Tag Archives: sunscreen

We’re inching closer to a better sunscreen that won’t kill corals (unlike our current options)

New research is paving the way towards new, more efficient sunscreen — one that won’t damage corals, to boot.

Methylene blue. Image credits amandabhslater / Flickr.

Methylene blue, a century-old medicine that my grandma used to give me whenever I had a sore throat, could prove to be quite an effective sunscreen. The substance is an effective broad-spectrum insulator against ultraviolet (UV) radiation, absorbing both UVA and UVB (the first produces sunburn, the second contributes to skin cancer), repairs UV-induced DNA damage in the skin, and is also much safer for corals than current options. According to a new study, methylene blue could become a common alternative sunscreen ingredient.

Sun? Blocked.

“Our work suggests that methylene blue is an effective UVB blocker with a number of highly desired characteristics as a promising ingredient to be included in sunscreens,” says the study’s senior author Dr. Kan Cao, Founder of Mblue Labs, Bluelene Skincare, and a Professor at the University of Maryland Department of Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics.

“It shows a broad spectrum absorption of both UVA and UVB rays, promotes DNA damage repair, combats reactive oxygen species (ROS) induced by UVA, and most importantly, poses no harm to coral reefs.”

Most commercially available brands of sunscreen sold today (around 80%) use oxybenzone to block UV rays. However, we know that oxybenzone is quite damaging to coral reefs, and several local and national governments have already banned its use and that of its derivatives in order to protect marine ecosystems. Which is all well and good, but it also means that we need a replacement.

The team looked at the interaction between methylene blue and UV radiation under several angles in primary human keratinocytes and skin fibroblasts from young and old donors. The results were compared to similar data for oxybenzone. They report that methylene blue not only absorbs UVA & UVB, but it also helps repair DNA damage induced by UV radiation.

When exposing Xenia umbellate, a soft coral species, to the same amounts of methylene blue or oxybenzone in isolated tanks, they found another important tidbit of information. The corals exposed to oxybenzone experienced severe bleaching and death in under a week. The ones exposed to methylene blue did not show any negative effects even at relatively high concentrations of the compound.

Compared with other skincare antioxidants such as vitamin A (retinol) and vitamin C, methylene blue showed that it is highly effective at protecting our cells. The best results, however, were seen when using a combination of vitamin C and methylene blue.

“We are extremely excited to see that skin fibroblasts, derived from both young and old individuals, have improved so much in terms of proliferation and cellular stress in a methylene blue-containing cell culture medium.” Dr. Cao reports.

“Most surprisingly, we found that the combination of methylene blue and Vitamin C could deliver amazing anti-aging effects, particularly in skin cells from older donors, suggesting a strong synergistic reaction between these two beneficial antioxidants.”

Overall, the team writes in their abstract, methylene blue has the potential of becoming a reef-friendly active ingredient in sunscreens, which would also likely improve the efficiency of this product compared to current options. In particular, they explain, today’s ratings (Sun Protection Factor — SPF) only account for UVB exposure, so today’s sunscreens leave users exposed to the oxidative stress and photoaging induced by UVA rays. Methylene blue also promotes DNA repair in the skin, and can deliver anti-aging effects, especially in conjunction with vitamin C.

The paper “Ultraviolet radiation protection potentials of Methylene Blue for human skin and coral reef health” has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Credit: Pixabay.

How sunscreen releases metals and nutrients in seawater

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

Applying sunscreen when going to the beach is of the utmost importance to protect our skin from the harmful effects of ultraviolet radiation. At the same time, these protective lotions contain metals and nutrients that wash off into the ocean, interacting with marine life. A new study reports how sunscreen chemicals are released into seawater.

A painful sunburn can ruin a vacation, and too much sun can also lead to more serious problems like premature skin aging and melanoma. To counter the effects of prolonged exposure to the sun, manufacturers add UV filters.

However, our protection is done at the expense of the wellbeing of marine life. About 14,000 tons of sunscreen are thought to wash into the oceans each year, affecting coral and fish embryos. And even if you don’t swim after applying sunscreen, it can go down drains when you shower.

Millions of people are now luckily aware that sunscreen can also harm wildlife. As a result, many are looking to purchase “coral-safe” sunscreens that lack oxybenzone and octinoxate, two substances known to damage coral reefs. Some destinations, such as Hawaii and Palau, have introduced bans on harmful sunscreens.

