Are sunscreens increasing skin cancer rates?

Even suggesting this would have seemed outrageous until just recently, although many of us had noticed that as the use of sunscreens spread rates of skin cancer were going up, not down.

A recent study is now suggesting that a common ingredient in sunscreen could be responsible for higher skin cancer rates. The ingredient is retinyl palmitate, a synthetic form of vitamin A included in most sunscreens as an antioxidant that slows skin aging. However, it now seems that when exposed to sunrays this chemical accelerates the formation of cancerous tumors in the skin.

In addition, other ingredients in sunscreens raise concerns and require more study. One of these is the chemical oxybenzone because it has been shown to penetrate the skin and enter the bloodstream where even at very low concentrations it disrupts hormone function.

Read about the study here:

Sunscreens and Cancer: Your Options

Now that summer is in full force and the sun is brutal most of the time, especially here in Houston, many of us feel we need to cover our bodies with sunscreen every day before we go out. But is that really such a good idea? And will it really prevent cancer?

I have always found it intriguing that while humans evolved under the sun – not in caves – the sun is increasingly blamed for skyrocketing skin cancer rates. If the sun was truly the culprit, and sun block a major defense, wouldn’t rates of skin cancer be dropping and not rising?

The facts, however, tell a different story. Today skin cancer is more common in the United States than all other forms of cancer combined. Its incidence is also growing faster than all other cancers, increasing by 6-7% each year.
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Safe sunscreens

Let me start by saying that the best way to approach the sun this summer is in moderation. Some dermatologists try to convince you that, for your health, every inch of exposed skin should be smeared with a thick layer of sunscreen every time you step into the sun. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

In fact, in a May 2005 article in USA Today Dr. Edward Giovannucci, a Harvard University professor of medicine and nutrition, laid out his case in a keynote lecture at an American
Association for Cancer Research meeting. His research suggests that vitamin D might help prevent 30 deaths for each one caused by skin cancer. “I would challenge anyone to find an area or nutrient or any factor that has such consistent anti-cancer benefits as vitamin D,” Giovannucci told the cancer scientists. “The data are really quite remarkable.”

The best source of vitamin D is from the sun. The body converts the perfect amount that you need and actually destroys any excess vitamin D. And unlike other parts of the country, we have the ability to use this wonderful and free resource for vitamin D almost year-round. It is a shame that most people block it completely at all times.

With this being said, it doesn’t give you free rein to fry yourself on a beach with baby oil. But “safe sun” – starting with 5 to 15 minutes or so every day of fully exposed skin without any sunscreen at the beginning of the season, and increasing it slowly – is actually very important for your health.

Back to the point of this article though: the fact is that there are some days or times that you may find yourself in the sun all day long. And if this is the case, you need to be aware what is in your sunscreen bottle; it may be more toxic than overexposure to the sun itself.

You want a sunscreen that has a sun blocker in it, like titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, or both. They should not be nano-particles or micronized, because this will allow the particles to be absorbed into the body instead of being kept on the skin as a barrier (and out of your bloodstream). The only issue is that a sunscreen like this will leave a whitish hue on the skin when applied. I think that is a small price to pay to keep the particles out of my body.

In researching this article, I have found different chemicals that should raise a red flag when seen on your sunscreen bottle. Many of these products become more harmful when
exposed to sunlight. Try to avoid:

Benzophenones (dixoybenzone, oxybenzone)
Propylene glycol
Cinnamates (cinoxate, ethylhexyl, p-methoxycinnamate)
Salicylates (ethylhexyl salicylate, homosalate, octyl salicylate)
Avobenzone (butyl-methyoxydibenzoylmethane)
Digalloyl trioleate
Menthyl anthranilate
PABA and PABA esters (ethyl dihydroxy propyl PAB, p-aminobenzoic acid padimate O)

The sunscreen I use for my family when it is necessary is Mexitan. I have to order it online, because there is not a retailer in this area. Another one that a lot of people recognize as a safe and natural sunscreen is from Aubrey Organics but I have questions about it since it contains PABA esters. The more research I do on PABA, the more conflicting reports I get. So I will leave that judgment call up to you.

My best piece of advice if you are in for a day at the beach or water park is to bring along a shade umbrella and a hat and spend short 20 to 30 minute periods in the water or on the beach volleyball court, and let the sun work its magic on your body as it should.