The human love affair with Earth’s nearest star – the Sun, has had an on-again, off-again cycle through history that rivals some of the star-studded headlines of the grocery store tabloids. In ancient times, the sun was a central part of the religions of the Egyptians, Greeks and Peruvians. Having sun tanned skin was a good thing then.
Later, as societies developed systems to distinguish social class, the color of the skin was a determining factor in what class you were in. Those with tanned skin were the laborers working out in the fields, while the upper class remained indoors away from the sun or under fashionable parasols and wide brimmed hats. Having a sun tan during these times was to be avoided in order to ensure that you were associated with the upper class – a group of people who were generally Vitamin D deficient and suffering from rickets because of their low sun exposure.
Today the reverse is true. In our society, having a golden tan means that you have the ability to spend lots of time lounging in the sun, “working on your tan”, while the laborers of today are indoors in factories, warehouses, and offices under artificial light. A tan has the implication of health, youth and prosperity.
But it’s all relative to the society you live in and your culture’s definition of beauty, that defines the status of your love affair with the Sun. In American culture, we’re actually in the middle of a love-hate relationship or rather a love-fear relationship with the Sun. We love the tan, but fear the future probability of skin cancers from that tan. Well, thank the sun-gods for sunscreen which allows us to have our tan and age with it too – or so we hope.
How do you know whether your sunscreen is actually protecting you from your fear of the sun? According to a new study from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), most of the commercial sunscreen products on the market do not meet their standards for sun protection and health safety. Only 15% of the 952 sunscreens they analyzed were effective in reducing exposure to UVA and UVB radiation and did not contain ingredients known to be human health hazards. Here’s the big suprise, the best selling brands were some of the worst products on the market!
Some dermatologists have criticized the study saying that it lacks scientific rigor and that the group’s rating system is arbitrary. Perhaps, but the interesting point that the EWG reveals is the fact that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has wasted the last 30 years debating sunscreen effectiveness and safety and has failed to implement any mandatory standards, even though Congress passed a law in 2006 requiring them to do so.
This means that sunscreen manufacturers are free to make exaggerated claims of effectiveness with minimal product quality assurance. The American College of Preventative Medicine in an article published in 1998 concluded that there is insufficient evidence to recommend for or against the use of sunscreen as protection from skin cancers. They do however, recommend some conventional sun avoidance measures like wearing protective clothing and avoiding direct sunlight during peak times of the day for long periods.
While I don’t fear the sun, I do respect it. Personally, I don’t typically apply a sunscreen, unless I’ll be in an exposed area for a long period. I prefer sitting in a shaded area while receiving the benefit of the sun through reflected sunlight where the ultra-violet rays are less intense, wearing a hat and protective clothing. But for my next sun-bathing experience, I’ll be looking at my sunscreen brand and checking how it ranked on the EWG’s list.
For more healthy sun habits, check out these links: