In an age of heightened green awareness, sunscreen is the latest victim of toxic rumours. Why, Marilisa Racco asks, are we so quick to vilify our skin’s number one defender?
By Marilisa Racco
In 2014, Hugh Jackman appeared on the red carpet for the premier of X-Men: Days of Future Past sporting a flesh-coloured bandage on his nose from having been treated for skin cancer. This past February, the actor posted a picture to Instagram once again wearing the familiar bandage and wrote: “An example of what happens when you don’t wear sunscreen.”
Jackman is not the only one to have shunned sun protection in his lifetime. According to an Ipsos Reid poll conducted in 2015, one in every 10 Canadians has never used sunscreen, and 72 per cent have deliberately chosen not to wear it. Despite the consistent push made by the dermatological industry to encourage consumers to wear sunscreen daily, there are a number of myths surrounding the product that prevent people from engaging in a regular slop and slap routine, and the overarching one is that it causes more harm than good.
“The number one misconception around sunscreen is that its ingredients cause skin cancer,” says Dr. Lisa Kellett, celebrity dermatologist and founder of DLK on Avenue, a dermatology clinic in Toronto. “The reality is there is no sound scientific data to support these claims. Your risk of getting skin cancer is so much higher if you don’t wear sunscreen than any possible risks associated with its ingredients.”
It’s a concept that’s been espoused since 2007, when the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C., published its first sunscreen guide that claimed common sunscreen ingredients like oxybenzone are hormone disruptors that can lead to a host of health issues including lowered fertility and cancer. And it’s gaining traction among green beauty enthusiasts as well as celebrities. In 2011, Gisele Bundchen called sunscreen “poison” and claimed that her sun care routine involves simply avoiding the sun after 8 a.m. The famously bronzed Brazilian ate her words when cancer experts jumped down her throat and berated her for dissuading people from sunscreen use.
“Whenever a study comes out, however small, about the benefits of red wine or chocolate consumption, people jump all over it,” says Dr. Jennifer Beecker, national chair of the Canadian Dermatology Association’s sun awareness program and assistant professor at the University of Ottawa. “Yet, we have years of documented research that prove sunscreen prevents three known cancers – melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma – and people are still looking for ways not to wear it.”
Beecker says skin cancer has officially gained the title of the most common cancer in Canada. And according to the Melanoma Network of Canada, the incidences of melanoma have more than tripled in the last 30 years in our mostly sun-starved country and have risen to the third most common cancer among women aged 15 to 29. But don’t think you’re exempt just because you aren’t a textbook sun worshipper.
“The problem with the sun is that there’s no safe dose of radiation,” Beecker says. “Most people get a lot of incidental radiation just from driving in their cars [since UVA rays penetrate glass] and running errands. You don’t need to get a sunburn to be at risk.”
While the medical community has largely debunked many of the claims of chemical sunscreen’s hazards, they are happy to encourage consumers to opt for physical sunscreens instead.
“If people are worried about the chemicals in sunscreen, they can always go towards a physical sunscreen that uses ingredients like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide to deflect UV light rather than absorb and neutralize it,” says Dr. Paul Cohen of the Rosedale Dermatology Centre in Toronto.
Physical (or mineral) sunscreens sit on the surface of the skin and naturally deflect the sun’s rays, and the mineral ingredients contain natural UVA and UVB filters that make them inherently broad spectrum. Chemical sunscreens, on the other hand, penetrate into the skin, and absorb sunlight and heat. They also require more ingredients in order to offer broad-spectrum protection. Historically, consumers have shied away from physical formulations because the minerals used tend to leave skin with a whiteish, chalky hue. Think of those skiers and other outdoor enthusiasts you used to see with white paste plastered on their noses.
In response to this, physical sunscreen brands have micronized – or shrunk – the minerals so that they blend more easily into skin. Many also add a touch of pigment to mimic the natural colour of your skin. But this adds another layer to the debate.
“The interesting thing about micronized physical blockers is that they’ve been shown to function similarly to chemical ones in that they absorb UV radiation,” Beecker says. In other words, if you want sun protection but are paranoid about chemicals, you’ll have to stick with white, pasty formulas.
Either way, dermatologists don’t care; they just want to see people wearing sunscreen more regularly and have them reapply it more frequently. Although it doesn’t end there.
“Sunscreen is only part of the picture,” Cohen says. “To practice sun smart behaviour, you should also be wearing sun-protective clothing, a hat and seek shade as much as possible.” And avoid the sun at all costs during the peak hours of 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
So how can we possibly enjoy the few summer months our sun-phobic country has to offer? According to Kellett, it starts with a change of attitude: “Your goal in life should be to be happy, healthy and pale.”
Sunscreen brands have been tweaking their formulations to help get consumers into the habit of applying the product regularly. Recent innovations in the industry have hit an all-time high, ranging from unique delivery systems (think a sunscreen deodorant stick) to technologically sophisticated formulations that provide benefits like hydration and evened skin tone, along with broad spectrum SPF.