New Ways to Protect Skin From Sun Damage

Basking at the beach or hitting the tanning bed may be relaxing, but it can do serious damage to your skin.

More than 1 million people this year will be diagnosed with skin cancer, and the number of cases has tripled in women under 40 over the last three decades.

There are more new skin cancer cases each year than breast, prostate, lung and colon cancer combined.

There are new tools to help stay safe in the sun, including so-called "sunscreen pills."

"Basically, these pills are made up of a little beta carotene and vitamin antioxidants, and antioxidants are known to help protect the skin against the DNA damage the sun can create," said Paula Bourelly, a Maryland dermatologist. "There's nothing wrong with these pills, per se. There haven't been enough studies on their effectiveness as yet, and they don't replace sunscreen."

She said that the average adult should use about a "shot glass full" of sunscreen and reapply every two hours, even if the sunscreen manufacturer says that people only need to reapply every four hours or five hours.

Beside pills, Bourelly noted that antioxidants like green tea were also showing up in sunscreens, because they enhanced the skin's ability to protect against the sun's damaging rays.

Safer in the Sun: New Sunblocks, Clothing

Bourelly said that nearly 80 percent of UV rays passed through clouds and that even waterproof sunscreens could rub off and did not always protect against the sun.

"The problem is that sunscreens aren't photo-stable. Testing has established that they lose their protective effect after a few hours. Plus, the best protection is often provided by the least-stable products -- those that wear off fastest," she said.

Researchers are looking for ways to make the protection last longer. Neutrogena is now selling its Helioplex technology as part of its Ultrasheer Dry Touch sunscreen.

"Basically, the sunscreen absorbs and then transforms UV light into a harmless form of light."

Bourelly said that other companies were developing similar technology so it might soon be more widely available.

The chemical mexoryl is also being tested by doctors but is not yet available in the United States.

"Mexoryl is the only chemical known to block all UVA rays and some UVB rays," Bourelly said. "Mexoryl can protect skin from sunburn by itself, but it must be combined with other active sunscreen agents to gain an official SPF rating. Sunscreens based on mexoryl have been available in Canada, Europe, and other parts of the world since 1993, but it is still awaiting FDA approval for sale in the United States."

Photo-protective clothing is also entering the mainstream as it grows more affordable and fashionable. Bourelly said that people should buy clothes that were at least a UPF of 30. She said that they usually held up well in the wash and that there were laundry additives to wash sun protection into clothing. She also said that tightly woven fabric like denim and polyester kept the rays from penetrating the skin.

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