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Friday, April 12, 2024

Seniors Fight Skin Damage with Sunscreen — And why European Sunscreen is Better

America is great at many things, but sunscreen isn’t one of them. Why you might want to get yours from another country. 

Many older adults were born in the generation that worshiped tans. Remember “Tan don’t burn – it’s a Coppertone tan”? Or slathering ourselves with a mixture of baby oil, Coke, and iodine and then “laying out” for hours to get really dark? We can hardly bear to mention tanning salons. Boy, were we ignorant!

Sun Damage

You probably know by now that sunscreen with a high SPF, or sun protection factor, is important to wear whenever you’re outside. Brown spots, wrinkling and visible blood vessels are the result of spending time unprotected in the sun. Up to 80% of skin damage we think of as aging is due to the harmful effects of the sun, according to dermatologist Fayne Frey, author of "The Skincare Hoax".  

Best Broad-Spectrum Sunscreens 

If you don’t plan on heading to Europe anytime soon, you can still get some eco-friendly sunscreen online or at your neighborhood store that blocks both UVB and UVA rays. Here are some to try:

  • Alba Botanica Sport Sunscreen. This feels great on your skin, won’t turn you white and is safe for coral reefs. 
  • Coppertone Pure and Simple Sunscreen Lotion. This broad-spectrum product uses naturally sourced zinc oxide as its active ingredient.
  • Hawaiian Tropic Everyday Active Clear Spray SPF 30. This water-resistant formula leaves no white cast. It’s also non-greasy and won’t clog your pores.
Even worse, UV radiation is responsible for damaging DNA in our skin cells. When this damage builds up over time, the cells may grow out of control, often leading to skin cancer. The majority of skin cancer is detected in people over 65. That’s why older adults have to be especially careful about protecting their skin. Melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer, is most frequently found in adults aged 65 to 74, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

UVA Rays

But you may not be aware that most American sunscreens are notably bad at blocking UVA rays. These won’t burn the skin like UVB rays, but they cause aging, suppress the immune system and help skin cancer to develop.  

Most sunscreen sold in the States couldn’t get on the shelves in Europe. In fact, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) testing revealed that American sunscreens varied significantly in their UVA protection, even when the number on the label was the same. 

In the US, sunscreens are treated as non-prescription drugs. That means their ingredients are subject to the same long review process as cancer treatments and every other drug under the umbrella of the FDA. The companies that make ingredients to block UVA and UVB rays have not produced the expensive safety testing requested by the FDA. There has not been a new sun filter approved in the US since 1996, despite makers having asked to use eight chemicals developed and now in use in Europe.

You might think that the FDA is just keeping us safe. But their process has resulted in sunscreen where the SPF label is misleading, and which may have no ability to block UVA rays.

More Approved Ingredients in Europe

Across the pond, sunscreens are regulated as cosmetics. That has resulted in 34 sun filters approved for use in Europe, versus only 16 stateside. Furthermore, in countries under European Commission regulations, drug manufacturers have opted to comply with a recommendation that sunscreens have UVA protection at least one-third as powerful as the advertised SPF, which really refers only to UVB protection. So, a sunscreen sporting a 30 SPF label would have at least 10 SPF against UVA rays.

And that is why when a British researcher tested four US sunscreens and four available in Europe, he found the average US product allowed three times more UVA rays to penetrate than its European counterparts. 

Sunscreen Safety

Are the chemicals used in US sunscreen in any way safer? According to the FDA’s 2021 proposed order to strengthen UVA protection, only zinc oxide and avobenzone provide strong protection against UVA rays. But that same order declared only two products, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, allowed in US sunscreen to be safe and effective. Many dermatologists recommend avoiding avobenzone and five other US sunscreen products. 

US sunscreen manufacturers have sought to use eight products developed in Europe, four of which (Tinosorb S, Tinosorb M, Mexoryl SX and Mexoryl XL) are more effective and likely more stable than avobenzone. Although the European Commission has studied and approved these drugs, the FDA is not satisfied. Many hope the FDA will allow some of these products, which have been used for many years in Europe, to be used in the US while testing is ongoing. 

Best US Sunscreen

What’s an American to do? Be sure to buy only sunscreen that is labeled “broad spectrum”. This means it offers protection against both UVB and UVA rays. Spend the extra money it may require to get a product with zinc oxide. Avoid products that contain oxybenzone, octinoxate and avobenzone. They can soak through your skin, enter your bloodstream and change your hormone levels. These chemicals may also irritate your skin, and they are not reef safe.

While it seems unlikely that change will happen anytime soon here at home, you can tell friends traveling abroad to skip the tchotchkes and load up on sunscreen – and bring some back to you, too.