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Sunscreen – is it more harm than good?

Slopping on some sunscreen before stepping out in the sun is now second-nature to most Australians.

While sunscreen won’t stop you eventually getting sunburnt, it will buy you some precious time for outdoor activities.

Sunscreen protects your skin from the sun’s harmful rays. But concern has increased in recent years about the ingredients in sunscreen.

Chemical ‘absorbers’ in sunscreen suck up the harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays before they reach your skin. However, these chemicals can irritate sensitive skin and even cause allergies.

The filtering chemical, oxybenzone, is also blamed by American environmental groups for damaging baby coral and contributing to the bleaching of coral reefs near tourist resorts. However, the American Academy of Dermatology says there is no evidence that oxybenzone in sunscreen is a health hazard.

Other elements in sunscreen, such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, help to scatter and reflect UV radiation. These physical ‘blockers’ are considered to be safer than the ‘absorbers’ – but they can leave you looking like Casper the Friendly Ghost.

To counter the Casper-white-effect, manufacturers made the zinc and titanium blockers smaller. Effectively, they micronised them into ‘nanoparticles’.

Some people worry that nanoparticles can penetrate the skin and get into the bloodstream. Environmental activist group, Friends of the Earth, whipped up fear that nanoparticles in sunscreen could penetrate bodily organs and “pose a potential human health risk”.

All the credible research says this is not so. The findings state that zinc oxide and titanium dioxide nanoparticles are not absorbed by the skin – they remain on the surface of the skin. And if they do somehow make it to the bloodstream, our immune system will deal with them.

The Cancer Council continues to be guided by the governing authority, the Therapeutic Good Administration (TGA). The TGA monitors scientific literature on the issue and says it would take “appropriate regulatory action if a risk of toxicity of sunscreen was identified”.

The Australasian College of Dermatologists recommends sunscreen is used on babies and children of any age who are exposed to the sun. Some babies might develop minor skin irritation from sunscreen – but true allergic contact dermatitis to the active chemicals in sunscreen is very rare. Many brands of sunscreen have a toddler formula which is gentler on a baby’s skin.

The Cancer Council does not want any public concern about the safety of sunscreen to result in diminishing use of the product. Its view is any low-level risk from nanoparticles is vastly outweighed by the risk of skin cancer from unprotected exposure to harmful UV radiation.

The Cancer Council says that sunscreen is the safest way to go. Now you just have to decide between lotion, cream, gel, spray, roll-on or stick. Consumer group, Choice, has a helpful buyers guide and tips to keep you protected.

Category: Health

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Article by: Defence Health