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Is sunscreen the new margarine? - Rowan Jacobsen
“Don’t forget to put on your sun screen.”
How many times have you heard these words when preparing for a beach day or even for some outdoor activity on a bright and beautiful day? How often have you spoken these same words yourself, in order to protect your loved ones and warn them of the dangers from the harmful effects of exposure to sunlight?
Wait a minute. Are we talking about the same sun that supplies our solar system with light and energy and makes life possible right here on planet Earth? Is this not the same sun that warms our atmosphere and heals our very souls?
Yes, we’re talking about that sun and that sunlight. We’ve known for decades now that ultraviolet (UV) rays are dangerous to the skin, which happens to be the body’s largest organ. Not only do they damage the tissue, break down the elasticity, and age you prematurely, but they also cause cells to mutate and become cancerous. Although most skin cancers are either basal cell or squamous cell carcinomas, which can make a mess of your appearance and cause disfiguring. However, they won’t travel to other parts of your body and eventually kill you the way that melanoma, a malignant mutation of a mole that grows with exposure to UV light, does.
It wasn’t that long ago that so many of the lighter skinned among us were obsessed with getting that “perfect tan”. We would slather our bodies with what seemed like gallons of palm and coconut oil, making sure that we didn’t miss even one square inch of exposable skin. In essence, what we were doing was deep-frying ourselves. The irony in this scenario was that while a significant number of people living in Asia and other parts of the Third World were trying their hardest to lighten their skin, so many of us in the West were doing our darnedest to get in touch with our “inner sun bunnies”.
Yes, we were looking for the deepest, darkest shade of ourselves that we could possibly find. A good tan was synonymous with a healthy self-image. “Coppertone” was the name of the game, and if it meant getting burnt and blistered to get there, well so be it.
Strange as it may seem, we are now finding that not only is too much sun bad for you, but the use of sunscreen actually puts you in more danger of contracting cancer. Let’s go over some fundamentals here. First, let’s differentiate between sunblock and sunscreen. Sunblock, which is usually white or opaque in color, uses physical particles to prevent the UV rays from getting to your skin; they actually form a physical barrier. You can think of overalls and a parka as being the ultimate sunblock. Of course, keeping entirely out of the sun by staying indoors achieves the same result.
Sunscreen, on the other hand, does not use a physical shield to protect the skin, but rather uses certain chemicals to absorb the UV rays instead of allowing them to burn the dermal layers. Sunscreen uses SPF (Sun Protection Factor) as a measure of how effective it is in preventing your skin from burning. The higher the SPF, the less chance you will get burnt. For instance, SPF-50 means it would take fifty times as long for you to burn as it would if you didn’t use sunscreen at all. Therefore, if it takes twenty minutes for you to burn without using anything as a screen, then it would take 1000 minutes to burn using sunscreen-50.
There are two kinds of ultraviolet (UV) rays that damage the skin. UV-B burns the skin and sunburns can lead directly to cancer. Scientists now believe that sunscreen of any SPF, no matter how high, has no ability to protect the skin from UV-A rays and the resulting deeper penetration by these rays can be directly linked to both basal cell cancer and the much more lethal melanoma.
How lethal is melanoma? Today it is the leading cause of skin cancer and is responsible for over 7000 deaths in the U.S. annually. Between 1973 and 2011, the mortality rate has increased by 200 per cent. Because sunscreen does not protect you from UV-A rays, even if you used “Center of the Earth” Sunscreen1Billion, you would not be any safer from contracting melanoma by exposing yourself to too much sunlight.
Ironically enough, melanin, a pigment substance found naturally in the skin which aids in blocking out harmful UV radiation, can also help promote skin cancers. It is the presence of melanin which makes the incidence of melanoma twenty times less frequent in Afro-Americans and four times less in Hispanics when compared to Caucasian Americans. Researchers at Yale University have found, however, that oxygen and nitrogen molecules can energise an electron in melanin after exposure to UV light which can lead to DNA lesions typical of cancer-causing mutations. This damage can occur one second after exposure to UV (from the sun or from tanning beds and salons) and up to four hours afterwards, even in a completely darkened room.
As if danger to humans isn’t enough reason to go easy on sunscreen, coral reefs and the extensive ecosystems they support are also threatened. Fourteen thousand tons of sunscreen are deposited in the earth’s oceans annually. Among other substances found in sunscreen, oxybenzone is a synthetic molecule which is toxic to corals, algae, sea urchins, fish, and mammals. A single drop of oxybenzone in four million gallons of sea water can endanger these organisms. As a result, several nations have placed a ban on the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone as well as octinoxate. Just a year ago, the state of Hawaii also legislated a similar law to ban the sale of coral-destroying sunscreens.
Another threat to coral reefs comes from the minerals deposited in sunscreens and sunblocks. These help catalyze the production of hydrogen peroxide, a bleaching agent, and can destroy algae which act as a symbiotic source of energy for the coral organisms. As a result of this bleaching process, the reefs are prone to viral infection.
To keep coral reefs mineral-safe, scientists recommend that sunscreens must contain zinc oxide and titanium dioxide as mineral sunblocks and that all minerals must be larger than 100 nanometres in size in order to be reef-safe and non-digestible by corals.
So next time you lecture someone about making sure they apply lots of sunscreen before heading to the beach, or the next time you sacrifice your body to that great tanning bed in your nearest strip mall, consider this: save your own hide and you might also be aiding in saving the planet.
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