Monday 5 October 2015


As Australia is starting to warm up, I've begun to grab the sun hats and sunscreen again to apply assiduously to the children. But, for the first time in years, after seeing photos of golden-skinned children in the Northern Hemisphere during their recent summer, I have started to question a dogmatic approach to sun protection.

For as long as I can remember, exposing your children to the sun in Australia is almost tantamount to child abuse. All the major health bodies - and public service announcements - tell us that we are putting our children's health at risk. Slip, slop, slap is the mantra. At school, "no hat, no play". The same at preschool, where children are taught how to apply sunscreen themselves and pump packs are within reach everywhere.

What I'm curious about is whether there really is such a dramatic difference in skin cancer rates in the Northern versus Southern Hemispheres. Are the parents of children in America, for example, not concerned about the sun and its effects? Especially in states such as California and Florida, where there are high rates of sunshine. Or is it not an issue?

According to the US Skin Cancer Foundation, one in five Americans will develop skin cancer and "every year there are more new cases of skin cancer than the combined incidence of cancers of the breast, prostate, lung and colon". So it's an increasingly serious issue. 

On face value, it seems that 20% of Americans will develop skin cancer compared with more than 60% of Australians. So there is still a significantly greater risk in Australia - however, residents of the States are far from immune.

But in Australia have we taken our fear of the sun too far?

A couple of years ago I was diagnosed with a deficiency in Vitamin D. So was my husband and mother-in-law, and a bunch of other people I know. The diagnosis rate seems to be increasing - with one study saying up to 58% of Australians have some sort of deficiency. Of course, it could be because it's being tested more and there could be other reasons too numerous to list here, but it is worth including in this discussion on sun exposure.

Osteoporosis Australia says Vitamin D is important in helping our bodies absorb calcium. Its figures state that 30% of adults in Australia have a mild to moderate or even severe deficiency. It's an important issue for the health of unborn children too - and that was why I was tested - during my pregnancy with our third child. OA recommends 7-30 minutes a day sun exposure to arms or equivalent during winter for moderately fair-skinned people and 5-10 minutes a day during summer-time. 

This might not seem like a lot, but when I was working in an office I would struggle to get these amounts each day. And even with young children in tow, when you are always covered in hats and long-sleeved tops or sunscreen to ward off the sun, it's not always easy either. We almost always stay indoors during the hottest time of the day - from about 11am to 2pm. The more I think about it, the more I would struggle to get the recommended sun exposure dose.

I admit that I have been concerned about sun exposure for vanity reasons too. It's well-known that you get wrinkles and skin damage from the sun. And while I don't have a problem with wrinkles in general, I'd prefer not to have sun spots or flappy skin. Or freckles - which I have had since childhood, and get darker after days in the sun. Magazines and those who get asked these questions are fond of telling everyone that the best beauty product is sunscreen. It has always seemed counter-intuitive to me to spend lots of time in the sun only to spend lots of money on "anti-wrinkle" creams. I'm loathe to link to any examples of this though as most beauty publications include products in their reviews based on advertising dollars. (I know this because I worked in magazine publishing for five years.)

I've never actually been a fan of sunscreen though. It's often sticky and can sometimes stain your clothes, as well as get in your children's eyes. (Especially when they are at the toddler stage and insist on putting it on themselves - each one of my children have shed tears over this type of experience.) In general, I prefer to just wear a hat and thin gauzy long sleeves.

There's also the question of the chemicals in sunscreen. I admit that I don't know enough about it. I find that with these types of discussions both sets of groups have an agenda to push, and it can sometimes be hard to know who to believe. Statistics can be manipulated in all sorts of ways. However, according to one report, Friends of Earth claims that many leading brands of sunscreen in Australia - including the Cancer Council's "Classic", Invisible Zinc "Junior" and "Body" sunscreens have nano materials - which are particles of metals titanium oxide and zinc oxide. There is still a lot of debate about the effects of nano materials - but that also seems to be the point. We don't know the long-term effects on the health of people, including children.

In general, it seems sunscreens either use physical UV filters or chemical absorbers. Physical filters are derived from zinc oxide and titanium dioxide - "natural minerals ground down to fine powders", Craig Burkhart, an associate professor of dermatology at the University of North Carolina explains. They used to leave white residue on the skin but advances in technology has largely done away with this. "The benefit of physical blockers is that they don't decompose through sun exposure, so theoretically have a longer life on your skin," he says. Sometimes they can feel greasy, though.

In the US, the FDA requests that manufacturers use the term "organic" when referring to chemical sunscreens and "inorganic" for physical sunblocks*.

Chemical filters absorb active UV rays and release their energy - or free radicals - whereas physical sunblocks reflect the rays and prevent them absorbing into the skin. 

There are some claims that sunscreen - especially those that use chemical absorbers, can be bad for your skin. Choice says, "They can irritate and even cause allergies, but of deeper concern is their role as endocrine disruptors and skin penetration enhancers (which have implications for people in contact with other chemicals, such as agricultural pesticides)." 

Dr Ronald Siegle writing for the US Skin Foundation answers the question, can sunscreen cause skin cancer. He says there is no evidence that oxybenzone has any serious side effects in humans.

Dr Burkhart says the benefit of using any type of sunscreen far outweigh its risks, and recommends application of physical sunscreen every two hours, except in children under six months who should not have any application and should instead be kept out of the sun. 

In recent years, the sun protection factor has increased from what used to be a standard SPF15 to SPF50. But a higher SFP isn't necessarily better, according to Dr Steven Wang. The increase in UVB protection is minimal in sunscreens with SPFs above 50. "Individuals applying high-SPF sunscreens may not burn (UVB is the chief cause of sunburn), but without UVA-screening ingredients they can still receive large amounts of skin-damaging radiation," he says. As a result regulatory bodies in Australian and Europe have capped the SPF of sunscreens at 50+.

Researching this article has opened my eyes on the issue of sunscreen protection and I am now looking to buy physical UV sunblocks.

I have yet to use these brands, but I'm curious to give them a try this summer.

Natural Instinct Natural Sunscreen - recommended by quite a few comments in this article.

Shop Naturally states that the products they stock use zinc oxide as its natural ingredient - which doesn't need to be reapplied as often.

I have used other products in the Little Innoscents range previously - including the vapour rub balm.

Do you think we have taken the sun protection message too far? Do you allow your children to go "golden" over summer? Are you able to recommend any chemical-free sunscreens? Or do you believe this is a non-issue? And what of those of you who live in the Northern Hemisphere - or other parts of the world - is sun protection a concern for you? What is best for our children on this issue?

Please note: The information above is meant as the starting point for a discussion and is in no way medical advice. If you have any concerns, you should consult your medical practitioner. I also don't claim to be an expert on this topic, but am trying to understand it as best I can, and share what I've learnt. As a former news journalist, I am weary of experts and statistics. However, we must start somewhere to be able to begin an open discussion and hopefully get closer to the truth.

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