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Common Sun Sense

Experts warn: Don't rely on sunscreen alone to protect you against skin cancer.

By Sally Eauclaire Osborne

Dermatologists and public health officials have been warning us for years that the deadly ultraviolet rays of the sun will cause wrinkles, age spots, and even skin cancer. The solution, they've told us, is to slather on sunscreen.

Surging sales of UV-ray blocking products, however, have not slowed skin cancer rates one iota. In fact, half of all the studies show that people who use sunscreen suffered higher cancer rates than those who did not. While little evidence as yet suggests that the ingredients in sunscreen are actually carcinogenic, this does not get sunscreen off the hook.

"It's not safe to rely on sunscreen," says Marianne Berwick, Ph.D., of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. At the meeting of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science in 1998, Berwick reported the disturbing news that the long-term use of sunscreen has not cut the rate of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, which has been rising unabated since the 1970s at the rate of 4 percent per year. The ensuing headlines burned dermatologists, many of whom rose to sunscreen's defense. The problem, most claimed, was not that sunscreens are ineffective, but that they give a false sense of security.

"Sunbathers are staying out in the sun longer than they normally would," says Michael F. Holick, M.D., of the Boston University School of Medicine. "This would account for the rise in skin cancer rates." How so? According to the Harvard Women's Health Watch, the problem is that sunscreens primarily protect against only one type of solar radiation: ultraviolet B (UV-B), the cause of burning, drying, and wrinkling. They don't usually block out ultraviolet A (UV-A) rays, which penetrate the skin less deeply but more intensely, ravaging cells and suppressing the immune system's ability to repair the damage.

Other defenders of sunscreen have been quick to blame sunscreen users. It seems we're not slathering the stuff on thickly enough, thoroughly enough, or often enough.

"The lack of benefit that some studies have observed may be explained by the fact that many of the people using these products are not applying them properly," says Mark D. Gaughan, M.D., a dermatologist at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine.

In a study using black light and fluorescent dyes, Dr. Gaughan has shown in his research that most people who apply sunscreen forget to cover their ears, temples, and back of the neck, all frequent sites for skin cancer.

Meanwhile Berwick is deeply concerned that simplistic media accounts of her findings have fueled sun scam conspiracy theories implicating manufacturers, who admittedly have a nearly billion-dollar-a-year interest in selling their product.

Worse, she fears that her findings might encourage the public to enjoy unsafe fun in the sun. Far from denouncing sunscreens, Berwick takes the very different position that we "should not rely on them."

What to do until sunblock passes its screen test? Try the common-sense approach favored for thousands of years by your ancestors (no matter where they came from—remember, all skin tones are fair game for damage). Slip on long-sleeved cover ups, don a wide-brimmed hat, and show proper respect for the sun.

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