Skin Cancer: A Scary Reality

It’s summer. The weather’s warm, the watermelon’s on the picnic table and the water in the swimming pool is just right. You want to be carefree, lighthearted, and let your guard down. But there’s one area in which having your guard up can potentially save your life: sun protection.

Skin cancer is steadily on the rise, and it’s nothing to scoff at. During the 35-year period between 1975 and 2010, skin cancer rates among adults in the U.S. tripled, according to the National Cancer Institute. And the rate of death from melanoma among white American men nearly doubled in that same 35-year period. It’s hard to believe that the sun can kill you the same way smoking cigarettes can – by causing a deadly cancer – but it’s true.

In response to these alarming statistics and in an effort to increase consumer protection and awareness, the FDA established new sunscreen regulations last summer, making rules around the testing and labeling of sunscreens much stricter. In tandem with this, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has published a comprehensive “Guide to Sunscreens” that is a must-read for anyone who spends time in the sun, or is responsible for children who do. The EWG’s database is full of surprising facts about sunscreen, how it works, and how it should be used, as well as plenty of tips for staying safe in the sun.

Here are a few notable tidbits:

  • Sunscreen alone does not reduce the risk of skin cancer. Consumers must take other steps, sometimes making lifestyle changes, to reduce the risk. Also, prior to the new FDA regulations, not all sunscreens in the U.S. have been properly formulated or labeled, which has lessened their efficacy in preventing cancer.
  • Higher SPF is not necessarily better. In fact, it can be very misleading. Consumers may believe they can stay out in the sun for twice as long with an SPF 100 sunscreen than with an SPF 50 one, but his isn’t actually the case. It’s better to stick with an SPF of between 30 or 50 and reapply diligently.
  • That Vitamin A that works so well in your over-the-counter or prescription anti-wrinkle face cream? The EWG thinks you should quit using it! Vitamin A, retinyl palmitate, and retinol- which are favorite ingredients in countless cosmetic creams and other products, including sunscreens – can all encourage the growth of skin cancer when applied to skin that is exposed to sunlight.
  • Europeans do it better. According to the EWG, more than half of the 750 American sunscreens it tested would never pass muster with the European Union, which requires all sunscreens to offer UVA protection that is a minimum of one-third as strong as the SPF.

For more details, check out the EWG’s Guide to Sunscreens at