Should You Pack Sunscreen for the Beach? The Pros and Cons

Getting ready for a day at the beach, one of the things that most people pack is a bottle of sunscreen lotion. Most people, though, don’t really know just what sunscreen is or what it does, other than supposedly blocking the harmful UV rays from skin. The tourism information available for most coastal destinations routinely suggest sunscreen, but there is hardly a vacation brochure that explains why this is necessary, or that warns about the possible harmful effects.


Just What is Sunscreen and How Does it Work?

Over exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun can cause skin damage leading to premature aging, and at worst, can cause potentially fatal skin cancer. There are two types of UV rays, UVA and UVB, a person can be exposed to from the sun, sun lamps, or tanning booths. UVB rays affect the outer skin layers and can cause the skin to darken and burn. Overexposure to UVB is one of the causes of non-melanoma skin cancer. UVA rays, while not as powerful as UVB, penetrate the skin deeper and increases risk of malignant melanoma, which is the most dangerous type of skin cancer.


The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) currently approves 17 active ingredients for use in sunscreens. These filters fall into two categories; organic/chemical and inorganic/physical. The majority of the UV filters are organic; forming a thin film on the skin’s surface to absorb radiation before it penetrates. Inorganic elements, such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, act to reflect the UV rays away from the skin. Most sunscreens contain a mixture of both of this categories of elements.


While you won’t find this information in most beauty magazine articles, studies have shown that some of the ingredients in sunscreens can have negative effects on human health and the environment.


Studies by the Environmental Working Group, for instance, have shown that four out of five sunscreen products don’t offer adequate protection from exposure to UV, or contain ingredients that when absorbed into the body over time can disrupt the body’s normal hormonal functioning. Ingredients like the parabens and Benzophenone in sunscreen may function like estrogens, which can have a serious impact on the body’s hormone balance. There is also some concern that ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide can penetrate the skin and induce the formation of free radicals which contribute to the premature aging of skin.


Sunscreens made from organic ingredients get rid of UV by creating free radicals, and in addition to premature aging, spots on the skin, and wrinkles, can depress the immune system and increase the risk of skin cancer.


What’s the Best Way to Protect Against Sun Damage

Media and ads will continue to recommend sunscreen, as a way to protect your skin against the damaging effects of harmful UV radiation. The best course, however, is the adoption of sun avoidance measures, such as staying out of direct sunlight during the hottest times of the day, and minimizing exposure to direct sun rays with head gear, long sleeves, and long pants. Using sunscreen in moderation to supplement these measures should reduce the risk of sunburn while at the same time reducing potential harmful health consequences or damage to the environment

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