Let’s talk about the sun. Have you looked at it lately? HA, gotcha! Trick question–you’re not supposed to look at that sun unless you want to burn your eyes out of your sockets. Moving on…
I just finished up winter term at Andover, and one of the classes I had taken was Environmental Chemistry (shout-out to Mr. Maqubela!). I will not bore you with the intricacies, but one of the things we learned was that essentially we have been ruining our natural protection from the sun’s UV radiation (the ozone layer). As such, we have a greater exposure to UVA and UVB rays (UVC rays are filtered out when they hit oxygen molecules, creating oxygen radicals that further react with other diatomic oxygen molecules to form the ozone that makes our ozone layer, so we need not worry about those) than not only our cavemen ancestors, but also our kin from not so long ago (think pre-Industrial Revolution). And since these UV rays cause visible damage (sunburn) as well as invisible damage (mutations in our DNA that lead to cancer), this is a big problem, especially for those who spend a lot of time out on the beach or in the sun. Sadly, I cannot include
myself in this group, as (in the words of my favorite comedian) I don’t tan, I just burst into flames.
By now, you’re probably all thinking, “So what? That’s what sunscreen is for!” And you would be right. Sort of. Allow me to explain. Traditional sunscreens have what is called a Sun Protection Factor, which indicates how long you can stay in the sun without getting sunburn, as compared to how long you would have to stay in the sun to get a sunburn if you were not wearing sunscreen. However, other factors need to be taken into consideration (skin type, time of day, reapplications, etc.) , so it’s not a perfect system. The other problem is that this measure only takes into consideration UVB rays–the type that causes sunburn. UVA rays–the type that causes aging and can mutate cell DNA–are not blocked by traditional sunscreens. Then along came broad-spectrum sunscreens.
Broad-spectrum sunscreens do offer protection against both UVA and UVB rays. They often contain zinc dioxide, titanium dioxide, or avobenzone, which are all fairly effective. However, as per usual, there are still issues. Avobenzone degrades fairly quickly when exposed to light and radiation (further reading on this here, here, here, and here), and as such must be stabilized with other compounds, often octocrylene. However, octocrylene, among others, has been found to have the ability to seep into the skin and increase free radical production. Free radicals are mutagenic and, consequently, carcinogenic. In addition, titanium and zinc compounds can come in the form of nanoparticles, which also seep into the skin and bloodstream and cause oxidative stress and cell damage. Not good.
So now what? Well, our European brethren seem to have taken a step in the right direction. In fact, we Americans are way behind the times when it comes to skin protection. The European Union has approved Tinosorb (2000) and Mexoryl (1991) that have proven to be safer, much more effective UVA blockers. The FDA, meanwhile, has not approved Tinosorb, and Mexoryl was just approved in 2006, although to a limited extent. Moreover, the EU has a system where sunscreens are required to have certain levels of UVA and UVB protection; the US merely requires you to display the UVB protection factor, and ignores the UVA protection level entirely.
My suggestion? Take a look at Canadian or European sunscreens. Make sure they indicate a UVA protection factor (otherwise denoted as PPD). Bioderma Photoderm MAXappears to be a really good brand based on everything I’ve read, so I think I’m going to give it a try. Yes, they’re more expensive, but isn’t the extra dough worth the prevention of damaged skin and possible melanomas, which are rising in the US at an alarming rate? I think so.
Furthermore, even the most modern, cutting-edge sunscreens (like Bioderma) contain some substances like octocrylene and nanoparticles that can elicit free radical production. Antioxidants have long been known to combat free radicals, but what you might not know is that they now come in a topical solution for your skin. Most topical antioxidant formulas contain Vitamin C, Ferulic Acid (studies here, here, and here), Phloretin, and sometimes Vitamin E. Skinceuticals seems to sell the best product, albeit it is very expensive. I don’t recommend this investment as highly as the sunscreen–mostly because of the price–but if you’ve got the cash and are really invested in your skin health, go for it. It should be noted, however, that antioxidants do not appear to REVERSE free radical damage, rather they PREVENT future free radical damage. Hence this study, where women ages 35-60 were given antioxidants and were actually found to have INCREASED incidences of skin cancer. Researchers concluded that at that stage in life and after prolonged sun exposure, it is too late to prevent cell damage and not possible to reverse it.
I want to close by saying that you do need some sun exposure to stay healthy. 5-10 minutes daily with no sunscreen (again, depending on the time of day, your skin type, etc) should be enough to generate all the Vitamin D you’ll need. And that’s all for today amigos y amigas. Summer is fast approaching, so enjoy the warm, sunny weather. Responsibly, of course.