun, and any sunblock is better than none, if you're going to expose some skin, I believe you should try to make truly green (not greenwashed "natural") sunscreens a regular habit. Why? Their ingredients may be safer for your health and the environment. When you can, choose natural mineral blocks and avoid the more risky synthetic ingredients, listed below.
Choose It: Mineral Sunblocks with Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide as active ingredients.
In its just-released 2011 sunscreen report, EWG says mineral sunblocks top its ratings because of their high effectiveness at blocking UVA as well as UVB, and low rates of penetration of skin.
Lose It: Avoid the following synthetic active ingredients:
Oxybenzone/ Benzophenone-3is a a suspected hormone-disrupter that behaves like the hormone estrogen, it has high skin allergy rates. BP-3 has been linked to bleaching of coral reefs and found to interfere with reproductive systems in fish, including feminization of males and reduced egg quality in females.
Octyl Methoxycinnamate has moderate allergy rates, acts like estrogen and is linked to coral bleaching.
Padimate O damages DNA, causes some allergic reactions.
Lose This, Too: Avoid the following Inactive Ingredients:
Retinyl Palmitate/Vitamin A has been found in some early studies to increase risk of skin cancers when applied to skin exposed to sunlight.
Paraben Preservatives -- This is where I differ from EWG's recommendations, which include some paraben-containing sunscreens in their top-rated list. Parabens mimic estrogen, have been found in breast cancer tumors and stimulate growth of breast cancer cells in the lab. With many paraben-free sunscreens available, and more and more manufacturers eliminating them every day, it's easy to skip these worrisome chemicals.
"Fragrance" is a labeling term which can cover up the presence of toxic phthalates.
Happily, the marketplace now abounds with many green full spectrum (blocking both UVB and UVA) sunscreens in a broad spectrum of price ranges. While lawmakers press the FDA to finally deliver on its promise of new sunscreen regulations that will crack down on inflated, unsubstantiated Sun Protection Factors (SPFs), we can test what works for us, based on science-based recommendations from EWG and real-life feedback from consumers who've tried the products out. In the meantime, choose a sunscreen with SPF of 15-30, the Skin Cancer Foundation and others advise.
*My Surfer's Top 10 Best Blocks: Want a mineral sunscreen that stays on in the water? Here's my short list of 10 green sunscreens, free of all synthetic active ingredients, parabens, Vitamin A and "fragrance." I've taken them all surfing and they performed for up to two hours per application. Check out my GreenerPenny's Sunscreen Picks.
*Whole Living Editors' Picks: Another short list of fave green sunscreens, these chosen by the magazine's experts (full disclosure: I'm a regular contributor to WL).
*EWG's 2011 Sunscreen Rankings: Talk about comprehensive! EWG vetted 500 sunscreens; see the dozens of products on their top-rated beach & sport sunscreens list.
More Sun Protection Tips
Seek the shade and avoid direct sun as much as possible. Keep newborns out of the sun. Sunscreens should not be used on babies younger than six months.
Cover up with clothing. Ideally, wear bright- or dark-colored clothes, which reflect more UV radiation than pastels and whites. Tightly woven cloth gives a better sun barrier than open weaves. A shirt or rash guard with an UPF of 30 means that just 1/30th of ambient UV can reach the skin.
Wear a hat! Happily, they're back in style, being sported by royals and rappers. Make yours broad-brimmed.
Shade your eyes. See Whole Living's new article on UV-blocking sunglasses.
An intriguing new study finds that incidence of the deadly skin cancer melanoma is increasing in young women of all socioeconomic levels. What's striking is that that young, non-Hispanic white women living in the most affluent and sunny neighborhoods were nearly six times more likely to be diagnosed with the melanoma than those living in the poorest and sunny neighborhoods. Why? The lead researcher mentioned previous studies showing that the well-to-do have more leisure time and disposable income to spend on outdoor recreation and tanning parlors, the latter deemed carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
Conclusion? No need to panic! Remember to cover up as best you can and enjoy the outdoors to the fullest this summer. If you catch a natural tan despite your best efforts, enjoy that, too!