It’s not clear, however, what effects other trace compounds found in sunscreens might have on marine wildlife.

A first step in this direction was recently made by a team of researchers at the University of Cantabria in Spain.

The team, led by Araceli Rodríguez-Romero, introduced titanium-dioxide-containing sunscreen to samples of Mediterranean seawater and analyzed how the lotion releases various metals and nutrients into the water. UV light was shone onto a water tank in order to simulate real life conditions.

Aluminum, silica, and phosphorus had the highest release rates under both light and dark conditions. Based on these results, the researchers computed a theoretical model that predicts how various compounds found in sunscreens are released into the ocean under various conditions.

According to the new study reported in the journal Environmental Science & Technologybeachgoers could increase the concentration of aluminum in coastal waters by 4% and of titanium by almost 20%. These concentrations, however, are already extremely low.

In the future, the researchers plan conducting more studies to determine how these metals and nutrients could be affecting marine ecosystems.

In the meantime, each of us can help reduce our impact on marine life by using more eco-friendly alternatives to sunscreen or none at all, if it is possible. Wearing hats, shirts, and other apparel incorporating UV protection can reduce the amount of sunscreen you need by up to 90%, for instance.

Sunscreen

Most of us are using sunscreen all wrong, and this could severely damage the skin

Applying sunscreen while out in the sun is critical in order to avoid the harmful, DNA-damaging effects of ultraviolet radiation (UVR). However, most of us are applying sunscreen wrong, according to a new study. On average, people are only getting 40% of the SPF protection offered by a correct dosing of the product.

Sunscreen

Credit: Pixabay.

There are three primary types of ultraviolet radiation: UVA, UVB, and UVC. UVA stands for Aging because it penetrates deep into the skin and is responsible for premature aging of the skin and skin cancer. Tanning beds can emit two to five times more UVA radiation than the sun. UVB stands for Burning. It mainly affects the outer layers of the skin, causing sunburns, premature aging of the skin, and skin cancer. UVC radiation is the strongest, most dangerous form of UV light. But you don’t have to worry about this latter class of ultraviolet radiation: they’re all blocked by the planet’s atmosphere and never reach your skin.

According to the National Cancer Institute, the rate of new melanoma cases among American adults has tripled since the 1970s, from 7.89 per 100,000 population in 1975 to 22.7 in 2010 (NCI 2015). Of course, some of the increased incidence rates can be attributed to better diagnosis, but overexposure to the sun and indoor tanning also definitely play a major role. This is why most doctors stress that you should always wear sunscreen when you know you’ll be spending your day on the beach. The most vulnerable hours are those between 11AM and 4PM.

The SPF was introduced in the 1960s and for decades, SPF 30 protection seemed like more than enough to prevent surface sunburns. Today, there are companies that sell sunscreen labeled SPF 50, 70 and even 100.

If you’ve always wondered what the heck SPF is in the first place, today’s your lucky day. Basically, the SPF rating indicates how many times a person’s UVB exposure will be reduced once the sunscreen is applied. For instance, if it would take 15 minutes in the sun for your skin to get burned, wearing SPF 15 will extend the window 15 times, meaning it now takes three hours and 45 minutes for your skin to feel the same effect. A sunscreen with an SPF 100 index means the same person would be protected for more than 24 hours.

The formula below explains how the SPF index works.

SPF INDEX x the time it takes to burn = time needed to receive the same dose of UV you would have gotten otherwise 

The effectiveness of sunscreen, however, is highly dependent on applying the product correctly — and most of us are using too little of it.

Generally, you should apply around 2 mg of sunscreen per centimeter squared to reap all the protective benefits. That’s about twice as much people typically apply on their skin, according to Antony Young, a professor of experimental photobiology at King’s College London. In fact, a previous study found that the large majority of people apply about a third of the recommended sunscreen dosage.

To get an idea of how important the sunscreen layer’s thickness is for effective SPF protection, imagine that applying a 0.75 mg/cm^2 layer of SPF 20 sunscreen is equivalent to the protection of an SPF 4 product.

Young and colleagues performed a series of experiments that measured the real-world effects of sunscreen during conditions typically seen during a holiday in popular vacation destinations, such as Tenerife or Florida.

There were two groups of volunteers, each comprised of three women and five men. One group received a single UVR exposure to areas of the skin where sunscreen of varying thickness was applied. The other group received five consecutive days of UVR exposure; each day, the volunteers received a different level of exposure and used a different amount of sunscreen.

