Monday, July 25, 2011

Steps Toward Safer Sunbathing

Sunny days in the Pacific Northwest should be cause for celebration, not worry about radiation.

Woman walking down beach with small child.
When buying sunscreen, avoid the ingredient oxybenzone, and instead go for zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.

But the region has some of the highest rates of skin cancer in the nation. Kris Somol, ND, a clinical faculty member at Bastyr Center for Natural Health, offers a holistic approach to enjoying sunshine safely.

Dr. Somol says that behaviors that create free radicals in the body — such as poor diet, low activity or smoking — can make you more susceptible to damage from the sun. Using tanning beds, especially before age 35, can increase skin-cancer risk as well.

On the other hand, a diet rich in antioxidants — from colorful fruits and vegetables — can lower your risk of skin cancer, says Dr. Somol, who works in community health along with pediatrics and women’s health.

"Eating a diet high in orange and red carotenoids (natural pigments) seems to be protective against skin cancer," she says.

Smarter Sunscreen: Avoid Oxybenzone

Using topical sun protection is crucial for reducing the risk of certain skin cancers, but Dr. Somol recommends reading ingredient labels carefully. "Some sunscreens may actually promote the development of cancer because they contain chemicals that lead to increased free radicals," she says.

The most common culprit is oxybenzone, found in roughly 42 percent of sunscreens. Oxybenzone causes allergic skin reactions and hormone disruption and is likely to increase your risk of skin cancer, according to Dr. Somol.

Instead, seek out sunscreens that include zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which provide about 20 percent better UV protection than other sunscreens. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are now available in a nanoparticle form that protects skin without the telltale white residue. But avoid spray-on sunscreen products, which can be harmful if inhaled.

Finally, Dr. Somol recommends "broad-spectrum" sunscreens that protect against both ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B radiation, two distinct types of harmful rays.

Watch for Better Labels, Ratings

If that all sounds like a lot to remember while shopping in the sunscreen aisle, help is on the way. By next summer, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will require sunscreens to have both UVA and UVB protection and offer a protection factor (SPF) of 15 or higher. Products that don't meet those criteria must carry a warning label. The FDA will also ban the use of the words "waterproof," "sweatproof" and "sunblock," which it considers inaccurate.

The nonprofit Environmental Working Group also provides a detailed database of sunscreen ratings.

To learn more about safe sunscreens and other natural skin care, make an appointment at Bastyr Center by calling (206) 834-4100.

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