An intriguing new study finds that cases of the deadly skin cancer melanoma is increasing in young women of all socioeconomic levels, but that young women living in the most affluent and sunny neighborhoods were nearly six times more likely to be diagnosed with the melanoma than those living in the poorest and sunny neighborhoods. Why? The lead researcher mentioned previous studies showing that the well-to-do have more leisure time and disposable income to spend outdoor recreation and tanning parlors.
In any case, it’s a timely reminder that a skin-safe summer means blocking the sun’s aging, cancer-causing, ultraviolet (UV) rays by covering up with clothing and hats, seeking the shade, and stocking up on good green goop. Although sunscreen ought to be applied year-round, we tend to spend more time outdoors and expose more skin in summer.
I also just learned that we can sustain UV damage even in the absence of strong direct sun. Although it’s well known that UVB, the rays that cause sunburn, are strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., UVA, the aging rays, can do damage at any time of day—even during overcast weather and through glass. (From now on, I’m donning my sunblock along with my rash guard when I paddle out to surf in the early morning and evening.)
The consequences of too much UV exposure range from premature wrinkles and age spots to skin cancer. The most common form of cancer in the U.S., one in five of us will develop skin cancer in our lifetimes. In 2010, one million new cases of skin cancer were diagnosed, including about 68,130 potentially lethal melanomas, up to 90% of which are caused by UV rays, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
So get serious about sunscreen and find ones made with ingredients that are better for your health and the environment. When you can, choose natural mineral blocks and avoid the more risky synthetic ingredients using the guidelines below.
Natural Mineral Sunblocks with Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide - In its just-released 2011 sunscreen report, EWG says mineral sunblocks top its ratings because of their high effectiveness at blocking UVA as well as UVB, and low rates of skin penetration.
Oxybenzone/ Benzophenone-3 - A suspected hormone-disrupter that behaves like estrogen, it has high skin allergy rates. BP-3 has been linked to bleaching of coral reefs and proven to interfere with reproductive systems in fish.
Octyl Methoxycinnamate - It has moderate allergy rates, and also acts like estrrogen and is linked to coral bleaching.
Padimate O - It damages DNA along with causing some allergic reactions.
Retinyl Palmitate/Vitamin A - When applied to skin exposed to light, it has been found to increase risk of skin cancers.
Paraben Preservatives - These mimic estrogen and have been found to stimulate growth of breast cancer cells in the lab.
Fragrance - This labeling term can cover up the presence of toxic phthalates.
Safe Product Picks
Happily, the marketplace now abounds with many green full spectrum (UVB/UVA) sunscreens in a broad spectrum of price ranges.
My Personal Best Blocks: As a lifelong surfer, I’ve tested quite a few sunscreens for effectiveness and aquatic staying power.
Whole Living Editors’ Picks: A list of favorite green sunscreens chosen by experts.
EWG’s 2011 Sunscreen Rankings: Talk about comprehensive! EWG vetted and rated 500 sunscreens.
More Sun Protection Tips
Seek the shade. Avoid direct sun as much as possible. And keep newborns out of the sun--sunscreens should not be used on babies younger than six months.
Cover up with clothing. Bright- or dark-colored clothes reflect more UV radiation than pastels and whites. Tightly woven cloth also provides a better sun barrier. A shirt or rash guard with an UPF of 30 means that just 1/30th of ambient UV can reach the skin.
Wear a hat. Happily, they’re back in style, being sported by royals and rappers. Make yours broad-brimmed for as much shade on your face as possible.
Shade your eyes. See Whole Living’s tips for finding the best UV-blocking sunglasses.
Check out the Skin Cancer Foundation's website for more information.
Mindy Pennybacker is Whole Living’s “Econundrums” columnist. See her answers to reader questions and ask your own here. She is also editor of GreenerPenny.com and author of Do One Green Thing: Saving the Earth Through Simple, Everyday Choices.