When sunscreen wasn’t applied at all, biopsies of regions of the skin exposed to UVR showed considerable DNA damage. That was far from surprising, but on the other hand, what was unexpected was just how much of a difference the amount of sunscreen can make.

DNA damage was only slightly reduced when sunscreen was applied with a thickness of 0.75 mg per centimeter squared, but was considerably reduced when 2 mg per centimeter square was used. The findings applied to the group that received the most UVR exposure, as well.

To get an idea just how important sunscreen is, the study found that five days of exposure to high-intensity UVR rays when sunscreen was applied were less damaging that one day of low UVR exposure without sunscreen on, the researchers reported in the journal Acta Dermato-Venereologica.

The study only involved 16 people, which is a small sample size, but the findings have a high level of significance.

But let’s talk a bit more about SPF. For each minute wearing an SPF 30 sunscreen lotion, for instance, you receive 1/30th, or 3.33%, of the UV exposure that you would have gotten without the lotion. This means SPF 30 protects you from 97% of UVB rays. SPF 80 blocks another 1.75 percentage points of UVB radiation, while SPF 100 blocks 99% of UVB rays. So the difference between SPF 30 and SPF 100 is only 2.3% — a marginal improvement, but confusingly enough, this isn’t what you’d think when choosing lotions based on the SPF index.

However, bearing the new findings in mind, people who’ve bought a high-SPF sunscreen have done themselves good (although I still believe SPF 100 is overkill).

“This research demonstrates why it’s so important to choose an SPF of 30 or more,” said Nina Goad from the British Association of Dermatologists, in a statement.

“In theory, an SPF of 15 should be sufficient, but we know that in real-world situations, we need the additional protection offered by a higher SPF.”

The takeaway is simple: never forget to use sunscreen when you’re at the beach, and make sure to apply the right amount while you’re at it. When in doubt, put on much more than you usually do.

Hawaje.

Hawaii moves to ban common sunscreen mixes in a bid to safeguard its corals

Sunbathers beware — Hawaii plans to become the first US state to ban sunscreen mixes that are toxic to marine life.

Hawaje.

Satellite view of the Hawaii archipelago. Image credits Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC / Wikimedia.

Two chemicals that are often used in sunscreen mixes (oxybenzone and octinoxate) are also sadly quite very deadly — if you happen to be a coral, a fish, or some other kind of marine resident. While that may not often concern us, landlubbers, especially as we’re basking in the sun on those oh-so-sweet vacation days, it’s a real problem for beach-totting tourist hotspots such as Hawaii.

That’s why the state is moving to ban the sale of sunscreen mixes containing these two compounds, becoming the first US state to do so. The bill was passed by the Hawaii state legislature on Tuesday and is now awaiting the governor’s signature. If this comes to pass, the ban would enter into force in 2021.

More coral protection factor, please

One past study (published in Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, 2015) has shown that both oxybenzone and octinoxate break down coral reefs by leeching its vital nutrients. The same compounds also disrupt the normal development of simple marine organisms (like algae or sea urchins) as well as more complex creatures (like fish). According to the same paper, these compounds can be found in especially high-concentrations in beaches frequented by tourists.

NOAA has also warned about the dangers such sunscreen compositions pose.

They affect corrals in three different ways: by leeching them of nutrients, by altering their DNA, making coral more susceptible to bleachings, and finally, by inhibiting their endocrine system (i.e. glands), deforming and ultimately killing baby coral. These effects started at extremely low concentrations — only 62 parts per trillion (ppt). Oxybenzone can also turn adult male fish into female fish, cause sexually immature fish to adopt characteristics common to mature, pregnant female fish, is toxic to shrimp, sea urchins, bivalves (e.g., scallops, mussels), and is especially toxic to marine algae (according to the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Hawaii).

The reefs of Hawaii and the U.S Virgin Islands showed some of the highest concentrations of oxybenzone out of all coral reefs that attract tourists, the 2015 paper reported. Sunscreen enters the ocean both from direct contact with people wearing such compounds and from wastewater streams that drain into the sea. Both oxybenzone and octinoxate are widely employed in sunscreens, as well as some other types of lotions.

“More and more people realize, as you go home and shower the water is getting treated and put out into the ocean,” Hawaii state Sen. Laura Thielen told KHON2.

