There is no greater oxymoron than a ‘healthy tan’. Bronzed skin may fit our cultural ideal of beauty but it is anything but healthy. Yes, sun exposure triggers the release of feel-good hormones and tops up our levels of vitamin D but the pros are severely outweighed by the all-too-familiar risks.
The tan that so many people strive for is the result of UVA rays that have triggered cells called melanocytes to start producing a brown pigment called melanin. Melanin is the body’s defence mechanism against burning and a way to protect UV rays from penetrating deeper into the skin, damaging DNA and potentially causing cancer.
But in spite of all the aggressive publicity campaigns about the risks of UV exposure, most guys are relatively relaxed when it comes to protecting their skin during the summer. As such, figures for skin cancer continue to escalate with around one million cases reported in the US each year. Current research from the National Institutes of Health and Oxford University seems to suggest that the p53 gene responsible for tanning may also play a role in the onset of testicular cancer among white males. Severely accelerated skin ageing, the other great risk of sun exposure, isn’t exactly life threatening but it should serve as an incentive to cover up.
Logic would suggest that if you don’t burn while out in the sun, then your skin remains unaffected by the onslaught of UV rays. The truth is most of the damage invisible; burn-free skin doesn’t mean you’re especially resilient or that cells haven’t been impaired.
There are two types of rays that penetrate the Earth’s O-zone: UVA and UVB. UVB causes superficial damage (sunburn) and is responsible for non-melanoma skin cancers. It also helps produce that all-important Vitamin D. UVA, meanwhile, penetrates deep into the skin, triggers melanocytes and causes signs of ageing by dint of its ability to break down collagen and elastin (which in turn causes wrinkles and sagging). UVA also damages DNA and is classified as a Class I carcinogen. So just because you haven’t burned (UVB), that doesn’t mean you’ve escaped the casualties of sun exposure (UVA).
Redness is usually the first warning sign. It indicates that the body’s inflammatory response is in full swing; a rosy face is the result of ever-dilating blood vessels. Then comes tightness, a sign that the skin has been zapped of moisture by the sun. Finally there is peeling, which is effectively a damaged cell’s way of ‘jumping ship’ in an effort to protect the rest of the body from skin cancer.
You might expect all this fearmongering to segue into a nice product-driven passage about the importance of sunscreen. But you’d be wrong. Sunscreen – especially those that are commercially available at most drug stores – are hardly a bulletproof solution. Mislabeling, overblown claims and slack trading standards around the world mean they can do more harm than good.
Most commercial sunscreens also have a ‘dermal uptake’ (i.e. are absorbed into the body via the skin) and are loaded with toxic chemicals such as OMC (octyl methoxycinnamate) or Oxybenzone, which, ironically enough, accelerate the risk of skin cancers and mess with your hormones. The Environmental Working Group, a non-profit organization, are particularly vocal about one common ingredient – a vitamin A derivative called Retinyl Palmitate – that they claim accelerates cancer formation. The FDA in the United States doesn’t appear to have taken action and so most big brand sunscreens come loaded with phototoxic chemicals (the EWG have, however set up a website with a list of safe sunscreens here).
And then there are the claims on the packet. Consumers tend to invest too much in SPF ‘strength’ when, in reality, the difference between and SPF30 and an SPF50 is negligible (a 1% difference according to most dermatologists). As a result, most guys don’t apply enough sunblock in the first place and don’t reapply anywhere near as often as they should. The recommended amount is 2mg of sunscreen per square centimeter of skin. Most men are lucky if they achieve a quarter of this.
Even Procter & Gamble, one of the biggest cosmetic manufacturers in the world, have stated that the SPF scale is “at best, misleading to consumers” and “may inappropriately influence their purchase decision” (P&G 2011). Moreover, the SPF rating is principally used in relation to UVB irradiation and has little do with UVA rays, another bugbear of the EWG. In summary, an SPF blocks essential Vitamin D production while leaving the door wide open for DNA damage. It will, however, protect you against sunburn.
So while proper use of a non-toxic, photostable and broad-spectrum sunscreen should be encouraged, it isn’t a substitute for regulating the amount of direct sun exposure you get this summer… or at least donning a hat.
Be sure to check out the EWG’s website for more information www.ewg.org.