Sun protection is a major concern particularly in New Zealand and Australia, the two countries with the highest rates of melanoma in the world. This is where the ozone is thinnest and offers the least protection from cancer-causing ultraviolet rays. Despite the fact that concerted campaigns since the 1980s have encouraged us to ‘slip-slop-slap’ on the sunscreen, the incidence of skin cancer (or more specifically melanoma) seems to be increasing, and not just in older people who may have been unaware of the dangers in their youth, but also in children and young adults, especially females.
Northern hemisphere countries are also at risk. According to the US Center for Disease Control, melanoma rates in the US have doubled in three decades. New Zealand has seen a similar pattern, according to Melanoma NZ, who reported a 12-16% increase in the ten years from 1998-2008.
So is sunscreen really the answer?
Benefits of the sun
Vitamin D is essential to many aspects of health, including reducing your risk of cancer. The main way we get vitamin D is by exposing our skin to sunlight. It’s best to do this for around 10 minutes a day, to avoid getting burnt. It is impossible to get enough vitamin D through your diet, although you can take a vitamin D supplement. Unfortunately vitamin D deficiency is all too common – at any age – and sunscreen inhibits your absorption of vitamin D. Controlled, safe exposure to the sun is your best source of vitamin D and actually decreases your chances of getting most cancers, including melanoma! Vitamin D also benefits many other areas of health, including the heart, bones, immune system, brain, mood, energy levels, blood pressure, teeth and kidneys.
If you work outdoors, perhaps you can’t avoid spending too much time in the sun. However, it’s possible that coating yourself in sunscreen for a large part of the day is worse than the risk of melanoma. There is also research that suggests that the highest risk of skin cancer occurs in people that normally get very little sun exposure but have occasional high exposure, e.g. on holidays.
Dangers of sunscreen
Many sunscreens have been shown to contain toxic chemicals that actually increase your risk of cancer, especially those chemicals which disrupt the hormones and release free radicals. Check the ingredients and avoid anything containing the following:
• Para amino benzoic acid
• Octyl salicyclate
• Menthyl anthranilate
Types of sunscreen
‘Mineral’ sunscreens sit on the surface of the skin. They contain zinc or titanium and actually create a barrier, without absorbing into the skin. ‘Chemical’ sunscreens are designed to absorb into the skin and cause a chemical reaction that converts ultraviolet light and emits it as heat. Many of these chemicals have been linked to cancer. Some sunscreens combine ‘mineral’ and ‘chemical’ ingredients.
Organic/natural/botanical sunscreen: there are many genuine chemical-free sunscreens that use a combination of plant and mineral ingredients that offer protection from ultraviolet. However, you shouldn’t take them at face value – read the ingredients before you buy.
All types of sunscreen block your absorption of vitamin D and none of them block out 100% of the harmful effects of the sun – you can still get burnt through sunscreen. We are not saying you should never wear sunscreen, but you should be selective about the type of sunscreen and how you apply it.
What is ‘broad spectrum’?
There are two types of ultraviolet: UVA and UVB. UVB is the type of ultraviolet light that gives you essential vitamin D but both types of UV cause sunburn and skin cancer. UVB is strongest in direct sunlight in the middle of the day. UVA is not blocked out by cloud cover or ozone or even window glass, which is why you can get sunburnt on an overcast day. Broad spectrum sunscreen is designed to block out both UVA and UVB. If you’re shopping for sunscreen, make sure it is broad spectrum.
You’d think the higher the ‘SPF’ (sun protection factor) rating of a sunscreen, the more harmful rays it blocks out, right? Wrong. High SPF sunscreens don’t give much more protection than low SPF ones. The NZ Cancer Society says anything over SPF30 is not going to make a significant difference. And the SPF rating only applies to UVB rays, not UVA. So it gives consumers a false sense of security, and as a rule of thumb, higher SPF-rated sunscreens tend to contain higher levels of toxic chemicals.
One of the main dangers of overexposure to the sun is oxidative damage, which increases free radicals in the body that can lead to cancer. Eating food high in antioxidants is one way to help combat this. Some of these include carotenoids, vitamins C and E, selenium, turmeric and tea. As well as being an important antioxidant, vitamin C has also been shown to protect and repair damaged skin cells. Other nutrients that can help reduce your risk of cancer include resveratrol, zinc, omega-3 fatty acids and astaxanthin. These nutrients can be obtained either from food or supplements such as Res-V, Lester’s Oil and Element12.
Use the shade, clothing and a hat
About 10-30 minutes of sun a day is beneficial (depending on which part of the world you live in), but avoid actually getting burnt. If you’re going to be out in the sun longer than that, make sure you cover up with clothing and wear a hat to protect your face and neck. If you can, keep to the shade during the middle of the day.
Wear sunscreen sometimes
If you can’t avoid the sun, just wear sunscreen on the parts of your body that you can’t cover with clothing, and for the part of the day when the sun is the strongest.
Buy non-toxic brands
Check the ingredients list and avoid anything containing the dangerous chemicals listed above. Just because it says ‘natural’ on the label, doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t contain toxic chemicals (although different countries have different labelling laws around this).
Eat cancer-fighting foods
In addition to the above measures, you can eat foods that help reduce your risk of cancer and enhance your skin’s natural ability to protect itself from the sun’s harmful rays.