Author: Tate Fonda
On summer days you pop the cap off of an aerosol can of Coppertone-- spraying greasy sun protection on your skin. This may be the only time the bottle leaves the medicine cabinet shelf yearly, but protection is vital, even on the darkest snowy and rainy days.
The Sun’s Selection of Rays
There are two types of sun rays that can harm us: UVA rays that can pass deep into the skin, and UVB rays that damage the surface (Alamanza, 2020). UVA rays have been linked to aging and wrinkles that can be prevented with the daily application of sunscreen. UVB rays pose similarly preventable issues, causing sunburns and DNA damage. Although UVB rays are not as potent in cold winters as hot summers, UVA rays pose a relatively equal danger of absorption year-round. The misconception that sun damage poses a risk solely on warm, sunny days is untrue-- and dangerous. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, bright white snow may even increase the risk of sunburn, reflecting up to 80 percent of the sun’s UV light (2018). This causes the rays to hit you once as they usually do, and once again as they’re reflected. Regardless of climate and season, we must all take measures to protect our skin from the sun’s dangerous rays.
Cancer and UV Rays
UV radiation in both varieties is recognized by the World Health Organization as a cause of an abundance of skin cancer cases (2003). Its ties to the illness are becoming increasingly concrete via studies such as the “Patterns of Ultraviolet Radiation Exposure and Skin Cancer Risk” experimental inquiry conducted by Isabelle Savoye, a French expert in Health Services Research. In her study, she monitored the skin health in comparison to UV ray exposure of over 98,000 French women by sending lifetime exposure questionnaires to the women who had skin cancer, controlling her results by selecting 3 women of the same environmental conditions to complete the questionnaire for each case. Her main focus was to narrow the recognition of UV Rays as a cause of skin cancer into the types that it may cause-- including varieties of carcinoma and melanoma (Japan Epidemiological Association, 2018). The results affirmed that a history of sunburns was associated with an increased risk of both types of cancers in these women.
Melanin and Absorption
Every skin type and color is at risk of UV absorption and its consequences, though some skin shades may have a greater defense via their melanin content. Every person has a roughly equal prevalence of melanocytes in the body-- skin cells that produce the brown pigment melanin (Mayo Clinic, 2020). However, environmental evolution has enabled a difference in the production levels of melanin in different humans, producing modern diversity regardless of where these individuals live. Melanin acts as the skin’s first defense against UV rays-- absorbing some but rarely all of them that come in contact with the skin. Therefore, darker shades of skin provide protection against the harm of these rays, but never completely deflect them. Individuals with darker skin should routinely protect themselves as a preventative measure, though they may not accumulate as much outright damage (Wiley, 1964).
The Added Risk in Using Chemical Sunscreens
If the danger presented by the sun’s rays was not enough, the marketed chemical sunscreens that characterize the scents of summer may not be as safe as they seem. They may protect from the sun’s damaging rays, but they contain harsh chemicals that the industry does not consider the safety of.
One such chemical named oxybenzone, an organic compound that absorbs UV rays at low temperatures, may interfere unsafely with the hormones of the body. It has thus been linked to male infertility and low birth weight in children of mothers who are exposed (Pickart, 2000; Wolf et al., 2007). Furthermore, a high 9% of the chemical product applied can absorb into the skin, attacking hormonal response and physical health once it enters (Hayden et al., 1997). Oxybenzone is an active ingredient in chemical sunscreens sold by the largest names in its manufacture-- including Coppertone.
When word of the dangers of oxybenzone spread to the general public, big brands began to tout labels reading “oxybenzone-free!”, replacing the ingredient with avobenzone, found to pose its own risks. This ingredient that serves a similar function to oxybenzone in absorbing UV rays lasts much shorter on its own-- at a time of 30 minutes-- so chemicals such as octocrylene, homosalate, or octisalate are added into the formula. All four substances have been questioned rarely in their ability to protect our skin from UV rays, but often in their long term side effects. Avobenzone, found in Sun Bum and Banana Boat chemical sunscreens, has been found to absorb in the skin at higher quantities than originally suspected by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration, 2019). Research continues to develop.
The Safe Alternative
At the present, the FDA considers two of the 16 active ingredients shelved in chemical sunscreens to be safe for use (Food and Drug Administration, 2019). These ingredients, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, are used to make a variety of mineral sunscreens, the safest present protection against UV rays.
A safe routine involves applying a mineral sunscreen that is fragrance-free and gentle to the skin on the face as well as the body, reapplying every two hours of exposure (Skin Cancer Foundation, 2020). Clothes that cover the skin can also serve as a line of defense against the sun’s rays.
Class and Chemical Sunscreens
Brands such as Alba Botanica, Sun Bum, and Neutragena are offering mineral sunscreen products for ranging prices that tend to be slightly more expensive than chemical products. Therefore, it must be considered that the access to and cheap price of chemical products provides simple protection for all classes that need them. There is not always a pharmacy or grocery store with a diverse range of products in a consumer’s town-- especially in small and impoverished areas. Mineral sunscreens are not as popularized as or in stock in as many quantities as the chemical sunscreens that line the shelves. By increasing the awareness of the dangers of these products, and purchasing mineral over chemical sunscreens as a consumer is able, perhaps large companies will divert their focus into creating mineral-based sunscreens that protect the health of all consumers at an affordable price-- as the chemical products are offered. After all, it could prevent a range of health risks-- from premature aging to life-threatening cancer cases-- from affecting these and other users’ communities.
Alamanza, A. (2020, January 31). 6 Reasons you need to wear sunscreen in winter. The Healthy. https://www.thehealthy.com/skin-health/sun/sunscreen-in-winter/ Food and Drug Administration. (2019). Sunscreen drug products for over-the-counter human use. Federal Register, 84(38), 6209. https://www.federalregister.gov/
Hayden, C. G., Roberts, M. S., & Benson, H. A. (1997). Systemic absorption of sunscreen after topical application. The Lancet, 350(9081), 863-864.
Japan Epidemiological Association. (2018). Patterns of ultraviolet radiation exposure and skin cancer risk: the E3N-SunExp study. Journal of Epidemiology, 27-33.
Mayo Clinic. (2020, April 25). Skin layers and melanin.
Pickart, L. (2000). The chemical sunscreen health disaster. Skin Biology.
Skin Cancer Foundation. (2020, June 19). All About Sunscreen.
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