SUNSCREEN—MAYBE

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Prior to the industrial revolution, most people worked in the fields, meaning a suntan (in lighter-skinned individuals) carried a stigma of marking someone as working class, a peasant, or an agricultural laborer. Wealthier people by and large were not exposed to the sun, so their pallid skin marked them as a member of the monied upper class.

By 1920, most laborers had moved to indoor factories so that most white people, regardless of class, had pale skin. Perfume magnate Coco Chanel began to sport a suntan, establishing it as a desirable sign of privilege, leisure, and beauty – the badge of someone who didn’t work in a factory. The pursuit of a suntan by Caucasians continued for at least 60 years, with the popularity of both suntanning and using tanning products, regardless of dermatologists’ claims that skin irradiation (sun exposure) caused premature skin aging, skin cancers, and skin wrinkling. Suntans became so desirable, especially with younger people, that sunbeds and tanning salons became popular, mostly for those in the cooler northern climes who wanted a year-round tan. The fact that these sunbeds were 15 times stronger than the equatorial sun was irrelevant (to them).

A turning point in the U.S. tanning craze came in 1997 when the makeup artist for the TV show Baywatch admitted that cast members used sunless tanning lotion and didn’t really have tans. Soon, these products became popular, often sold by the same companies that once advertised and sold “deep tanning” products.

Today, despite the awareness of the harms of sun exposure (not to mention tanning beds), the rate of skin cancers is rising. Some researchers claim this is because of a thinning ozone layer while others claim it is because indoor lifestyles are now so popular. Other researchers claim that low sun exposure also has a number of serious risks, including several cancers. This has led some experts to recommend moderate non-burning sun exposure with the use of sunscreens. Ah, but are sunscreens safe?

The answer is we don’t know for sure. Most sunscreens today are “chemical sunscreens” that contain sun-blocking chemicals such as avobenzone, ecamsule, octocrylene, and oxybenzone. A 2019 study (which I wrote about here a few years ago) found that using these products at recommended intervals for just one day increased the blood levels of them in healthy volunteers. In other words, these chemicals were being absorbed into the body. One of them, oxybenzone, is a possible endocrine disruptor. It can interfere with the female menstrual cycle, spermatogenesis, sexual behavior, fertility, and other reproductive parameters in research animals. Human studies are ongoing. It may also be dangerous to marine life, including coral reefs.

Some of you may remember when we lifeguards wore a blob of white zinc oxide on our noses. Zinc and titanium oxide are sun blockers, and as long as the zinc and titanium oxides are micro-sized and not nanoparticles, cannot be absorbed (read the label). Therefore, the best advice about sun exposure for this summer anyway, is short, non-burning intervals of sun exposure with a hat, shirt, and sun blocker, not sunscreen, on exposed skin. Bear in mind that this advice may be very different tomorrow (don’t shoot the messenger).

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 By Peter Galvin, MG

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