“So really it’s damaging our corals no matter whether you’re wearing it on land or at the beach.”

So the only realistic option that Hawaii had at its disposal was a carpet ban on all products containing these compounds. If the governor puts his signature on the bill, vacationers will have to use alternative sunscreen options. Luckily, these options are readily available, with mixes most often substituting ingredients such as titanium oxide or zinc oxide in lieu of the dangerous chemicals.

Self-tanning drug could fight skin cancer — and improve your beach experience

A new compound promises to give you a nice sun tan without any radiation at all.

A natural tan is much better than a tanning bed, but it can still be unhealthy. Image via Max Pixel.

Getting a tan

When we’re exposed to ultraviolet (UV) rays, our body starts to trigger a series of chemical reactions which lead to the production of melanin. Melanin is a pigment that gives skin, hair, and eyes their color. The extra production darkens our skin, which protects us against the damaging effect of the sun’s rays. That’s right, a tan is your body’s way of protecting you against the Sun.

Now, researchers from the Massachusetts General Hospital have created a drug that tricks the body into developing a tan without any sunlight whatsoever. This is a markedly different effect to fake tan, which basically “paints” the skin without adding any melanin and any protection against UVs. It’s also very different to so-called tanning pills, which can increase your melanin production but still require exposure to UVs. This is the real deal — you rub it on your skin, and the body starts to produce melanin.

[ALSO SEE] What sunscreen SPF number means

“It has a potent darkening effect,” said Dr. David Fisher, one of the researchers involved in the project. “Under the microscope, it’s the real melanin, it really is activating the production of pigment in a UV-independent fashion.”

Fighting cancer

Even if you can’t see it directly, sunscreen does a lot of work protecting your skin from UV light. Image credits: Spigget / Wikipedia.

They’re also not doing this for a cosmetic reason — they have their eyes set on a much bigger problem: skin cancer. In 2015, there were 5.6 identified cases of skin cancer, many of which are associated with exposure to UV light. Tanning beds are also a growing problem. It is believed that tanning beds are the cause of hundreds of thousands of cases of cancer, with the World Health Organization placing tanning bed users at the highest risk of developing skin cancer. Of course, sunscreen helps, but people often misuse the sunscreen or don’t use appropriate protection. Also, sunscreen has the nasty habit of keeping your skin white, which is considered undesirable by many people who want to develop a tan.

“We know what causes skin cancer – it’s really associated with UV radiation – and yet it’s at the top of the list [of most common cancers], and it continues to increase in frequency,” says David Fisher, a dermatologist at Massachusetts General Hospital who led the research. “Sunscreen does prevent skin cancer. It has been shown. But it’s not enough. What I think could be done is to use sunscreen that has been supplemented by something to darken the skin.”

This discovery didn’t come out of the blue. Fisher has spent the past ten years figuring out how UV exposure triggers the production of melanin and previously gave mice a nice tan using a similar approach. But with human skin being five times thicker than that of mice, it took quite a while before they found something that seems to work.

In mice, Fisher and colleagues activate the pathway by inhibiting a type of enzymes, called salt-inducible kinases (SIK). But the inhibitors couldn’t penetrate human skin, so they needed to find a workaround. Working with chemist Nathaniel Gray, they found another type of SIK inhibitors which does the same job. The response of the skin completely mimicked that of a natural tan, without any visible side effects.

 “We’ve got several compounds that we can apply right onto human skin that was kept alive artificially in a petri dish,” Fisher says. “We could see that the skin starts to turn dark.”

This could save millions and millions of lives, especially with skin cancer rates going through the roof around the world. Matthew Gass, from the British Association of Dermatologists, praised the study, saying that it was a “novel approach.”

The team is also looking into ways this could help people with autoimmune diseases such as vitiligo, or how it could be applied to redheads, who don’t really tan — they just get burns when exposed to the sun because their skin doesn’t produce the extra melanin.

“Assuming there are no safety concerns, it is clearly a better option than UV exposure,” says Jerod Stapleton, a behavioral scientist at the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey in New Brunswick who studies indoor tanning and was not involved in the work. “We are talking about millions of young people potentially not using tanning beds each year. … It could be a game-changer for skin cancer prevention.”

Before we get overly excited about this, it’s important to note that it hasn’t been tested on humans yet — only on mice and patches of human skin leftover from surgeries. Fisher says it will still be three to five years before they move on to clinical trials.

