June 17, 2005 -- We think of July and August as the peak of summer, but when it comes to sunburn, now is the peak. Next Tuesday, June 21st, is the longest day of the year, when the sun is highest in the sky, so it's now that the sun does the most damage.
Like most people, you probably think you know what to do about it. You slather on the sunscreen when you're out in the sun.
Our suntan lotions are good at screening out the sun's UVB rays -- the ones that cause sunburn and skin cancers -- but most people don't realize their sunscreens don't offer much protection against UVA rays, the ones that put wrinkles in your skin.
"Ultraviolet A light ages your skin. And the reason it does that, it's a longer wavelength, so it can penetrate deeper into the skin, and instead of attacking the upper layers of the skin where skin cancer often forms, it attacks the layers that give your skin its tone, its elasticity, as we call it. … You get the lines, the wrinkles, all the things associated from aging," said Dr. Darrell Rigel, clinical professor of dermatology at New York University.
But there's good news. Lotions that contain the ingredients Oxybenzone, Titanium Dioxide or Parsol 1789 block out some UVA rays.
Doctors say a chemical called Mexoryl offers even better protection.
"It produces a product which gives us almost perfect protection against sunshine," said Dr. Vincent DeLeo, chairman of dermatology at Columbia University.
People are happily protecting themselves with Mexoryl on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro, the streets of Paris, in Canada, Mexico and Australia.
Mexoryl "is the No. 1 individual ingredient in terms of protection from Ultraviolet A radiation," Rigel said.
But even though dermatologists say Mexoryl is the best, you cannot legally buy it in the United States. It's illegal, because the Food and Drug Administration won't approve it. They won't even say why. The FDA is charged with making sure no drug is sold unless the government is convinced it's safe and effective. Dermatologists think it's just stuck in the bureaucracy. It routinely takes 12 to 15 years for a drug to get approval. After an approved drug -- Vioxx, for example -- gets bad publicity as a health risk, the FDA gets particularly cautious.
But is there no common sense here? All drugs have risks as well as benefits. Mexoryl has been in use in other countries for 13 years. It's passed many safety tests. Why won't our FDA even talk about it?
Although buying or selling sunscreens with Mexoryl is illegal in the United States, that doesn't mean sunscreens with Mexoryl aren't bought and sold here. We found it at some pharmacies. It was expensive -- $30 to $50.
"People really want this stuff. People go to pharmacies and they keep it under the counter, like it's a secret ingredient, like prohibition or something and people will still buy it," Rigel said.
I don't fault the pharmacies, they're serving their customers.
Everyone is always telling us, protect yourself from the sun, but then the government won't give us permission to have the best sunscreen?
Give me a break.