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Safe sunscreen a dilemma for Canadian sun seekers

by Doris Penner

           Escaping the cold for a week or two in winter has become the norm for Canadians. Usually, it's not so about the exact holiday spot as long as there's sun, sand and warm breezes. This sudden transport to a location closer to the equator—and the sun—brings with it a dilemma. The temptation is to stake out your place on the beach—soaking up the sun as much as possible—and leave the spot only for meals and cold drinks. One can't miss the chance to absorb the warmth of the sun's rays and fix the golden tan to help carry you through the rest of the winter. However, there are some serious dangers in over exposure to the sun such as raising the risk of skin cancer and aging of the skin. Okay so you slather on sunscreen in the morning and reapply after you go into the water—this may protect you to a point, but can do serious damage to the environment. Fortunately, there is a solution that allows one to enjoy sunlight as well as ensure safety for people and the environment.

            It must be noted that getting an overdose of sunlight has never been good news. Do you remember how you felt as a child after a long day at the beach? Your body seemed hot through and through, and in fact, was sore to the touch. This was a case of sunburn which mitigated after a few days, leaving you with peeling skin. A longer-term effect of over-exposure to the sun is premature aging of the skin which may include development of wrinkles, liver spots and actinic keratoses (rough skin patches).

Exposure to rays

            These types of consequences pale in comparison to the increased risk of skin cancer. In fact, research scientists tell us that most skin cancers are a direct result of exposure to the ultraviolet (UV) rays of the sun, particularly UVB rays. The most common types of skin cancer form in the basal and squamous cells found at the base of the outer layer of skin—which can usually be cured if found and treated early.

            The more serious type of skin cancer is melanoma that begins in the melanocytes, the cells that produce skin pigment or melanin. This is far more aggressive than other skin cancers and causes most skin cancer deaths. While the link to sun exposure isn't quite as direct as for other skin cancer, studies point strongly in that direction. Be aware that signs of sun damage such as liver spots or rough or discoloured blotches may be precancerous and should be monitored.

            So although one shouldn't shun the beach when on a winter holiday, it is important to practice sun safety. Find shade for a good portion of the day, and wear protective clothing when feasible. For example, if playing volleyball or walking on the beach, wear a T-shirt or cover-up. A hat with a brim will go a long way to shading your face, ears and the back of the neck.

            Most importantly get into the habit of wearing sunscreen if you plan to be outdoors for more than 15 or 20 minutes—whether the day is sunny or cloudy. Do not skimp and reapply every two hours—more often if you go swimming.

Penetrating the skin

            Sunscreen is designed to absorb UV rays to prevent them from penetrating the skin. Make sure the sunscreen you use offers protection against both UVA rays (those responsible for the “aging” of the skin) and UVB rays (most likely to cause skin cancer), labeled as “broad spectrum.” Sunscreens are rated by the strength of their sun protection factor (SPF)—the number referring to the product's ability to screen or block out UVB rays. Take note that sunscreens with higher SPF ratings block out more UVB rays but none offer 100 percent protection. The best advice is to use a sunscreen with a rating of SPF 15 (which blocks out 93 percent of UVB rays) or SPF 30 (which blocks out 97 percent of UVB rays).

            One of the concerns with mainstream (the majority) of sunscreens is the composition of chemicals in the ingredients, which may block dangerous solar rays, but can be harmful to the body in other ways such as potentially interfering with the endocrine system (hormones) and raising risks for cancer. Recently, there has been a huge concern about the damage sunscreen is doing to coral reefs and marine life—something most tourists remain oblivious to. First of all, oils in sunblocks settle on the water, and in volume act like an oil slick, suffocating reefs and sea creatures living below. In addition, ingredients such as oxybenzone, octinoxate and butylparaben promote viral infections in the coral which causes algae to die. This in turn bleaches the coral since algae is responsible for the vibrant colours. It is estimated about 5000 tons of sunscreen wash off swimmers yearly. This together with climate change factors (causing rises in temperature in marine waters) is putting about 25 percent of marine corals in imminent danger of collapse.

            Biogradable sunscreen—lacking harmful ingredients and thus minimizing damage to fragile ecosystems—is available in some Canadian health foodstores as well as at tropical resorts. Be prepared since regulations in many resorts allow only those with biodegradable sunscreen to take part in water activities such as scuba diving or snorkeling tours.