Journal Reference: Nisma Mujahid et al — A UV-Independent Topical Small-Molecule Approach for Melanin Production in Human Skin. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.celrep.2017.05.042

sunscreen

About 73% of sunscreens don’t work as they claim or contain harmful ingredients

Summer in the Northern Hemisphere is just around the corner, much to everyone’s delight. Vacation time, long walks along the beach, and lots of sunlight. What can go wrong? Well, sunburns can often ruin things, which is why doctors recommend wearing sunscreen whenever you head out to the beach. How do you use it and which brand should you use, though? Believe it or not, there are hundreds or thousands of different sunscreens available in the US but not all of them are up to standards. According to the latest Environmental Working Group (EWG) report on sunscreens, 73% of the 880 different products they tested didn’t work as they were advertised or contained ‘worrisome’ ingredients.

sunscreen

Credit: Pixabay.

Not all sunscreens are made equal

For its 2017 Sunscreens Guide, the EWG scientists examined the SPF protection, chemical ingredients and overall safety and effectiveness of various sunscreens, moisturizers, and lip balms. Many of these products were woefully inadequate, as you can notice from EWG’s list of worst-rated products. Alternatively, you can check out the best-rated products list they also compiled.

One of the most common mismarketing instances identified by EWG were high SPF ratings. The Sun Protection Factor (SPF) index labeled on every sunscreen is a measure of how long a person can stay in the sun without getting burned. It only takes into consideration UVB rays, one of the three types of ultraviolet radiation besides UVA and UVC. UVB mainly affects the outer layers of the skin, causing sunburns, premature aging of the skin, and skin cancer. UVC radiation is the strongest, most dangerous form of UV light. But you don’t have to worry about this latter class of ultraviolet rays since they’re all blocked by the planet’s atmosphere and never reach your skin.

A good sunscreen should offer a good balance between protection from UVA and UVB radiation. The problem with the SPF index, though, is that it often confuses people and manufacturers know and exploit this fact. For instance, most sunscreens have an SPF index of 30 but some brands sell products with an SPF index of 100 or higher. Besides the shelf, many consumers naturally assume SPF 100 is better. What the SPF index actually means, however, is a ratio of how long a person without sunscreen can be in the sun without experiencing any redness divided by the amount of time you can spend in sunlight with a product on.

SPF INDEX x the time it takes to burn = time needed to receive the same dose of UV you had gotten otherwise 

For each minute wearing an SPF 30 sunscreen lotion, you get a 1/30th, or 3.33%, UV exposure that you’d get without the lotion. This means SPF 30 protects you from 97% of UVB ray. SPF 80  blocks another 1.75 percentage points of UVB radiation, while  SPF 100 blocks 99 percent of UVB rays. So the difference between SPF 30 and SPF 100 is only 2.3%. You’d think SPF 100 is at least 3 times better than SPF 30 but that’s not at all the case. Thus the improvement is marginal, but confusingly enough this isn’t what you’d think when choosing lotions based on the SPF index.

What’s more, because people assume SPF 100 lasts longer or is ‘better’, they end up wearing it poorly. Every sunscreen needs to be reapplied every two hours, but people who use SPF 100 are more likely to get burned.

Another important consideration the authors of the report looked for was what chemicals manufacturers used to provide the UV protection. Two ingredients, in particular, oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate, consumers should avoid. The first is a hormone disruptor that affects the reproductive tract and other natural hormones while the second, a form of vitamin A, has been previously linked to skin tumors under direct UV light. If you see these two chemicals on the label, it’s best you stay away from the sunscreen. Those with allergies or sensitive skin should also look for zinc oxide and titanium oxide, which are physical blockers and tend to be hypoallergenic.

Other considerations had to do with misleading advertising. For instance, there is no such thing as  “waterproof” or “water-resistant” sunscreen but some manufacturers still label their products as such.

“In 2011, the Food and Drug Administration set new sunscreen rules that removed some of the most egregious false marketing claims, like “waterproof” and “sweatproof,” from product labels. But the FDA allowed most sunscreens to claim that they play a role in preventing skin cancer. There is little scientific evidence to suggest that sunscreen alone reduces cancer risk, particularly for melanoma, the deadliest type of skin cancer. Despite a growing awareness of the dangers of exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, and a multi-billion dollar sunscreen industry, melanoma rates have tripled over the past three decades,” EPW said in a statement.

