By Laurel-Lea Shannon
For most of my life I’ve eschewed sunscreens. The long list of chemical ingredients in them concerned me, and I always felt that using a sunscreen would encourage me to stay out in the sun too long. Instead, I got out of the sun when I’d had enough or I covered up so I didn’t get sunburned.
But when I took up cycling I knew there would be times when I would have to use a sunscreen product. On summer days when I cycle long distances—even with early morning starts—it’s easy to end up spending hours in the saddle at the hottest (and sunburniest) time of the day. I knew I was getting much more sun exposure than was good for me and I needed to take extra precautions to protect my skin. So I did some research to learn more about sunscreens and their effect on skin.
It turns out some of my concerns were justified. Little is known about the safety of these products and there is no consensus that they prevent skin cancers. In fact, there’s some evidence that using sunscreen may increase the risk of skin cancer. Scientists aren’t sure if this is because heavy sunscreen users stay out in the sun too long or if the chemicals in the products are harmful to the skin.
What’s a Girl to Do?
To stay healthy we do need some sun exposure but it’s better to get that before 10 am or after 4 pm. At other times of the day, the first line of defense to protect your skin is to cover up while in the sun or, when possible, seek shade.
Sunscreen should be the second line of defense. Because of the concerns about the systemic effect of the chemicals in sunscreens, dermatologists recommend limited use on exposed areas rather than slathering it all over your body. If you’re going to cycle between 10 am and 4 pm, wear a peaked helmet to help keep the sun off your face and cooling sleeves to protect your arms. Then apply sunscreen to the most exposed parts of your body—your face and ears (don’t forget to use SPF lip balm), hands and thighs. Reapply frequently. Sweat and water are effective sunscreen removers.
And choose your sunscreen carefully. It’s important to know what the problems are with sunscreen and how to buy brands that protect you from the sun with a minimal amount of risk to your health.
Problems with Sunscreens
The biggest problem with sunscreens is they aren’t regulated by the FDA at all, and only minimally regulated by Health Canada. That allows manufacturers to sell products that contain unhealthy ingredients and to make exaggerated claims about the amount of protection they offer. That means you can’t trust what the packaging says. So you have to educate yourself about the ingredients in these products.
Inadequate UVA Protection
SPF, or sun protection factor, only tells you how much protection you have from UVB rays—the ones that cause nasty sunburns. But there’s no similar protection rating for UVA rays, which are thought to cause cancer and wrinkles.
According to Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database and Sunscreen Guide, as many as 60 percent of sunscreen products have inadequate UVA protection. That’s a problem because it’s the UVA rays that penetrate the skin, causing free radicals that can damage DNA and skin cells.
Unsafe Vitamin A Ingredients
Although Vitamin A is good for you when ingested, scientific data shows it has photocarcinogenic properties that can speed the growth of skin cancers when applied to sun-exposed skin. Many sunscreens add unsafe Vitamin A to their products, like retinyl palmitate, that may be carcinogenic. Watch out for these.
High SPF Claims
Products that claim 50+ SPF or higher create a false sense of protection for people, who then tend to stay out in the sun too long.
What You Should Look for in a Sunscreen
Okay, that’s the bad news. The good news is that sunscreen products are improving. If you know what to look for, you can avoid the dangerous ones. Many European sunscreen products, which contain a UVA-blocking ingredient called Tinosorb M , (still not approved in North America) are superior to ours. If you can find them they’re a good choice. Until Tinosorb is approved here, we have some reasonably safe options. But you have to do your homework to find the safest products.
The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database and Sunscreen Guide recommends the following when choosing a sunscreen:
- Oxybenzone—a sunscreen ingredient associated with photoallergic reactions. This chemical is easily absorbed through the skin.
- Vitamin A (especially retinyl palmitate)
- Added insect repellent
- SPF above 50+
- Titanium dioxide
- Avobenzone or Mexoryl SX
- Broad-spectrum protection
- Water-resistant for beach, pool & exercise
- SPF 30+ for beach & pool
Tips For Cyclists:
- Cycle in the early morning (before 10 am) or late afternoon (after 4 pm) and early evening
- Wear a helmet with a visor to help keep the sun off your face
- Use a good sunscreen and apply it frequently on long rides—when applying it to your face, remember your ears and nose and apply an SPF lip balm to protect your lips
- Wear sunglasses with UV protection
- Wear white cooling sleeves to protect your arms from the sun—these can be dampened on hot days, which helps keep you cool
To check whether your sunscreen gets a passing grade, go to the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database and their current Sunscreen Guide.
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