The Sun and My Take on Exposure, Overexposure and Tanning

“What’s right is not always popular, what’s popular is not always right.” –Howard Cossell

Surely that quote can be related to an endless amount of life experiences. But have you ever considered relating it to the sun? Intentional tanning (which we’ll call ‘overexposure’) is definitely popular, especially among today’s youth, and most specifically among young women. But is it right?

It seems that as a whole, we’re in a huge debate about the effects of the sun on our skin. Skin cancer being the most prevalent effect scared into us today. So what’s the dermatologist endorsed solution to the problem? Sunscreen every day, applied every few hours. More often if you’re actually outside.  Far be it from me to speak up here, since I’m not a doctor, but isn’t that a classic example of ‘one extreme to the other’?

Chew on this. Human beings NEED vitamin D. Vitamin D is a vitamin that is essential for our body to function properly. There is no question about it. Where does our main source of vitamin D come from? The sun. Not food, not drink, but the sun. Our bodies produce all of the natural vitamin D we need directly from sunlight interacting with our skin.  So to cover up completely, wear sunscreen everyday, reapply 6 or more times per day, and continue this behavior even through the winter seems for lack of a better word, stupid.

If we follow our dermatologists advice, where is it that we get our vitamin D from? My guess is that we don’t get it at all.

What’s better advice? Well not being a doctor, my best guess would be that better advice would come from finding some place in between the two extremes of all out intentional tanning, and ‘Casper the friendly ghost’ sun phobia. Think along the lines of wearing sunscreen at the beach, but not at the office. Maybe rubbing some on while poolside, but not to go walk the dog. You get what I’m saying.

Ok so we’ve tackled the sun issue, and figured out that extremes are rarely, if ever good and that there’s a time for sunscreen, and a time for sun. But here’s where we run into another problem.

Chemicals. The word chemical has basically been accepted as a bad word. When you hear chemical you don’t ever think of something happy or good. For example, you wouldn’t smile if someone told you that you were eating ‘chemicals’. You would want to wear gloves if you had to touch ‘chemicals’. And you wouldn’t want a ‘chemical’ in your eye. Am I right?

Well then consider the fact that with every application of sunscreen, we’re smearing our bodies with chemicals that we as the public, know little about. Let’s face it this stuff definitely isn’t harmless like for example, soap. It’s a concoction of chemical compounds that’s ever changing, that we know little about.

However, there are people that do know about the chemicals in sunscreen. The FDA for example, studied a chemical found in many sunscreen brands (go check yours, now) called retinyl palmitate, which is a vitamin A derivative. What’s so bad about it you’re wondering? Well, 10 years ago the FDA tested retinyl palmitate on animals in the lab. To make a long study short, they found that this chemical found in many sunscreens not only did not in any way prevent skin cancer, it increased the speed and growth of cancer. The FDA is still, 10 years later, considering what to do about this problem.

Another negative development on the sunscreen front. Nanoparticles.

100,000 times smaller that the diameter of a human hair, nanoparticles are a great feat of engineering. However, not all great feats of engineering belong rubbed on your skin. Zinc oxide nanoparticles and titanium dioxide nanoparticles are found in many sunscreens. The purpose of them being ‘nano sized’ is to allow the sunscreen to rub in clear on your skin instead of white.

The danger? Several studies have found that these particles are so small that they have no problem penetrating skin and directly entering your blood and urine. What can they do while they’re in there? Zinc oxide NP’s (nanoparticles) can kill brain stem cells. Titanium dioxide NP’s can change genes in pregnant mice. Zinc oxide NP’s are toxic to colon cells, even in small quantities. Autistic disorders, epilepsy, and Alzheimer’s disease and been linked to Titanium dioxide. And nanoparticles can cross into human placentas from mothers causing damage to unborn children. Keep in mind that these studies are peer reviewed and are publiched in scientific journals.

So maybe you’re like me, and you’re wondering how the FDA could still allow these chemicals to be used in sunscreen. Well that I don’t know. The FDA’s response to inquiry? “FDA components are conducting research that focuses on nanomaterials such as titanium dioxide in the nanoscale.” They were also quoted saying If information were to indicate that additional safety evaluation or other regulatory action is warranted, we would work with all parties to take the steps appropriate to ensure the safety of marketed products.”

Here’s another bit of interesting information from Michael Hansen, a senior scientist for Consumers Union. “Three summers ago, a law was passed requiring the FDA to develop new sunscreen guidelines for safety and labeling. Here we are at the start of another summer season and still no word from the FDA, leaving consumers in the dark about the safety and efficacy of the sunscreens they use.”

There is clearly a danger from chemicals in many sunscreen products, and the lack of FDA regulation means that the labels on these products may not even identify that these chemicals are present. Consumers Union (which publishes Consumer Reports) has said that its tests of sunscreen products showed 80 percent of tested sunscreen products that claimed not to contain nanoparticles, actually did. If that’s not scary, I don’t know what is. Not only does this show something that we already knew, that many businesses (as well as packaging labels) can’t be trusted, but it also shows that through lack of swift action it’s becoming increasingly harder for us to rely on the FDA to protect us.

I know this is a bit much, and it’s quite a bit longer than I usually write, but I think it’s that important.

So what can we do as far as sunscreen goes? All we can do for now, is try our best to use safe products. Keep up to date with online searches for safe sunscreen products. Look for products that contain no retinyl palmitate and no nanoparticles. Be weary of labels though. Try to shop from brands you trust, and brands other users recommend. Also keep up to date with Consumer Reports to find products that live up to their claims, and their labels claims.

If you’re as tired of all of this as I am, you’re at the point right now where you’re wondering what to do about all of this. How do you interact with the sun on a daily basis?

Here’s my advice. Tanning beds are super concentrated ultraviolet light machines. No matter what anyone at a tanning salon says, common sense says they aren’t safe. A machine that in a matter of minutes can pump the same amount of ultraviolet light onto your skin that would normally take the sun hours to do is an obvious risk. However, spending those hours in direct sunlight tanning your self is not any better. Again, you’re exposing yourself to the same UV light. But rest assured, the sun is good. We’ve been living in the sun as long as humans have walked the Earth, and to make a claim that we should shade ourselves from it sunrise to sunset is absolutely ridiculous. Anyone who can’t see that, doctor or not, needs to get their eyes checked.

Moderation is the key. Not too much, not too little. Sunlight is our lifeblood. Without it, we wouldn’t exist. Overexposure to it for vanity presents risks, but so does underexposure. Drinking too much water poses a serious risk to your body, but does that mean you shouldn’t drink any water? No way. Be smart, and be safe.

As a disclaimer, I have to mention again, that I’m not a doctor. My advice is not medical advice; it’s just my opinion based on common sense as I interpret it. Always talk to your doctor about your risks and if your doctor has advised you to do something, or to not do something for a specific reason, talk to them before you do otherwise.

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