Avoiding sunburn in the age of coronavirus

The Fourth of July weekend is just around the corner. Clean the pool, get out the lawn darts and fill up the cooler with your favorite adult beverage.

It’s time to get out of the house –
at a safe social distance to avoid spreading the coronavirus of course – staying six feet or more away from others, wearing a mask, avoiding touching your face, washing your hands. But what about protecting your skin?

The danger of skin cancer certainly hasn’t disappeared during the age of coronavirus, and using sunscreen is more important than ever, experts say. Melanoma, one of the deadliest forms of skin cancer, has been on the rise globally for decades. And while survival rates are getting better, melanoma is still the fifth most commonly diagnosed cancer in the United States.

Regular daily use of SPF 15 sunscreen can reduce your risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma by about 40 percent, and lower your melanoma risk by 50 percent. If you’re inside most of the day with just short intervals in the sun, you can use a sunscreen or cosmetic product with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 15 or higher. If you spend a lot of time outdoors, especially when and where the sun is strongest, you need an SPF 30 or higher, water-resistant sunscreen.

Choosing a safe sunscreen isn’t as simple as popping into a store (mask on, of course) and grabbing the nearest option off the shelf.

Before you slather on some sunscreen, you might want to check out the 2020 list of safer sunscreens put out by the Environmental Working Group, or EWG, a consumer organization that advocates for sunscreen safety. You can find the list at www.ewg.org/2020sunscreen.

“This year, 75 percent of the SPF products EWG assessed still contained worrisome ingredients and/or do not provide adequate sun protection,” said Nneka Leiba, vice president of healthy living science at EWG.

Meanwhile, the FDA has been working on more stringent guidelines on sunscreen testing and safety for decades. In 2019 the agency proposed what was to be a set of final rules that placed safety testing requirements on manufacturers, a stipulation that had not been in place before. Two sections tucked into the March Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES, rewrote the law on the regulation of over-the-counter drugs, which includes sunscreens.

“There have been a number of technological advances in the formulation of sunscreens,” the FDA wrote in the proposed regulations, which “have led to currently marketed products with more active ingredients combined together in higher concentrations than were previously used.

“These changing conditions of use and differences in sunscreen formulation may also lead to greater absorption and possibly additional risks,” the FDA added.

“Most people are not aware, these chemicals are in fact considered drugs,” said Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, the deputy chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society.

“The FDA is now saying we need to treat them like drugs. We need to understand much more about how they work, and we really need to know about their safety as well.”

You might want to try the old-fashioned “slip, slap, slop and wrap” technique suggested by Lichtenfeld in an interview with CNN. “Slip on a long-sleeve shirt, slap on a wide-brimmed hat, and slop sunscreen on exposed skin and use UV-protective sunglasses that wrap around the eyes when out in the sun.”

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