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Don't Get Burned! | Sunscreen and Sunblock

Nothing feels quite as comforting as the sun's warm rays upon our skin.  And nothing causes skin cancer or damages skin quite like those same warming rays.  It may be due to global warming and the deteriorating ozone layer, but the reality is, regardless of the reason, we need to protect our skin.  That's where sunscreen comes in.

Sunscreen – originally invented back in the 1930s to protect military personnel who typically spend hours a day in the blazing sun – has become a household item for most of us.  The market is flooded with countless brands, strengths, and types of sunscreen to the tune of 1,800 + products, which gross over 800 million dollars annually.  WHOA!  It's great to have such a variety, which means there's something for everyone, but, at the same time, the variety makes choosing an appropriate sunscreen challenging and confusing.  If you're like most guys, you grab a bottle based on the product's SPF rating and are on your way.  Unfortunately, there's a whole lot more to choosing sunscreen than most of us are aware of.  I've done research on the most current sunscreen information and want to share what I've found, so you can keep yourself safe and healthy by making the best choices of sun protection.

Without a doubt, the best "go-to" source for this information is the Environmental Working Group; an organization dedicated to finding out the truth about things that impact our planet and health.  At Environmental Working Group, you can find out the safety level of just about every chemical in every product we use and consume – from food to shampoo to household cleaning products.  These folks are unbelievable, and if you have never checked them out, you might want to.  There you can find reliable information to help live a healthier, happier life... and that's what it's all about!

Ok, let's get down to business.  The sad truth is we've been deceived by so many sunscreen manufacturers at the expense of our safety and appearance.  Products that claim to protect us from life threatening diseases, not to mention premature skin aging, have not been exactly accurate or honest about their efficacy.  The cover's been blown off this whole sunscreen scam recently, and the U.S. FDA (Food and Drug Administration) plans on enforcing new requirements for sunscreen in December 2012.  Unfortunately, it's already realized there are holes in these new requirements, so, as consumers, we will  still need to do our homework in order to choose the best options.

The following information explains the basics of sunscreens.  It's involved, but, hopefully, understandable.  I want you to be aware of what's going on, so you can make informed choices that your wellbeing depends on.

UVA and UVB

UVA and UVB are the two ultraviolet wavelengths put out by the sun that sunscreens attempt to protect us from.  UVB rays are the ones that burn skin.  UVA don't burn, but cause free radical damage, which results in premature skin aging and cancer.  The sad news is sunscreens in the U.S. don't address the UVA rays much at all.  They cover UVB rays, but pretty much leave us high and dry when it comes to free radicals.  The problem with insufficient UVA filtering is these are the most dangerous and damaging rays.  Where UVB rays only penetrate the top layer of skin, UVAs penetrate much deeper causing DNA damage.  Of the total UV radiation that gets through the atmosphere, UVB consists of only 3-5%, while UVA radiation constitutes 95-97%.  That's scary!  Fortunately, the manufacturers are feeling the heat (good one!) and will be addressing the UVA situation in the near future.  I want to add that European sunscreens are more advanced than U.S. brands and do offer good UVA protection.  Great news for those living in Europe!

Sun Protection Factor (SPF)

SPF or Sun Protection Factor is a measurement that refers to the amount of time you can spend in the sun without getting sunburned.  So, if you would normally burn within twenty minutes without any sunscreen protection, an SPF of 30 (SPF 30) should allow you to stay in the sun 30 times longer without burning.  Let's see... that would be 600 minutes, which equals 10 hours.  Sounds great, doesn't it?  If it were only true!  Between sweating and swimming and inferior sunscreens, it's unlikely you will not burn with just one application.  SPF numbers are going to be regulated in the U.S. soon, too, so we're not mislead by false advertising.  Choose an SPF based on the amount of time you spend outdoors, and the activities you'll be doing – swimming, running, etc.  Sunscreens labeled at 50+ don't give more protection than those rated below 50, so don't think they're safer.

Chemical Sunscreens vs. Mineral Sunscreens

Chemical Sunscreens vs. Mineral Sunscreens... and nature wins again!  Chemical sunscreens have numerous disadvantages, but the overall problem with them is they absorb the UV rays, where the mineral products reflect them.  Apparently, that's major as far as effectiveness goes.  In addition, many of the chemicals are not safe enough to be absorbed into our skin.  Mineral sunscreens are those whose active ingredients are either titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, and often both.  Have you ever seen a lifeguard with some nasty looking white cream on his nose and lips?  That's a zinc sunscreen, which has been around forever.  From what I understand, zinc is preferred over titanium because it's a little healthier, but along with it comes the whiteness.  Definitely not the look you want at the beach!  So, along comes nano technology, which enables these minerals to be broken down into minuscule particles, eliminating the white coloring.  The vast majority of mineral sunscreens now use nano-minerals; however, the truth is no one's really sure if nano particles are safe or not... and it's not looking good.  Although they are not supposed to be absorbed into the body through healthy, unbroken skin, evidence is beginning to challenge that speculation.  So, gentlemen, I hope you look good in white!  Seriously, I'm not suggesting you avoid nano particles, I just want to give you the information.  And for those who don't mind the whiteness, there still are non-nano mineral sunscreens available.  Back to the UVA situation... some brands contain both chemical and mineral ingredients to give greater UVA protection, since mineral sunscreens are more effective than chemical sunscreens when it comes to filtering UVA rays, so keep an eye open for these brands.

Waterproof

Waterproof should mean it doesn't come off when your skin gets wet from water or sweat.  Again, these claims aren't very accurate, so next year you'll see the term "Broad Spectrum" on bottles instead of waterproof, sweatproof and sunblock.  Sunscreens won't be reformulated, just relabeled; so make sure you continue to apply sunscreen evenly and frequently, especially if you get wet.  In the meantime, look for brands that say "water-resistant" and apply frequently.

I think I covered most of the important facts on sunscreens, and have probably left you unsure of what to use.  So, I've included EWG's sunscreen recommendations and a list of some of their top rated sunscreens... which I should mention are all mineral brands.

EWG's RECOMMENDATIONS:

DO:

  • Choose sunscreens with zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, Mexorly SX, or avobenzone (3%).
  • Choose SPF ratings from 15 to 50.
  • Use lotions and not sprays or powders.
  • Always use water-resistant for the beach or pool.

DON'T:

  • Use sunscreens containing Vitamin A (retinyl palmitate) because it causes cancer in laboratory animals.
  • Avoid sunscreens with oxybenzone because it disrupts hormones and is a skin allergen.
  • Don't use sunscreens with a higher SPF than 50 because it misleads consumers by making us think the product gives us longer sun protection than it actually does.

 

EWG's TOP SUNSCREENS

Sunscreens have been rated based on the safety of their ingredients.  The following list includes some of their top rated products.  For a complete list, go to www.ewg.org

 

No sunscreen completely blocks the sun's radiation, so the best protection is clothing, a hat and shade.  However, since that's not always possible, the next best option is a safe,  effective sunscreen.  Gentlemen, with skin cancer being 5 times more prevalent than prostate cancer in the U.S., we all need to enjoy the sun responsibly.  Have a great summer!

by Aaron Marino

Pete and Pedro

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