The sunscreen supplies we purchase every summer usually last until the following August. But with all the winter sunshine Victoria enjoyed and a couple of trips to the sunny prairies, Nature Boy recently found himself squeezing the last molecules of sunblock from a flattened tube.
The timing means that we can act on the latest consumer-protection recommendations about sunscreen. We can arm our exposed surface areas not just with high sun-protection factor but with pointy-headed research.
The point of using sunscreen is to avoid sunburns and other sun-caused skin damage, and reduce our chances of developing skin cancer. Science has repeatedly demonstrated the connection between sunlight, in the form of ultraviolet A and B radiation, and skin cancer.
Ultraviolet A rays penetrate deep into the skin and cause premature skin-aging and wrinkles. Ultraviolet B radiation makes skin tan and burn, and is more dangerous than UVA. However, both contribute to skin cancers. Basal-cell carcinomas occur when genes in cells in deep-skin layers go haywire, squamous-cell carcinomas develop in cells near the surface of the skin, and that old bogey, melanoma, occurs when genes within pigment cells in the skin or eyes become dysfunctional.
Cancer happens when wonky genes start whispering tales of conquest and power to their cells. They prompt the damaged cell to divide and divide and divide again, and its identical child cells to divide and divide and divide again, without end.
It’s part of the genes’ attempt to shake off the bonds of communal, cellular citizenship and try for World Domination.
Both UVA and UVB rays can kick-start the cellular megalomania.
Sunscreen helps to filter some of those rays, protecting our delicate dermises, so we want it to work.
If only reality were so easy.
Two consumer-protection agencies recently released their 2015 sunscreen ratings. Both conclude that many makers of sunscreen overstate the protection their products provide. In fact, according to tests by Consumer Reports, mineral-based sunscreens provide only one-half or one-third the claimed protection against UVB rays and less against UVA. Based on this, Consumer Reports recommends using either chemical sunscreens or mixed chemical/mineral screens.
In the other corner of the recommendation ring, the Environmental Working Group tested for effectiveness and a broad definition of product safety. Like Consumer Reports, the organization derides all sunscreens that claim high SPF — e.g., higher than 50, although other sources say 30 — as con jobs.
However, its conclusions about chemical sunscreens are especially disconcerting. It criticizes the use of retinol — Vitamin A — compounds in sunscreens. Laboratory research indicates that, when bombarded by UV rays, these otherwise mostly benign chemicals turn into Mr. Hydes that can cause skin lesions and might actually promote skin-cancer tumours.
The organization also recommends avoiding products containing oxybenzone and its variants. These common and effective UV-blocking chemicals have been shown to interfere with the body’s own hormones and could contribute to development of breast, prostate and other cancers.
All this leaves those of us who seek to save our skins in a muddle. Consumer Reports — that longtime bastion of objective product testing — pulls the rug out from under mineral sunblocks, while the Environmental Working Group warns of the dangers of chemical alternatives.
What’s a pale-fleshed bag-o’-bones-and-water to do?
All sites, including the Canadian Cancer Society, unanimously recommend one method of sun protection over all others — covering up, and leaving no skin or eyes exposed.
And that might be the most effective sunblock of all.
In our house, we call it “indoors.”