Shielding Your Skin: Sunscreen Insights and My Personal Skin Cancer Story

May is skin cancer awareness so let’s talk about sun protection! We’ll review the basic 3 different categories, discuss SPF ratings, and the environmental impact of sunscreen on ocean reefs. And, if you’re completely against any topicals on your skin for sun protection, we’ll discuss how to protect skin from the sun naturally without sunscreen. At the end, I’ll share my personal story with skin cancer.

Who needs sun protection?

The simple answer, everyone! Being proactive about skin protection will help you safely and confidently enjoy the outdoors.

Sun protection is pivotal in preventing all forms of skin cancer. From the most dangerous skin cancer, melanoma, to basal and squamous cell carcinomas, as well as precancerous skin lesions (actinic keratosis). You want to be covered — literally.

You only need 10 minutes of sun exposure to the face and hands to provide the RDA for Vitamin D.

Mineral vs. Chemical vs. Organic Sunscreen

People are increasingly concerned about the ingredients in chemical sunscreens. While misinformation exists, both mineral and chemical sunscreens offer safe, effective options. Here’s a breakdown of their differences:

Mineral Sunscreen

Mineral sunscreens use non-toxic minerals like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide to physically block UV light. They sit on the skin’s surface, acting immediately and not being absorbed. Though traditionally leaving a white tint, with new technologies, companies are now creating product formulas that blend in nicely. These sunscreens can wash off easily, so look for water-resistant versions and reapply frequently. Many mineral sunscreens are “reef safe,” minimizing environmental impact.

Chemical Sunscreen

Chemical sunscreens get a bad rap. You don’t have to worry about harmful chemicals when you choose the right products. Chemical sunscreens are effective and safe when using FDA-approved, reef-friendly ingredients. They require 20-30 minutes to absorb into the skin before becoming effective. These sunscreens often feel lightweight and less greasy, and are commonly water- and sweat-resistant.

Organic Sunscreen

Organic sunscreens contain carbon-based chemicals like oxybenzone, avobenzone, and octinoxate. To be certified organic, they must include at least 70% organic ingredients, noted on the label. In theory, organic sunscreens should have fewer and healthier ingredients than their non-organic counterparts. The terms natural, organic, and mineral can be confusing, but the key is choosing a high-quality product that suits your skin type and activity level. The best sunscreen is the one you will consistently use.

Environmental Effect

Chemical sunscreens harm marine ecosystems, with ingredients like oxybenzone posing significant threats to coral reefs, seagrass habitats, and wildlife. This impact led Hawaii to ban sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate in 2021.

Studies have found oxybenzone, octocrylene, and octinoxate in water sources globally, and these chemicals are difficult to remove. They are also detected in various fish species, raising concerns about potential effects on the food chain.

SPF

SPF measures how much sun exposure causes sunburn compared to unprotected skin, not the time spent in the sun. SPF 30 sunscreen provides 30 times more protection than no sunscreen, but must be reapplied every two hours or after getting wet. SPF indicates protection against UVB rays only, so choose a broad-spectrum product for UVA protection too.

Natural sunscreens typically offer SPF 30 or 40 due to their mineral ingredients. According to Liia Ramachandra, PharmD, Ph.D., you need to reapply every couple of hours with lower SPF mineral sunscreens.

Chemical sunscreens can have higher SPFs, but higher isn’t always better. SPF 30 already blocks 97% of UVB rays, and no sunscreen blocks 100%. High SPF sunscreens also need reapplication every two hours.

Broad-spectrum sunscreens, whether natural or chemical, protect against both UVA and UVB rays. UVA rays cause premature aging and UVB rays cause sunburn, and both can lead to skin cancer.

Plant Oils Will Not Protect You From the Sun

DIY natural sunscreens using plant oils are ineffective for proper sun protection. Despite claims, no plant oils, essential oils, or herbs provide adequate SPF. While oils like coconut and red raspberry seed block some UV rays, their SPF is very low, ranging from 1 to 7, and they don’t block UV rays effectively. Claims of their effectiveness have, quite bluntly, misinterpreted the data. Skip DIY sunscreens to ensure your skin is protected.

Protecting skin without sunscreen

The only way is to cover-up, literally. When possible, wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants and skirts, which can provide protection from UV rays. If wearing this type of clothing isn’t practical, try to wear a T-shirt or a beach cover-up. Clothes made from tightly woven fabric offer the best protection. And don’t forget a big hat.

Statistics for Basal and Squamous Cell Skin Cancers

According to the American Cancer Society, the number of these cancers has been increasing for many years. This is probably from a combination of more awareness and better skin cancer detection, people getting more sun exposure, and people living longer.

According to one estimate, about 5.4 million basal and squamous cell skin cancers are diagnosed each year in the US. About 8 out of 10 of these are basal cell cancers. Squamous cell cancers occur less often.

Although basal and squamous cell skin cancers are common, deaths from these cancers are not. For the US, estimates have ranged from about 2,000 to about 8,000 people each year (mostly from squamous cell skin cancer).

My Personal Story

As a professional athlete, I spent countless hours in tanning beds and sunbathing to achieve the dark tan essential for competitive bodybuilding. This routine was part of my life from my early 20s to late 30s. As a redhead, achieving a deep tan was challenging, but it was crucial for enhancing muscle definition under stage lights.

In my late 40s, I began developing actinic keratosis, a precursor to skin cancer. Skin cancer often manifests years after sun exposure, and I noticed persistent scaly patches that led me to a dermatologist. Due to my tanning history, I had biannual check-ups, during which basal cell carcinoma and later squamous cell carcinoma were discovered. Both required procedures to scrape and burn the affected areas, followed by lab tests to ensure complete removal.

I’ve undergone several sessions of photodynamic therapy (blue light therapy) to treat deeper pre-cancer cells. This treatment is uncomfortable, causing a burning, tingling sensation during the 16-25 minutes under the light.

Fortunately, I have not developed melanoma, thanks to regular dermatologist visits. Annual full-body evaluations by a dermatologist are as crucial as regular check-ups with your general practitioner. They are vital for maintaining your health.

 In Closing

There is a lot of information out there regarding sun protection and sunscreen, both natural and not-so-natural. It can be a confusing subject, simply because there are so much conflicting and mis-information and so many product options.

Remember, though, that the best sunscreen product for you is one that you like, and that feels good on your skin because that is a product you’ll actually use. And it’s that consistent use of your sunscreen that’s going to give you the best protection.

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