Who really benefits from sunscreen?

Those of us interested in natural ways to promote health face a conundrum when it comes to sunshine. On one hand, it’s nature’s source of vitamin D. On the other hand…skin cancer.

Considering the fact that the American Cancer Society placed the number of new melanoma cases last year at 76,000, this is no small concern. I usually recommend vitamin D supplements to sidestep the problem, but a new study has me wondering whether getting the sunshine vitamin the old-fashioned way isn’t such a bad idea.

I’m from a southern Mediterranean background. So sunshine is in my blood, and to be honest, sunscreen has never been a big deal in my family. As I’ve said before, I personally need sunshine in my life. Most of us do, and not just for the vitamin D. For me, and a lot of others, it’s essential for happiness and emotional well-being.

So how do we get the benefits of the sun without the risks? Sunscreen, of course. But it turns out that comes with its own problems. For one, who wants to slather all those chemical sunscreens on their skin? I know I don’t. (By the way, sunscreen creams and sprays have chemicals beyond just the UV blockers. They also have all the other nasty stuff that we see in other personal care products — propylene glycols, artificial fragrances, etc.)

In Europe, numerous new sunscreens have been approved in recent years to address some of the safety issues. So why the U.S. government hasn’t approved a new sunscreen in decades is beyond me.

Yet despite all these drawbacks, most of us feel compelled — almost bullied — into using sunscreen. But enough of my opinion. Let’s get back to that new research…

The study, which was presented at the American Public Health Association 2016 Annual Meeting, enrolled 499 white children at birth or at age 6. The researchers categorized the children’s skin tone as lighter or darker. Every year, they examined the children for new moles (an indicator of melanoma risk). They also had the parents complete an annual survey about the frequency of sunscreen use when kids were outside for more than 15 minutes, thickness of sunscreen application, which parts of the body were protected, and other sun-protection measures.

What they found turns the idea of recommending sunscreen for everyone on its head. Only the high-risk kids — the lighter-skinned ones who had at least three sunburns between ages 12 and 14 — benefited from sunscreen. Of the kids in that group, those who used sunscreen had significantly fewer moles than those who did not.

But for other kids, sunscreen didn’t offer protection against developing moles.

Now, this study only looked at kids until the age of 15, and moles can take much longer than that to start appearing. But as it stands, this is the longest-term mole study ever conducted. And if the evidence holds true, we need to rethink our sunscreen recommendations.

The message that sunscreen protects against skin cancer is so widely accepted it’s practically gospel. But, as this evidence suggests, it might not be true.

One of the reasons sunscreen wasn’t as protective as expected could be that many of them are only effective at blocking ultraviolet (UV) B rays. Until recently, we thought UVB rays were the only ones linked to melanoma. But we now know that UVA rays also play a role. And UVA exposure is more or less constant throughout the day. So although the sunburn danger wanes when the sun is low in the sky, risk for UVA exposure can remain.

So using a sunscreen that doesn’t protect against UVA rays leaves us susceptible to cancer-causing sun damage.

Maybe the more broad-spectrum sunscreens will prove to be more beneficial. But I doubt it. As with anything else, I prefer not to rely on medications — which is essentially what sunscreen is. Instead, let’s look at public health prevention methods such as swim shirts and hats.

I love the sun but as with everything, you should look at the evidence yourself, gather several opinions, and draw your own conclusion.