Sunscreens: Slathering it on won’t keep you safe

INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — Questions about the usefulness and safety of sunscreen lotions just won’t go away. Confusion over contents and labeling, conflicting claims about possibly hazardous ingredients, and lawsuits over effectiveness have created headaches for health conscious consumers.

As we head into the heat – and sun – of summer , we’re certainly using more of it than ever, with annual sales topping $500 million in 2009, according the Skin Cancer Foundation. The arrival of summer heat means we have bottles in our bags and cars, with special tubes for lips or children’s faces. Sprayed on, rubbed, added to wipes and bug sprays, multi-colored and waterproof, sunscreens seems to be at every checkout counter.

There’s good reason. Last week scientists in the UK released figures indicating deaths from skin melanoma among men have doubled in the last 30 years, with women’s death’s not far behind. This followed last year’s report in U.S. New and World Report calling increased rates of malignant melanoma “an epidemic.”

Dr. Larry Landsman, director of the Aesthetic Dermatology Center of Vero Beach, is a Board Certified Dermatologist specializing in cosmetic, surgical and general dermatology. Originally from Miami, he knows South Florida’s sun-loving lifestyle, but is downright blistering when it comes to sun exposure.

“There is no such thing as a healthy tan. A tan is the body’s response to damaging radiation from the sun. The only kind that’s safe comes out of a bottle,” he says referring to sunless tanners that have been tested for safety even if they do produce a funny orange hue.

What about vitamin D? The U.S Institute of Health announced June 1 plans to recommend increased levels of vitamin D in the diet of Americans. It’s produced in our skin after exposure to ultraviolet B light.

“All it takes is about 15 minutes a day of natural sunlight to produce the vitamin D you need,” he says.

Sunscreen requirements vary from country to country, and ours are pretty lax. In Australia, for example, sunscreens must be able to withstand two hours of rapidly moving water without coming off. That means during sweating or swimming they stay on the wearer. U.S. standards require effectiveness only after 30 minutes of standing water.

Environmental Working Group, a non -profit lobbying organization that advocates on Capitol Hill for health protection involving chemicals, has added to consumer concern about sunscreen. They offer a widely read evaluation of sunscreen products, and this year claim to have evaluated 1,000 sun protection products. Eighty percent were found to be less effective than advertised or to contain products that are possibly “dangerous.”

Their conclusions, however, may not be reliable. Dr. Warwick L. Morison, professor of dermatology at Johns Hopkins and chairman of the Skin Cancer Foundation’s photobiology committee says the Working Group’s conclusions do not stand up to scientific scrutiny and calls their methods “junk science.”

Dr. Landsman suggests wearing sun protective clothing during the part of the day UV radiation is greatest, use of sunglasses and hats, and using a broad spectrum sunscreen with a SPF rating of between 15 and 30.

A quick check on local beaches shows sun worshippers aren’t alarmed by media reports.

South Beach lifeguard Mat Resch, sitting high and dry inside a white fiberglass and steel guard stand, jokingly reminds you images of oil glistening, bare-chested beach protectors of movie fame are passé. He wears a long sleeved shirt, hat and sunglasses, avoiding direct sun much as possible. And sunscreen, lots of it.

“I’ve been doing this seven years and I’m trying to stay out of direct sun as much as I can,” he says as he keeps an alert eye on the waves. A firefighter and paramedic whose life-guarding is a side job, Mat keeps a bottle of 30 sunscreen handy, and remembers when he thought differently. “The new guys will come out with no shirt and sit in the sun. They learn better though. You definitely need sunscreen.”

Around him one afternoon last week, an assortment of mostly out-of-towners basked on the shore feeling confident in their safety.

Several college students washed off the sand under the shower heads, but were quick to flash their sunscreens of choice. Brian Kirley of Gainesville told of his job driving a ski boat, but also of wearing a hat, tee shirt, and plenty of sunscreen.

The feeling is products are pretty good and going to get better. As for the threat of melanoma, they take it seriously. Dr. Landsman advises a yearly skin check. “The earlier you catch melanoma the better. Take precautions with sun exposure, but once a year let your skin be seen by a trained eye.”

Mat Resch’s scanning of the waves has raised another question that’s unanswered about sunscreens. “You can see from up here where lotions wash off in the surf. People will get a faint film around them in the water. I hope that’s safe for what’s in the ocean.”

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