Here comes summer, and after last winter’s endless storms, who isn’t cheering? But before you spin vintage Beach Boys vinyl or park your towel in a sunny spot, we have a public-service announcement: Pick up some sunscreen, pronto. There’s a brand-new, rock-solid reason to coat your body with this healthy stuff.
An Australian study has confirmed, in flashing neon lights, a message we hope you have memorized: Slathering on sunscreen daily makes you 50 percent less likely to develop melanoma, the most deadly of all skin cancers, and 70 percent less likely to develop invasive melanoma, the worst of its kind. You couldn’t ask for more convincing evidence: The volunteers were from a part of Australia that has the highest rates of skin cancer in the world.
We’re hoping that will light a fire under your flip-flops, if nothing else has. Because, despite years of sun-safety campaigns that make stop-smoking advocates look like slackers, melanoma rates have shot up 45 percent. And two less-risky types of skin cancer (squamous cell and basal cell) are up 16 percent. Yes, genes play some role in this, but sun exposure (including tanning beds) is responsible for 65 percent of melanoma.
“OK, YOU Docs,” we hear what you’re saying, “but which sunscreens are safe AND effective AND not goopy?” Smart questions. Here’s an update on last summer’s sunscreen-cancer controversies and what you should buy this year.
Controversial ingredients. Some (not all) researchers have raised red flags about two absorbable sunscreen ingredients: oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate (a form of vitamin A).
Both are found in hundreds of sunscreens. The concerns? Very briefly: Oxybenzone, which has been used in sunscreens as a partial UVA/UVB shield since 1978, has been called a hormone disruptor that mimics the effects of estrogen in lab studies. Retinyl palmitate has triggered genetic mutations when exposed to sunlight in the lab. In other words, one or both might have a cancer connection. The dangers of these ingredients have been disputed by the American Academy of Dermatology and others. We think: Until the research is clear, we’re sticking with sunscreens that use nanoparticulated zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to block UVA/UVB rays. Not only do they work instantly and stay put well, but, unlike chemical sunscreens, neither is absorbed. The tiny nano-sized particles help prevent a chalky look.
SPF “inflation.” There’s a decent case to be made that the Sun Protection Factor numbers on many sunscreens may be too high and create a false sense of security. But even if they’re dead accurate, few people apply sunscreens perfectly or use nearly enough. So squirt on a lot and go high, not low. Although technically an SPF 30 filters out only 4 percent more UVB rays than an SPF 15 (97 percent versus 93 percent), if you go with an SPF 30 (higher if you burn easily), you also get better protection against UVA rays. They’re the kind that penetrate deeper and cause skin damage that leads to wrinkles and cancer. We say: An SPF 30 is the bare minimum you should use.
Mystery UVA protection. That familiar SPF number measures only protection from burning UVB rays. Despite years of wrangling and thumb-twiddling, the Food and Drug Administration still doesn’t require sunscreen makers to list UVA protection levels. So you have to scour the ingredients list for UVA blockers. For the record, these include avobenzone, dioxybenzone, ecamsule, meradimate, the aforementioned oxybenzone, sulisobenzone — and zinc dioxide and titanium dioxide. We like sunscreens that use nanoparticulated zinc oxide. It creates an instant physical barrier against UVA/UVB rays.
Wallet-busting prices. You can easily plunk down $20, $30 or more for a fancy brand, but spending a bundle could backfire because you’re likely to use it sparingly. Fact is, adults need to apply at least 1 full ounce and then reapply it every few hours or after swimming or sweating. Buy inexpensive brands so you spread it on thickly and repeatedly.
Goop avoidance. Excuses for skipping sunscreen are disappearing faster than souvenir teacups commemorating Kate and William’s royal wedding. Drugstores are jammed with choices: spray-on or rub-in; fragrance-free or scented; tinted or transparent; oil-free or creamy; sturdy enough for sweaty sports or gentle enough for tiny tots; anti-acne or anti-aging. All you have to do? Choose it and use it.
The YOU Docs, Mehmet Oz and Mike Roizen, are authors of “YOU: On a Diet.” Want more? See “The Dr. Oz Show” on TV. To submit questions, go to www.RealAge.com.