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Sun, Safety, Sunscreens and Cancer - An oncology specialist's view

by Keith I. Block, M.D.

Keith I. Block, MD, is an internationally recognized expert in integrative oncology. Dr. Block combines cutting-edge conventional treatment with individualized and scientifically-based complementary and nutraceutical therapies. In 1980, he co-founded the Block Center for Integrative Cancer Treatment in Evanston, Illinois, the first such facility in North America, and serves as its Medical and Scientific Director.

As we reach the peak season of the summer sun, wisdom suggests that we pay greater attention to protecting our skin. Yet, there are questions about the best way to do this. Should we avoid the sun? Is all sun exposure bad for us? Are all sunscreens created equal? Does clothing afford any protection? On one hand, we've all been warned of the dangers that lurk behind those healthy-looking tans -- most notably, an increased risk of skin cancer and premature wrinkles. On the other hand, there is also reasonable evidence that sun exposure does not induce melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. In fact, there are several studies that demonstrate sun exposure can actually protect us from cancer! To be specific, the exposure to UVB sun radiation has been shown to reduce the risk of 19 major types of cancer through the production of vitamin D!

So what's a bikini to do?!

I think it's important we all try to get 20 minutes of unprotected sun-to-skin exposure every day. This is essential for meeting our most basic needs for Vitamin D. Once this is taken care of, I recommend both physical protection; i.e., hats, clothing and umbrellas, as well as chemical protection -- sunscreens. However, it must be mentioned that many sunscreens on the market today have come under fire not only due to inaccurate labeling -- a product states it has an SPF (Sun Protection Factor) of 50 and it's actually a four -- but many have been found to contain a host of controversial chemicals that include potential carcinogens, cancer promoters, free radical generators and hormone disruptors. In addition, the use of sunscreen is known to reduce the production of Vitamin D in the body.

Tip: Try and get 20 minutes of unprotected sun exposure daily.

Recently, The Environmental Working Group, a non-profit organization with the mission of using the power of public information to protect public health and the environment, came out with a fairly disconcerting report about sunscreens. EWG researchers recommended only 39 of 500 (that's only 8 percent!) beach and sport sunscreens for this season. The reason? As the word got out that the higher the SPF the better, there was a surge among manufacturers misrepresenting that their products contained an SPF over 50. Additionally, there have been new disclosures addressing potentially hazardous ingredients. In particular, recent government data has linked the common sunscreen ingredient vitamin A to accelerated development of skin tumors and lesions.

According to EWG, the best sunscreen is a hat and a shirt. No worries about chemicals that will be absorbed through the skin, and no question about their effectiveness. But if you choose to wear a "teenie weenie yellow polka dotted bikini," or any clothing that provides only partial skin coverage, EWG suggests using sunscreens that provide broad-spectrum (UVA and UVB-sunburn) protection, as well as those that contain fewer hazardous chemicals. For a list of their recommendations, go here.

Tip: Make every effort to avoid burning your skin. There is sufficient data to know that sun burns cause serious, long-term damage.

In an effort to make a wise decision regarding which sunscreen to purchase, many consumers look for The Skin Cancer Foundation's "seal of approval." However, this shouldn't be the sole criteria you use to make a purchasing decision. According to the EWG, The Skin Cancer Foundation (SCF) lends its logo to hundreds of sun protection products that have not necessarily been thoroughly scrutinized.

My Advice: Get 20 minutes of unprotected sun exposure daily. Even on cloudy days, you can still get up to 80 percent UV rays and boost your production of vitamin D.

Make every effort to avoid sunburns. Be particularly cautious during mid-day sun exposure or near water where reflections can increase exposure and risk of burns. This can lead to skin damage and injury. Extensive research demonstrates that sunburns -- and particularly repeated burns -- cause serious, long-term damage. Cover up! The use of hats, shirts and umbrellas offer safe and effective protection from the sun.

Buyer beware. Before purchasing a sunscreen, consult with a website such as to ensure you are purchasing a product that is both safe and effective.

Check that the ones you use are among the list of the top sunscreens, as reviewed and recommended by the Environmental Working Group. They provide broad-spectrum protection and fewer potentially hazardous chemicals. None are powdered or sprayed on, or contain oxybenzone or Vitamin A. These lists are occasionally updated; check with the website for their most current recommendations.


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