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Some "Fresh Air" About Skin Cancer

By July 15, 2009

National Public Radio's "Fresh Air" program recently recorded a show with Dr. Darrell Rigel, a clinical professor of Dermatology at New York University Medical Center and former president of the American Academy of Dermatology. If you've been recently diagnosed with skin cancer or want to know how to prevent a diagnosis, listening to this informative 15-minute interview is well worth your time (download it here).

Dr. Rigel reviewed some solid, evidence-based tips on sun safety as well as background info on basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma.

Somewhat surprising was his recommendation to use the new ultra-high SPF sunscreens. Most experts believe that the 97-98% UV protection that SPF30 sunscreens provide is sufficient; his point is that since sunscreen isn't typically applied correctly, using a SPF80 or 100 product can compensate. That's a fair point, but I think he should have emphasized more that sunscreen is not a panacea and that staying out the midday sun or wearing protective clothing is far more effective and convenient (and cheaper!).

Some listeners raised concerns about the safety of sunscreens themselves, especially given a 2008 report from the Environmental Working Group. Their research showed that only 7% of high SPF sunscreens protect against deep-penetrating UVA radiation and 48% of products contain ingredients that break down within minutes or hours, contrary to what their labels state. Even more seriously, some sunscreen ingredients, such as oxybenzone, homosalate, and octyl methoxycinnamate, are absorbed into the blood, and some are linked to toxic effects.

Sounds scary, but keep in mind that there is no direct, causal, peer-reviewed evidence linking sunscreens to cancer. Until there is, the unanimous recommendation of experts stays the same: wearing sunscreen, and adopting other sun safe behaviors, will greatly reduce your risk of developing skin cancer.

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