How to Use Sunscreen for Better Skin Health
In the last few years, there’s been a lot of ink spilled about the wisdom of using sunscreen with certain chemicals. Depending on who you ask, sunscreen is either one of the most basic, no-brainer health decisions a person can make…or else it’s a big cancer risk. If you’re only interested in the short answer, chemical sunscreens almost surely do more harm than good. While the jury is still out on whether “chemical” sunscreen products present any significant risk of cancer, it’s about as certain as you can get with health statistics that exposing your skin to the sun without any sunscreen at all is worse. Not satisfied with the short answer? Learn more about why and how you and your family should continue to use sunscreen.
What the Research Says about Different Types of Sunscreen
First, you need to know about the two major types of sunscreen products and how to tell them apart. Chemical sunscreens most often deploy one or more of these three active ingredients: oxybenzone, avobenzone, and retinyl palmitate. These chemicals work by absorbing the sun’s UV rays. In contrast, natural or mineral-based sunscreens use titanium dioxide or zinc oxide to reflect the sun’s UV rays away from the skin.
So, do chemical sunscreens cause cancer? There are a limited number of “cellular” studies—what happens in a Petri dish—that suggest oxybenzone can disrupt hormone levels by mimicking estrogen and blocking testosterone. Likewise, female rats that were fed high doses of oxybenzone displayed oversized uteruses, another potential sign of hormone disruption and elevated cancer risks. Yet, the study used very high doses of oxybenzone and was never published in a reputable science or medical journal. Meanwhile, cellular studies are unable to account for the mitigating forces the human body has at its disposal. Moreover, chemical sunscreens that absorb UV rays tend to perform closer to their SPF rating and more effective overall.
Our Advice for Using Sunscreen
Our best advice is to borrow a little from every philosophy. Going outside for a couple hours in the morning or evening or with only intermittent exposure to the sun. You might be going on a shaded, alpine hike, for example. Throw on a quick layer on mineral-based sunscreen. Going to be outside in the middle of the day? Upgrade to fully-leaded chemical sunscreen, or be prepared to reapply your mineral sunscreen at regular intervals. In Colorado, especially, there can be extreme situations in which you need to stay diligent. On a multi-day climb or backpacking trip, we think best practices include at least three applications of sunscreen: Mineral-based sunscreen each morning and evening, while also using higher-potency chemical sunscreens in the middle of the day. If you’d prefer to keep it simple, stick with chemical sunscreens that do a better job of preventing sun damage.
Still, there are limits to which philosophies we recommend borrowing from—and how. Based on your personal preference, cover whatever areas are reasonable to do so with clothing. But also know that it’s not like you have to drape yourself in a thin white bedsheet to keep every inch of your skin out of the sun while also guarding against heat-related illness. While you only need about 10-20 minutes of direct sunlight every two weeks for Vitamin D production, a hypervigilant avoidance of sunlight isn’t necessary—or necessarily healthy. Given the cancer risk that may appear at very high doses, we don’t recommend lathering yourself in chemical sunscreen everyday simply to make your way to and from the car.
Using Sunscreen at Different Ages
At Rocky Mountain Urgent Care, we serve individuals and families of all ages. Here is what you need to know about applying sunscreen to the very young and the somewhat older.
- Pediatric Concerns with Chemical Sunscreens: There is some evidence to suggest that very small children may have trouble producing the necessary enzymes to break down oxybenzone, but even these concerns have been reduced in recent years. The American Academy of Pediatrics now says that, while keeping children younger than 6 months out of direct exposure to the sun is still the best plan, parents can “apply a minimal amount of sunscreen with at least 15 SPF (sun protection factor) on infants under 6 months to small areas, such as the infant's face and the back of the hands.” When in doubt, follow the guidelines on the bottle of sunscreen.
- Increased Risk and Force of Habit as We Get Older: We face increased risk of sun damage and skin cancer as we get older because of both intrinsic and extrinsic aging. In other words, not only do experience an accumulative effect of our past exposure but our bodies also become less effective at repairing damaged tissue. DNA mutations can accelerate, and with it, our risk of skin cancer. Much of the aging process is out of our control. Instead, our advice is to be mindful of odd circumstances and the force of habit. When we start spending the majority of our time inside, it’s easy to forget about the importance of sunscreen on those days when we do go outside.
While our Aurora urgent care walk-in clinic can treat severe sunburns until 9pm, any of our locations and family medicine clinics can answer questions you may have about preventing skin cancer and your long-term dermatological health. Find the Rocky Mountain Urgent Care clinic that’s closest you.