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How to Sunbathe Safely

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Soon we will see summer's fading days and the seasonal end of our culture's annual fixation with slathering sunscreen products on exposed skin in pursuit of 'safety' or vanity.

You have all heard -- and probably warned your children -- what will happen if they don't use sunscreens. Not only will they get sunburned, their skin will get wrinkled and aged prematurely.

But what if you were warned that the dangers of sunscreens to health, besides the environment, outweigh their proclaimed benefits? Your first response would probably be incredulity. How can a product that's been championed by health agencies the world over possibly be a threat?

The answer hinges on a state of denial, and a false sense of security. This reflects ignorance of the toxic effects of sunscreen ingredients.

Sunscreens absorb short-wave ultraviolet light, which is responsible for sunburn. However, they do nothing to block long-wave ultraviolet radiation which is the major cause of a skin cancer, known as malignant melanoma. A Sun Protection Factor (SPF) was introduced in 1962 as an international standard for measuring how much protection sunscreen products are supposed to afford. So a SPF of 25 claims that you can stay safely in the sunshine for 25 times longer than if you had not applied the sunscreen.

However, there are two glaring problems with reliance on the SPF standard. First, swimming and sweating sharply reduce the effectiveness of sunscreens, so they must be applied repeatedly during exposure to sun. How many people actually do this? Second, the SPF number labeled on sunscreens is determined by laboratory tests based on an internationally agreed application rate. However, most people use only a fraction of the required amount -between 10 and 75 percent of the lab test quantity -- which renders the listed SPF number meaningless and ineffective. All this means that people using sunscreens are encouraged to remain in the sun far longer than is safe. This is the reason why, since 1975, the incidence of malignant melanoma has increased by about 200 percent in white men and women, and its mortality has increased by about 10 percent. Dark skin races are largely protected by pigment, known as melanin, which largely blocks long-wave ultraviolet radiation.

Another major and generally unrecognized problem with sunscreens is due to their undisclosed toxic ingredients.

As detailed in Toxic Beauty, sunscreen products contain unlabeled dangerous ingredients. These products are also labeled with false and misleading promises about their effectiveness, such as 'all-day protection' and 'blocks all harmful rays.'

Apart from these concerns, common sunscreen ingredients pose toxic effects.

--Benzophenone is a "hormone disrupter" which mimics natural hormones produced by the endocrine system. It is also an allergen, causing allergic reactions, and a "penetration enhancer," which penetrates the skin, and is absorbed into the bloodstream and invades body wide organs.

--Octyl-methoxycinnamate is also a hormone disrupter and penetration enhancer which has been detected in breast milk.

--Oxybenzone, another hormone disrupter has also been detected in breast milk.

--Parabens, are still other hormone disrupters.

These ingredients pose further dangers. Once absorbed through the skin, they generate what are known as "free radicals." These accelerate skin damage and skin aging, along with sharply increased risks of skin cancer.

Some of these ingredients also pose unrelated threats. Once washed off sunbather's bodies, Oxybenzone accumulates in sea life and damages their reproductive systems. In 2006, it was found that oxybenzone had transformed the males of coastal fish near California beaches into feminized fish with ovarian tissue.

Now that you've heard the bad news, you're probably wondering how you can protect your children and yourself from harm. Sunblocks containing zinc oxide and titanium dioxide offer protection as they block long-wave ultraviolet light by reflecting the radiation off the skin's surface. But beware of recently developed sunblocks. These contains nanoparticles, a technological innovation which reduces ingredient particles to an ultramicroscopic size. These then readily penetrate the skin, invade the blood stream, and pose major toxic threats to distant organs such as liver and bone.

Fortunately, a new generation of sun-protective natural organic ingredients are on the horizon. These range from SoyScreen, a 'green' sunscreen, based on ferulic acid and soybean oil, to sulforaphane, a broccoli ingredient that significantly reduces ultraviolet light damage.

Until these new natural ingredients, and products based on them, reach consumers and the marketplace, the best advice for self-protection is to limit exposure to the sun. Remember the old saying "Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the mid-day sun." Also, make sure your children stay in the shade, wear hats, and also special new light sunscreen protective clothing marketed by Solumbra.

Under the explicit provisions of the 1938 Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, it is anticipated that Dr. Margaret Hamburg, the newly appointed FDA Commissioner and inspiring public health advocate, will prohibit the sale of sunscreens containing toxic ingredients, and also sunblocks based on nanoparticles.

Samuel S. Epstein, M.D. is professor emeritus of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health; Chairman of the Cancer Prevention Coalition; and author of over 200 scientific articles and 15 books on cancer, including the groundbreaking The Politics of Cancer (1979), and Toxic Beauty (2009).