Excerpt from the June 2013 edition of American Spa magazine. By Maryann Hammers
sunscreen can kill you—literally—or at least etch your skin with wrinkles. Leading dermatologists answer the most commonly asked sunscreen questions.
Nothing ages skin faster than sun damage. More ominously, one American dies from melanoma every hour, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. So the choice to apply sunscreen is a no-brainer. But you may not know how to get the maximum protection. “Everyone reading this is probably using too little and applying too infrequently,” says Talia Emery, M.D., medical director of Remedy (Westlake Village, CA), a cosmetic dermatology center. “More is better. Trust me, you’ll thank yourself later.” Here are some questions you may have about sun protection, with answers by some top dermatologists.
When shopping for sunscreen, what ingredients should you look for?
Sunscreens come in two basic forms. The most common are chemical-based formulations, containing ingredients that absorb the sun’s rays. Mineral, or physical, sunscreens deflect ultraviolet rays away from the skin. Many dermatologists recommend mineral sunscreens containing zinc oxide. “Mineral sunscreens are the most trustworthy. They are the most stable (i.e., they don’t degrade as quickly on the skin or in the bottle) and provide the broadest protection,” says California dermatologist Cynthia Bailey, M.D. Another advantage: Mineral sunscreens are less likely than chemical varieties to sting the eyes, they are gentler to the skin, and they block both UVA and UVB rays.
Should you be concerned about sunscreens that contain the chemical oxybenzone?
Oxybenzone, a compound that absorbs UVA and UVB rays, is often used in chemical sunscreens. Some environmental groups claim it penetrates into the skin, causing cell damage and hormone disruption. But the FDA has approved it as being safe and effective, and The Skin Cancer Foundation points out that no evidence shows that it has caused any adverse health effects during the 20 years it has been used.
“There is no proof that oxybenzone is an endocrine disrupter, and the American Academy of Dermatology’s opinion of oxybenzone is that it is safe in sunscreen,” says New York City dermatologist Debra Jaliman, M.D., author of Skin Rules: Trade Secrets From a Top New York Dermatologist (St. Mar- tin’s Press, 2012). Still, you can avoid it by sticking to mineral sunscreens. “I prefer physical [mineral] sunscreens to the chemical products,” Jaliman says.
(Though the FDA and the AAD do not believe there is proof that oxybenzone may have some adverse health risks, StormSister Spatique suggests you do the research.)
You may have heard that nanoparticles in sunscreens are potentially harmful. Is there cause for concern?
To enable mineral sunscreens to go on clear instead of chalky white, some manufacturers add nanoparticles to the ingredients. (One nanometer is up to 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair.) “Science supports nanoparticle zinc oxide’s safety as a sunscreen,” says Bailey. “Researchers in Australia have shown that nanoparticle zinc does not penetrate intact, healthy human skin.” The FDA also reports it “has not seen evidence that... any harm can come” from the use of sunscreens with nanoparticles. But when inhaled, nanoparticles can cause lung damage, so Bailey suggests avoiding it in loose makeup powder or spray sun- screens. And when nanoparticles get into the air, earth, or water, they can pollute the environment. “Nano-zinc oxide may not be benign for reefs and marine ecology, so I don’t recommend total-body application for snorkelers,” says Bailey.
What’s the best option for those who want safe and natural sun protection?
Look for mineral sunscreens containing non-nano particle zinc oxide. “Now formulators are creating elegant, easy-to-use non-nano particle products that are easy to use—not thick and goopy,” says Bailey. “It’s a totally green choice for people wanting natural skincare options.” An added bonus is the fact that non-nano particle zinc oxide is the most stable of all sunscreen formulations, so you can have protection from the sun and your non-nanos, too.
What’s the difference between UVA and UVB?
Think A for aging and B for burning. “UVA rays are responsible for sun spots, sagging, and wrinkles,” says Emery. UVA rays damage the skin’s connective tissues and penetrate deeply into the skin, regardless of weather, altitude, or time of day. UVB rays cause sunburn and can lead to cataracts. Unfortunately, both types of rays cause skin cancer. “For protection from both UVA and UVB rays, look for the words ‘broad spectrum’ on the label,” says Emery.
Some still want to tan. Here are the facts. Ultraviolet light from sun lamps and tanning beds causes DNA damage, according to recent research. Researchers from the National Cancer Institute blame artificial UV sources (i.e., tanning beds) for the rapid rise in malignant melanoma among young women.
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