As the subject of how best to protect yourself from the sun grows ever more complicated, advice from all quarters grows shriller and ever more conflicting. Now we have after-sun damage to ponder, and Professor Niehls Jorgensen, author of a new Danish study suggesting a link between exposure to an enormous number of chemicals in plastics and low sperm counts, advises men not to wear sunscreen at all.
Sun protection is a complicated business, and it’s little wonder consumers are confused, fed up or just plain bored with the whole subject. But sun protection is important. Melanoma (the most deadly form of skin cancer) rates are skyrocketing, and simply put, wearing sunscreen can save lives. However, it can’t be just any old sunscreen. In fact, most sunscreens are worse than useless, as the EWG points out.
Here are a few suggestions, based on research rather than marketing spin, to help you protect yourself.
For UVB and UVA protection, wear sunscreen daily. Your sunscreen should have an SPF rating, preferably SPF 30. Do not accept an “equivalent to” type non-rating.
SPF shouldn’t be higher than SPF 30 and should contain zinc oxide. A study published in Nature found that the immune protection factor did not correlate with the SPF in a sunscreen, however it significantly correlated with UVA protective capability. The authors suggest rating sunscreens against their immune protective capability, which provides a better indication of their ability to protect against skin cancer.
A 15-year study of 5,000 Danish men with an average age of 19 revealed that only 25% had a healthy sperm count. Professor Jorgensen blames, in addition to PFCs and phthalates—sunscreens. These findings correspond to the warnings EWG has been issuing for years about reproductive health hazards associated with chemicals, particularly oxybenzone, in sunscreens. Besides being endocrine disrupters, chemical sunscreens generate free radicals. Professor Jorgensen is correct to warn against chemical sunscreens, but you can replace chemical sunscreens with zinc oxide-based sunscreens—and these days the choices abound. Zinc oxide is the most photostable sunscreen agent that protects in both the UVB and UVA range.
Zinc oxide and iron oxides also offer protection in the visible light range, which might be important for people suffering from post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation or melasma.
Antioxidants applied topically can give you a sun protection boost by scavenging free radicals that attack cell structures and DNA, but they should be used in addition to sunscreen, not as a replacement for it.
Topical applications of antioxidants and sunscreen can be combined with a nutritional approach to provide better protection. Two really good ones:
- a) The carotenoid pigment astaxanthin is a potent antioxidant that can be ingested daily to provide protection from oxidative damage.
- b) Polyphenols from green tea also provide significant protection and reduce DNA damage induced by UV exposure.
The risk associated with damaged melanin is melanoma, the skin cancer that kills—predominantly men, as studies show. The American Academy of Dermatology reports that men between the ages of 15 to 39 are more than twice as likely to die of melanoma as compared to their female peers, and it's estimated that this year melanoma will kill 6,470 men—and half as many women. If you belong to an at-risk group, you need to wear sunscreen every day.
Chemiexcitation damage that occurs post UV exposure may or may not be inhibited by energy-quenching compounds and antioxidants. We still don’t know which ones work best or which compounds will make it into cells. While we wait for further studies, don’t confuse free radical damage, which can be limited with antioxidants, with chemiexcitation damage. They are different mechanisms that may require different treatments. Even a true evening-after sunscreen, when it comes on the market, won’t replace yearly check-ups with your dermatologist.
Here are some other ways to deal realistically with melanoma risk:
- A study of women ages 50 to 79 has found that taking aspirin daily is associated with a lower risk of melanoma.
- Avoid tanning beds. Indoor ultraviolet (UV) tanners are 74% more likely to develop melanoma than people who have never tanned indoors.
- Wear hats and protective clothing. Men in particular should wear hats and clothing to protect those areas most exposed to constant UV exposure—top of head, back of neck and shoulders. Checkups: early detection can cure most cancers. Practice self-exams monthly and get a yearly checkup, the Skin Cancer Foundation recommends.
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