Don't get Burned

All bike riders are exposed to long hours in the sun, often when the sun’s rays are at their worst, so it’s vitally important that you protect yourself with the best type of sunscreen.  Just last week, after 33 years of review (or maybe inaction is a better word), the FDA finally issued new rules that should help reduce the confusion as you stroll down the aisle trying to decide which sunscreen to select.  This FDA guidance is particularly welcome, since the incidence of melanoma, the deadliest of skin cancers, has doubled since sunscreens became popular.

Currently, the FDA only requires testing for protection against UVB rays (which cause burning and skin cancer and is what SPF ratings are based on) and not UVA rays (which cause skin cancer and wrinkling).  So, while SPF ratings indicate a sunscreen’s effectiveness against UVB rays, there is no numerical rating for a sunscreen’s effectiveness against UVA rays.  Sunscreens currently on the market will often say they are “broad spectrum,” meaning they protect against both UVA and UVB rays, but they don’t have to prove their product effectiveness against UVA rays.  Under the new rules, which go into effect in 2012, manufacturers will have to show how well their products protect against UVA and UVB rays.

Also, the FDA is considering capping SPF ratings at 50 since there is no evidence higher numbers offer more protection.  Additionally, terms like “waterproof” and “sweatproof” will no longer be used because they are “exaggerations.”

Dermatologists suggest using products labeled “broad spectrum,” (under the new rules this will carry more meaning) with an SPF of 30 to 50.  And the norm is to apply sunscreen before exposure and reapply every 2 hours thereafter.

This advice seems pretty simple and straightforward; however, this is where things get much more interesting and confusing.  There is some concern, based on animal studies, that certain chemical ingredients in sunscreens may cause health problems.  In a May 30, 2011 article in the San Antonio Express-News, Drs. Michael Roizen and Mehmut Oz, said some researchers raised red flags about two sunscreen ingredients: oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate.  Oxybenzone, which is found in most popular sunscreens, may disrupt natural hormones.  Retinyl palmitate (a kind of topical vitamin A) has triggered genetic mutations when exposed to sunlight in the lab.  In other words, they might have a cancer connection, according to the two doctors.

On the other hand, the FDA, which is currently reviewing the safety of sunscreen ingredients (let’s hope they don’t take another 33 years to release their findings) says it “does not have any reason to believe these products are not safe for consumer use.”  The skeptic in me says, of course they don’t have any reason to believe the ingredients are unsafe, they are still reviewing them. The bottom line on these two potentially harmful ingredients is that the research is ongoing and still unclear, so the jury is out.

Finally, let’s return to UVA rays.  There is a good numerical measurement to indicate which sunscreens are effective against UVB rays (an SPF of 30 to 50), but what about UVA protection?  What you have to look for are so-called UVA blockers, of which there are several, but the most common is zinc oxide, which the literature says provides the most complete UVA/UVB protection and is considered safe.  However, if you look at the back at almost all popular sunscreens, you won’t find zinc oxide as an ingredient.  One reason for this is that zinc oxide, when applied, leaves a white residue so you look like a kabuki doll (remember those lifeguards with the blob of white on their noses?), though rubbing it in thoroughly helps.  But the kabuki look makes these sunscreens pretty unpopular.  However, Drs. Rozien and Oz recommend that you “scour the ingredients list looking for UVA blockers such as zinc oxide, titanium dioxide….”.  If you are interested in reviewing sunscreens containing zinc oxide, and containing natural ingredients as opposed to chemical ingredients, such as oxybenzone found in most popular sunscreens, one website you can check out is the Environmental Working Group’s— for a list of sunscreens they recommend.

The best conclusion to draw from the still confusing decision as to what sunscreen to choose is that the proven benefits of any sunscreen outweigh any potential risks.  You have to decide whether the concern some researchers have raised about oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate should be considered in choosing a sunscreen and whether you should consider a sunscreen containing zinc oxide, which is a proven and effective UVA blocker.

--Tom Manning