The researchers also caution consumers to be very careful when buying spray-on sunscreens. These have become very popular as of late because people find it easier and faster to apply the aerosol sunscreen. But a 2015 study found that people who used sprays applied less than those using creams. Inhaling the aerosols can also be irritating.

Spray-on sunscreen are indeed effective at blocking UV radiation but most people use it improperly. Because they don't apply the spray homogeneously, many consumers risk getting burned. Credit: Pixabay.

Spray-on sunscreen is indeed effective at blocking UV radiation but most people use it improperly. Because they don’t apply the spray homogeneously, many consumers risk getting burned. Credit: Pixabay.

At the end of the day, the authors recommend consumer look for these three most important factors when choosing a safe sunscreen:

  • an SPF between 30 and 50 to protect from UVB rays,
  • zinc oxide and titanium oxide to ward off UVA rays,
  • and no oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate.

The EWG’s report isn’t the only one to highlight problems in sunscreen products. A guide released this month by Consumer Reports which rated products for safety, UV protection, water resistance and cost found only 15 out of 58 tested products met their standards.

 

 

Sunscreen does work, new study confirms

High factor sunscreen can reduce melanoma risk by 33 percent, Norwegian researchers found.

Melanoma is a cancer with the highest incidence increase and sunscreen could play a key role in reducing its emergence. In Norway alone, which is not the sunniest nor the most populated country in the world, there are 2,000 new cases of melanoma each year. But a high protection screen is important.

The Department of Biostatistics with the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Oslo found that sunscreen with an adequate factor can reduce the risk of melanoma by over 30 percent compared with low factor sunscreen. There is a significant controversy around sunscreen – previous research showed mixed results, with some studies finding that using low protection screen is worse than using none at all. The University of Oslo research gives a surprisingly simple explanation.

[ALSO SEE] What the SPF number on your sunscreen means

Basically, sunscreen users are in the sun for much longer. So simply comparing those who don’t use sunscreen at all to those who use low factor is not relevant, because the two groups don’t spend equal amounts of time in the sun.

“The explanation for this paradox is that some people use sunscreen to prolong sun exposure and acquire suntan. Moreover, many people don’t apply the proper amount of sunscreen, forget to reapply and missed to apply on all exposed areas resulting in sunburn and increased risk of melanoma,” said Reza Ghiasvand, a PhD candidate at The Department of Biostatistics and a member of the research group “Epidemiological Studies of Lifestyle and Chronic Diseases.” “We found that those who used sunscreen with a factor higher than 15 had a 33% lower risk of melanoma compared with those using sunscreen with a low factor.”

So the takeaway is simple: if you’re in the sun a lot, use high factor sunscreen and don’t take any chances.

Journal Reference: R. Ghiasvand, E. Weiderpass, A. C. Green, E. Lund, M. B. Veierod. Sunscreen Use and Subsequent Melanoma Risk: A Population-Based Cohort Study. Journal of Clinical Oncology, 2016; DOI: 10.1200/JCO.2016.67.5934

Your sunscreen could be killing coral reefs, study finds

Covering your body up with sunscreen may protect you against the Sun, but it’s also threatening the world’s coral reefs, a new study found. University of Central Florida professor and diving enthusiast John Fauth and his team found that oxybenzone, a common UV-filtering compound, is in high concentrations in the waters around Hawaii and the Caribbean, two areas rich in corals. They found that not only does the chemical kill the corals, but it also causes DNA damage in adults and deforms the DNA in coral in the larval stage.

Lathering up with sunscreen may prevent sunburn and protect against cancer, but it is also killing coral reefs around the world. That’s the conclusion of a team of international scientists, which includes University of Central Florida professor and diving enthusiast John Fauth. Credit: UCF: Nick Russett

Coral reefs are threatened as it is. Just two weeks ago, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) raised an alarm about the terrible plight of coral bleaching. For the third time in recorded history, we’re facing a massive coral bleaching crisis, the agency said.

“We are losing huge areas of coral across the U.S., as well as internationally,” said Mark Eakin, NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch coordinator, citing climate change and events like the current El Niño as primary reasons for the mass die-off.

Sadly, this study brings even more bad news to the table; the product they studied is virtually ubiquitous in sunscreen products, and the damage it does is two-fold.

“The chemical not only kills the coral, it causes DNA damage in adults and deforms the DNA in coral in the larval stage, making it unlikely they can develop properly,” a news release reported.

Even very small quantities of the substance can do great damage. They found that the equivalent of “a drop of water in a half-dozen Olympic-sized swimming pools” is enough to cause damage. Executive director and researcher Craig Downs of the non-profit scientific organization Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Virginia was also involved in the study.

 

“The use of oxybenzone-containing products needs to be seriously deliberated in islands and areas where coral reef conservation is a critical issue,” said lead researcher Craig Downs. “We have lost at least 80 percent of the coral reefs in the Caribbean. Any small effort to reduce oxybenzone pollution could mean that a coral reef survives a long, hot summer, or that a degraded area recovers.”

To give you a scale of the problem, this isn’t something that only threatens corals. Corals are vital for oceanic ecosystems, and if they collapse, entire ecosystems will collapse with them.

“Coral reefs are the world’s most productive marine ecosystems and support commercial and recreational fisheries and tourism,” Fauth said. “In addition, reefs protect coastlines from storm surge. Worldwide, the total value of coral reefs is tremendous. And they are in danger.”

Many reefs around the world have already taken massive damage, and have almost entirely collapse.

“The use of oxybenzone-containing products needs to be seriously deliberated in islands and areas where coral reef conservation is a critical issue,” Downs said. “We have lost at least 80 percent of the coral reefs in the Caribbean. Any small effort to reduce oxybenzone pollution could mean that a coral reef survives a long, hot summer, or that a degraded area recovers. Everyone wants to build coral nurseries for reef restoration, but this will achievelittle if the factors that originally killed off the reef remain or intensify in the environment.”

So, if possible, try using sunscreen products that don’t have oxybenzone, and for everyday divers:

“Wear rash guards or scuba wetsuits and skip all the hygienic products when you go diving,” Fauth said. “If we could do it for a week at a time, people can certainly forgo it for a few hours to help protect these reefs for our children and their children to see.”

The corals will thank you.

 

woman sunscreen beach

What the SPF number on your sunscreen means

woman sunscreen beach

According to the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) in the UK, most Britons are unaware that the SPF rating label displayed on sunscreens does not offer full spectrum protection against damaging sunburns and cancer causing UV wavelengths. Moreover, a quarter of the questioned participants had no idea what SPF means.

Companies aren’t helping either, further fueling confusion by releasing SPF 80 or SPF 100+ products, which trick bewildered consumers into thinking they’re wearing double or even triple protection when in fact the benefit is marginal at best. With this in mind, the RPS suggests it’s now time to introduce a new sun protection rating system, one that covers both types of cancer-causing UV rays (A and B), which is less ambiguous.

Know your UV ABCs

The three types of UV rays. Image: Skin Care Club

The three types of UV rays. Image: Skin Care Club

There are three main types of UV rays: UVA, UVB and UVC. UVA stands for Aging because it penetrates deep into the skin and is responsible for premature aging of the skin and skin cancer. Tanning beds can emit two to five times more UVA radiation than the sun. UVB stands for Burning. It mainly affects the outer layers of the skin, causing sunburns, premature aging of the skin, and skin cancer. UVC radiation is the strongest, most dangerous form of UV light. But you don’t have to worry about this latter class of ultraviolet rays since they’re all blocked by the planet’s atmosphere and never reach your skin.

According to the National Cancer Institute, the rate of new melanoma cases among American adults has tripled since the 1970s, from 7.89 per 100,000 population in 1975 to 22.7 in 2010. (NCI 2015). Of course, some of the increased incidence rates can be accounted to better diagnosis, but over exposure to the sun and indoor tanning also definitely play a major role. This is why most doctors stress very hard that you should wear sunscreens always when it’s clear you’ll be spending your day on the beach. The most vulnerable hours are those between 11 am and 4 pm.

Sunscreens are designed to protect skin from UVA and UVB radiation, which as stated above can cause cancer. But the SPF rating – a label that determines the efficacy of a sunscreen product – indicates the level of protection against UVB rays. According to the  RPS survey which questioned 2,000 Britons, only 8% knew that the SPF rating refers to protection only from UVB rays.  Most said either that they thought the SPF was an indication of levels of protection from both UVB and UVA (56%), or they did not know what the rating stood for (25%). There are of course sunscreens that product against both UVA and UVB, but these are labeled differently.

