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Sun Protection: It's Dangerous to Get It Wrong

Some time ago, a senator used a snowball as Exhibit 1 to prove that global warming doesn’t exist—if it did, we wouldn’t have snowballs, right? Well, no actually. Extreme temperatures in temperate zones, low as well as high, demonstrate exactly the opposite, but who are we to deny senators their theatrical moments, no matter how ridiculous?

Perhaps when the stakes are too high, the time to tolerate political grandstanding is over. Especially when it's part of a concerted public relations campaign to sow doubts about the reality of climate change. Tack on a few pseudo-scientific reports by “experts” and the charade can drag out indefinitely—bypassing the chance to truly do something about rising temperatures, rising sea levels and the attendant problems we are already experiencing. The motive? Protecting the profits of polluting industries.

Segue to skin care, an industry in which I have 12 years' experience as a product developer/formulator. As long as I've known it, R&D has been dominated by marketing exigencies that have restricted cosmetic chemists to areas of research dictated by PR campaigns and the latest fads. But—an explosion of new data, whether it’s soaring temperatures, surging sea levels or rising skin cancer rates, calls for change in the skin care industry. Protecting skin from the sun's damaging rays has graduated from simple self-indulgence to a serious public health issue. Why?

The need for reliable sun protection

The ozone layer is depleting and skin cancer rates are on the rise in Canada and other regions not exactly known for a wealth of sunny days. The EWG reports that “the rate of new melanoma cases among American adults has tripled since the 1970s, from 7.89 per 100,000 population in 1975 to 22.7 in 2010. (NCI 2015). Just as alarming, the melanoma death rate for white American men, the highest risk group, has escalated sharply from 2.6 deaths per 100,000 in 1975 to 4.6 in 2011.”

These statistics call for rule changes in the way skin care is marketed to consumers. For decades, marketers have been allowed to make exaggerated or false claims about products that “soften wrinkles” or “firm skin.” Ad campaigns that exploit our insecurities and disparage self-image may be unkind, but they aren’t lethal. But when the subject is sun protection, that anything-goes mentality crosses a line. Then, the strictest standard of accuracy required of any public health issue should be applied.

Now that trustworthy sun protection has become a necessity, the issue itself, thanks to new scientific findings, has reached new levels of complexity. The challenge to those of us working in the field is how to communicate accurate information to consumers—a challenge that carries with it no less than the heady possibility of replacing an era of media hype with an era of responsible reporting. To speed along this overdue paradigm shift, we advise taking the following steps:

  1. Hold purveyors of information to higher standards of credibility than "marketing guru, celebrity, politician or survivor." Self-styled experts may sound plausible, but keep in mind that over-confidence often stems from a lack of background sufficient to a proper understanding of the subject. Presenting a nuanced perspective is much more difficult.
  2. Demand fact-checking diligence from media outlets promulgating questionable information.
  3. Ask scientists and other experts whose names are invoked in public forums if they're aware their names are being used, and if they would care to clarify their positions.
  4. Support hard-working organizations like the Environmental Working Group and the Center for Environmental Health that deliver reliable information aimed at protecting the public.

The need to take the spin out of sun protection has prompted me to start a series of blog posts that will examine the complex subject from a number of different angles. Here is the first one:

Heeding unsubstantiated claims regarding ways to protect yourself from after-sun damage can be hazardous to your health.

The Claim

Antioxidant sprays or topicals used after a day in the sun will help mitigate the damage that takes place in the dark, hours after UV exposure.

The Facts

Yale study found that DNA photoproducts responsible for cancer-causing mutations in skin cells continue to be generated for hours after sunlight exposure. The scientists’ “chemiexcitation model” describes a pathway that begins with reactive oxygen and nitrogen species exciting electrons in melanin fragments into high-energy states, which when transferred to DNA, induce the same damage as UV light, but in the dark. The key to limiting damage would be to target the correct antioxidants into cells before the damage takes place. It's also speculated that energy can be dissipated by adding energy-quenchers to an after-sun sunscreen. At present, the specific antioxidants or energy-quenching compounds that would make it into cells to prevent or reverse the chemical steps that occur prior to the high-energy state have not been determined.

The Solution

For now, the best protection is prevention. It’s worth at least ten pounds of “cure.” Use the sun-protection methods we know work: 

  1. Sunscreen: Wear a non-chemical, broad-spectrum sunscreen, SPF 30, ideally one that contains zinc oxide, every day.
  2. Topical antioxidants: Applying antioxidants like vitamins C and E that scavenge free radicals prior to UV exposure can boost sunscreen protection.
  3. Checkups: Practice monthly self-exams and get annual checkups, especially if you have had skin cancer.
  4. Be wary of unsubstantiated claims: Skin care products that soothe skin after a day in the sun are just that—soothing. But using such products in lieu of true sun-protection products could be a problem, especially if the expectation is that antioxidants will address the chemiexcitation damage associated with melanin changes. This is still unknown territory and it’s important to proceed cautiously. If you have questions about whether your level of protection is adequate, your best bet is—as always—to consult your dermatologist or medical professional.
  5. Ease sunburn discomfort: Ingredients with anti-inflammatory properties effectively soothe skin suffering from too much sun. They include borage oil, aloe vera gel, chamomile, calendula and yoghurt. You can also take an aspirin to relieve discomfort. A study on women 50 to 79 years of age suggests that taking an aspirin daily lowers the risk of melanoma. 

A Scientist's Perspective

Dr. Jay Nadeau of Caltech reports on current research efforts in the area of chemiexcitation damage: "It is possible to measure the melanin breakdown products spectroscopically. Studies are in progress to determine which antioxidants are capable of removing those specific products that are believed to play a role in causing melanoma. The challenge will then be to create sunscreen products containing such antioxidants, which must be safe to use and capable of getting into cells."