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Health Column: How to be even safer in the sun


As someone with an extremely fair complexion, I apply sunscreen regularly and do my best to stay out of the sun.

Despite this, I don’t spend a lot of time investigating the products I use — particularly whether they contain the ingredients that can best protect me from skin cancer.

According to Mattituck dermatologist Antoinette Notaro, there are two key ingredients everyone should look for in a sunscreen: titanium dioxide and zinc oxide.

“You want two things,” she said. “You want to be able to protect against UVA and UVB.”

Dr. Notaro explained that titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are components of physical sunscreens, which “sit” on top of your skin instead of being absorbed by it, therefore more effectively shielding helping to better shield you from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UVA and UVB) radiation.

According to the Mayo Clinic website, “UVA rays can prematurely age your skin, causing wrinkling and age spots,” while UVB rays can burn your skin. Too much exposure to either form of radiation can cause skin cancer.

Many sunscreens contain neither titanium dioxide nor zinc oxide, but a number of lotions do. On a recent trip to a local pharmacy, I found four products that either list one or both chemicals as active ingredients: Ceravé Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 50, Coppertone Water Babies Pure & Simple, Babyganics Pure Mineral Sunscreen Stick and CVS Baby Pure & Gentle Sunstick.

“You really have to search for them,” said Dr. Notaro, who added that she recommends brands like MD Solar Sciences and Elta MD to her patients.

Despite the reported benefits of the two ingredients, it’s worth noting that there has been some concern about titanium dioxide, which the International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified as possibly carcinogenic to humans when inhaled in its dry powder form.

Sunscreens generally don’t use the dry powder form of titanium dioxide, however. Instead, it’s broken down into “tiny nanoscale particles,” according to the American Cancer Society. Even so, scientists don’t yet know whether nanoscale particles could also potentially cause cancer.

On its website, the American Cancer Society points out that there are sunscreen chemicals other than titanium dioxide that carry their own potential health risks.

Despite this, Dr. Notaro said, it’s better to wear sunscreen than forgo it altogether.

“Right now, my opinion is that the jury is still out,” she said. “The [U.S.] Food and Drug Administration has approved these ingredients, so from my point of view they seem to be very safe.”

According to the American Cancer Society, skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the U.S. More than 3.5 million cases of non-melanoma skin cancer are diagnosed annually — more than all other cancers combined. An additional 73,000 cases of melanoma — the most serious form of skin cancer — are “expected to be diagnosed” this year, the organization said.

Don’t forget to:

• Check your sunscreen’s expiration date. Most tubes last between two and three years.

• Reapply at least every two hours, and more frequently if you’re sweating or swimming.

• Cover your arms, legs, neck, face, ears, hands, feet and underarms with one ounce (a shot glass full) of sunscreen each time you apply.

• Wear sunglasses and a hat and do your best to avoid direct sunlight when rays are strongest, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

• Use broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. SPF 30 sunscreens are capable of blocking 97 percent of UVB rays.

Source: American Cancer Society

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