May 2,2008— -- Spring is here, legs have been reacquainted with the razor and women are buying lots of shimmery lip gloss on impulse.
But have you heard the buzz that cheap, fun, non-SPF gloss can possibly increase your skin cancer risk?
Here's the theory: Some dermatologists have said that the translucent sheen helps ultraviolet rays penetrate the already fragile skin of the lips -- thereby increasing your risk. These dermatologists may be on to something, according to some of the top experts in the field.
Dr. Jessica Fewkes, a face and neck skin cancer specialist at Harvard, draws a cautious analogy between wearing non-SPF (sun protection factor) lip gloss in the sun and using baby oil to promote tanning. "You might be able to infer that they both enhance UV exposure," she says.
Dr. Kevin Cooper, chairman of the dermatology department at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, explains that any increased penetration of ultraviolet rays would be due to "enhanced optical passage" of the dangerous rays. But the increase, he qualifies, would be small.
Here's the catch: There are no large, targeted studies proving or disproving this theory, which makes Fewkes, Cooper and the American Cancer Society reluctant to draw fixed conclusions.
Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, the society's deputy chief medical officer, says that it seems "like just a theory."
"It's OK," he adds, " to have theories about how diseases are caused or influenced, but we have to see evidence. There should be an effort made to do large, population-based studies."
And, in the absence of such studies, it's hard to get a simple yes or no from a doctor.
Nevertheless, specialists agree that just as it's universally recommended that people wear at least SPF 15 on their faces, it makes sense to do the same for the lips. And in these UV-ray conscious times, it's not hard to find gooey pink gloss that comes with protection.
And consider this: According to Cooper, squamous cell carcinoma (the kind of cancer that makes up 90 percent of new cases of lip skin cancer each year) has a higher risk of metastasis on the lips. That means that it's more likely to aggressively spread if it starts on your lips than if the same kind of cancer appears first on other parts of the skin.
Bonus: If you really need another reason to make sure your gloss is SPF 15, think about the prematurely wrinkle-mouthed look you probably want to avoid. Fewkes says that if gloss does, in fact, increase lips vulnerability to UV rays, it stands to reason that it promotes photoaging as well.
"The damage done short of a true cancer can be very difficult to treat," she says, referring not only to painful fissures, but to solar keratosis -- nonmalignant yet unpleasant crusty bumps.