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You don’t have to shun the sun – just respect it

Kristine Berey

July 2011

We all remember those golden days of summer, when, to ensure optimal health, we were urged to spend as much time outside as possible.

With increasing awareness of the link between sun exposure and skin cancer, spending time in the sun now requires protection and with the first days of good weather, the smell of sunscreen is ubiquitous on beaches, in parks and even downtown.

But how much protection does sunscreen actually afford? Are there some that are better than others? Could any of them be dangerous? How much needs to be applied, and how often? By next year, consumers will have a better idea of which sunscreen to choose to fit their needs.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued new rules regarding clarity and accuracy of sunscreen labeling this month, which will go into effect in one year, and it is calling on Canada to follow suit.

Manufacturers will be required to provide protection for ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B rays to claim they are “broad spectrum” sunscreens. While UVB rays cause sunburn and UVA rays hasten premature aging, both can cause cancer and experts have called products that only protect against UVB “dangerous.”

They will not be allowed to say their product is “waterproof” or to describe it as a “sunblock.” The FDA says these terms are misleading because they “overstate the product’s effectiveness.” Manufacturers can claim their product is “water resistant” and will have to specify the number of minutes this protection lasts.

In order to claim protection against skin cancer, a product will need a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) number of 15 and over, a rule already in force in Canada. Dermatologists say anything less is ineffective.

The FDA has proposed that SPF numbers be limited to 50, but has not made it a rule so far. Some dermatologists say the higher the number, the more protection there is, while others say protection does not rise significantly with the SPF number. With higher numbers, consumers are exposed to unnecessary sunscreen ingredients without significant protection.

Attention has been focused on two chemicals, oxybenzone, which some believe is a hormone disrupter, and retinyl palmitate, a vitamin A derivative that, in an FDA study on mice, has been shown to increase the risk of cancer when used on skin exposed to sunlight. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, there have been no reliable human studies.

The Canadian Cancer Society is “not concerned” about oxybenzone in sunscreen, according to its website.

Deene Dlusy-Apel of Breast Cancer Action Montreal says it’s important to apply the precautionary principle when in doubt rather than ignore new evidence that does not yet have scientific backup, because proving a substance to be carcinogenic—as in the case of cigarettes or asbestos—usually happens over time.

“We have known for a very long time about hormone-disrupting chemicals in sunscreens. We should check ingredients on the Skin Deep website before we apply anything to our very porous skin.”

With 80,000 cases of skin cancer expected this year, the Environmental Working Group says on its Skin Deep website that sunscreen is necessary. “Public health agencies still recommend using sunscreens, just not as your first line of defense against the sun. At EWG we use sunscreens, but we look for shade, wear protective clothing and avoid the noontime sun before we smear on the cream.” EWG:

Canadian Dermatology Association:



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