Everyone knows the importance of protecting our skin from the sun. Despite this, surveys show that among the top three things we forget when going on holiday is suncream.
This might be why about a third of Britons report getting sunburned at least three times a year.
I’m old enough to remember a time when sunburn was seen by many as a necessary evil in order to get ‘a good base tan’ – and people used to baste themselves in baby oil to kick-start the process. How times have changed.
I was, however, surprised to read a recent report suggesting some of the chemicals used in suncream might affect our hormones.
Concerns were raised a couple of months ago by scientists working for the US medical watchdog the Food And Drug Administration.
A third of Britons report getting sunburned at least three times a year – and surveys show that among the top three things we forget when going on holiday is suncream
They decided to test the extent to which chemicals in suntan lotions can get through the skin and into the bloodstream.
They recruited 24 healthy men and women and asked them to try out four common suntan lotions – two sprays, two creams. The volunteers were asked to apply the lotions four times a day for four days, and had lots of blood samples taken.
Scientists found that levels of four chemicals commonly used in sunscreens were far higher than they expected and decided that this merited further investigation.
COULD CHEMICALS AFFECT HORMONES?
Suntan lotions are designed to block the damage caused by ultraviolet light coming from the sun.
UV light comes in different frequencies. But the ones we need to worry about are UVA light, which is linked to premature ageing of the skin, and UVB, which is strongly linked to skin cancer.
Skin cancers, particularly the most dangerous form, melanoma, have been on the rise for many years. To protect the skin from UV light, most sunscreens contain what are known as physical blockers and chemical absorbers.
Physical blockers – compounds derived from minerals such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide – work by reflecting UV light away from your skin. They are considered pretty much safe. The uncertainty lies around some of the chemical absorbers – molecules that soak up the energy from UV rays before they reach the skin.
There is one in particular which the FDA study found was rapidly absorbed into the blood in relatively high amounts. It is oxybenzone, part of a chemical group called the benzophenones.
It has been used in suncreams for many years, without causing any obvious problems. But oxybenzone might have an effect on our hormones.
Scientists in the US recently asked a group of 413 men to provide sperm and urine samples. They tested the urine for the presence of benzophenones, while also examining the quality of the sperm. What they found is that the men with higher levels of benzophenones in their urine also tended to have slightly more immature sperm and lower concentrations of sperm overall.
A similar small study in Spain found a link between oxybenzone levels in the blood and lower levels of a hormone that’s essential for making sure eggs and sperm mature properly. They concluded this was unlikely to have a significant effect on fertility. But the health implications were ‘unclear’.
ASK DR MOSLEY: Your questions answered
I am doing your Fast 800 diet but I am finding it quite difficult to keep track of what I am eating throughout the day. Some of my friends use a calorie-counting app. Would you recommend one? If so, which?
Although it is important to keep a rough track of what you are eating, you don’t want to become obsessive about it.
Thinking about food too much will only increase cravings.
Eating 50 calories too much or too little each day won’t matter very much.
I would suggest have a look at the calorie-tracker on the NHS website (nhs.uk) and note down your intake at the end of the day on your phone or in a notepad.
MOST PEOPLE DON’T USE ENOUGH OF IT
AT the moment the evidence that suncreams do harm, at least to humans, is pretty weak. So while the FDA has initiated further studies, it also says that concerns about oxybenzone should not stop people using lotions.
But the Swedish Research Council, which advises the Swedish government, says sunscreens with oxybenzone are unsuitable for use in children under two because young children lack the enzymes needed to properly break down these chemicals.
The strongest action against the use of oxybenzone in suncreams is coming from countries that are worried about its effect, not on humans, but on coral. That’s because of recent research that suggests that when tourists slathered in sunscreen swim through the coral, they leave a trail of chemicals that can affect the delicate ecosystem where it lives.
From next year it will be illegal to sell or distribute suncreams that contain the chemicals oxybenzone, octinoxate or octocrylene in places such as Hawaii, the US Virgin Islands or Key West, Florida.
Luckily, there are quite a few suncreams that don’t contain oxybenzone. But they tend to be more expensive. There are plenty out there, so read the labels carefully.
By far the greatest concerns among the experts I’ve spoken to is not so much what is in suncreams, but the fact that most of us are not using enough.
Studies suggest that on average people use less than half the amount they should, and as a result many people still get burned. This can have serious long-term consequences. Recent research suggested just five episodes of severe burning as a child can increase the risk of skin cancer in later life by 80 per cent.
EAT CARROTS TO GET THAT GOLDEN GLOW
If you want a healthy glow, but also want to preserve your skin, I recommend you try eating foods that are rich in carotenoids.
These are the antioxidants found in bright-coloured fruits and vegetables. They are stored in fat under your skin and, as well as being very good for your health, they bestow a glow to your skin.
In a recent study, 43 men were asked to take either a carotenoid capsule or a placebo for three months. At the beginning of the trial, and after three months of taking capsules, they were photographed and had blood samples taken. A group of young women, who had never met the men, were then asked to rate their pictures for attractiveness.
The women found those men who had been taking the beta-carotene capsules much more attractive. But interestingly enough, although the men looked healthier, taking the beta-carotene capsules had no measurable effect on their actual health.
That is why I think you should get your carotenoids in the form of food rather than pills. Foods rich in carotenes include carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach, kale, avocado, tomatoes, oranges, pumpkin, mangos and papaya.