How to read the SPF number on sunscreens

. The man's face has sunscreen on his right only. The left image is a regular photograph of the face; the right image is taken by reflected UV light. The side of the face with sunscreen is darker because the sunscreen absorbs the UV light. Image: Wikipedia

The man’s face has sunscreen on his right only. The left image is a regular photograph of the face; the right image is taken by reflected UV light. The side of the face with sunscreen is darker because the sunscreen absorbs the UV light. Image: Wikipedia

The SPF was introduced in the 1960s and for decades SPF 30 protection seemed like more than enough to prevent surface sun burns. Today, there are companies that sell sunscreens labeled SPF 50, 70 and even 100 which is kind of preposterous as we’ll learn soon. Basically, these companies are taking advantage of the consumers’ ignorance and market products using emotional targeting (more SPF –> much more protection against the sun).

What SPF stands for on sunscreens

If you’ve always wondered what the heck SPF is in the first place, today’s your lucky day. Basically, the SPF rating indicates how many times weaker a person’s UV-B exposure will be once the sunscreen is applied. For instance, if it would take 15 minutes in the sun for your skin to get burned, wearing SPF 15 would take 15 times as much for your skin to get burned or three hours and 45 minutes. A sunscreen with an SPF 100 index means the same person would be protected for more than 24 hours.

The formula below explains how the SPF index works.

SPF INDEX x the time it takes to burn = time needed to receive the same dose of UV you had gotten otherwise 

But the SPF is very misleading because wearing a higher index doesn’t mean the protection is better. For instance, a study found if sunscreens were applied appropriately, to prevent sunburn there would be no need for sun protection factors higher than 15. Moreover, numerical indicators of sun protection on sunscreen packaging can cause more confusion than clarity.

[READ] Skin gets damaged by UV light even in the dark

According to The Atlantic, for each minute wearing an SPF 30 sunscreen lotion, you get a 1/30th, or 3.33%, UV exposure that you’d get without the lotion. This means SPF 30 protects you from 97% of UVB ray. SPF 80  blocks another 1.75 percentage points of UVB radiation, while  SPF 100 blocks 99 percent of UVB rays. So the difference between SPF 30 and SPF 100 is only 2.3%. Thus the improvement is marginal, but confusingly enough this isn’t what you’d think when choosing lotions based on the SPF index.

“It captures the consumers’ attention, the high SPF,” said Dr. Elma D. Baron, an assistant professor of dermatology at Case Western Reserve University who sees patients at hospitals in Cleveland. “Just walking down the drugstore aisle and seeing a SPF 90 or 95, they assume, ‘This is what I need.’ ”

“As you get higher and higher, it’s not really a practical difference,” said Dr. David M. Pariser, the president of the American Academy of Dermatology.

The RPS proposes sunscreen manufacturers provide one easy to understand rating, based on a simple description of the total amount of sun protection offered: low, medium, high and very high protection.

“People now have largely got the message that they must protect their skin from the sun using sunscreen, along with other precautions such as covering up and keeping out of the sun during the hottest part of the day.

“What the RPS is calling for now is one uniform measure for all sun protection products, so pharmacists can provide easy to understand advice on the effectiveness of products and how they should be used.”

The best way to protect against UV rays

The chart shows the levels of the UV Index and what you should do to protect yourself. Image: AIM Melanoma Foundation

The chart shows the levels of the UV Index and what you should do to protect yourself. Image: AIM Melanoma Foundation

Despite the confusion, wearing sunscreen is actually a very good idea, but you need to make sure you’re properly applying it. Sun lotions can be really expensive, so a lot of people turn frugal and minimally apply the sunscreen – bad idea! When using sunscreen you need to apply all over your exposed skin. As a rule of thumb, apply a full shot glass of lotion on your body. This means that a typical three-ounce tube should last, at most, a few outings. Also, make sure your screen is also active against UVA. Look for ingredients like avobenzone that doesn’t degrade in light or Mexoryl SX.

But really, the single most important thing you can do to minimize the risks of UV exposure is to cover up. Photo-protective clothing is also now more widely available and has a UPF factor 15 to 24 for good protection, 25 to 39 for very good protection, and 40 to 50 for excellent protection. Of course, that’s a bit overkill. You don’t necessarily need to wear UPF rated clothing. The best clothing to wear is tightly woven and darker colored.