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Are San Diegans Getting Too Much Or Too Little Sun?


Aired 6/21/10

Protecting ourselves from the rays of the sun seems like a good idea. But there are some real questions about how much protection we really get from sunscreen. And one skin cancer specialist says we may be sacrificing some important protection by rejecting the golden rays.

— Protecting ourselves from the rays of the sun seems like a good idea. But there are some real questions about how much protection we really get from sunscreen. And one skin cancer specialist says we may sacrificing some important protection by rejecting the golden rays.

Beachgoers pack Pacific Beach on a warm summer day.
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Above: Beachgoers pack Pacific Beach on a warm summer day.

Mission Beach in the middle of the afternoon attracts lots of sunbathers showing lots of skin. But most of these people seem very aware of the dangers of too much sun. Wes Conner wears a straw hat as he sits on a beach chair, equipped with a built-in canvas awning that he sits underneath.

"I'm a white Irish kid," said Conner. "So I burn really, really easy."

His wife, Mary, meanwhile lies in the full sun wearing a bikini. But she's covered with sunscreen, and she said she wears it on her neck and face every day, whether she goes to the beach or not. She described the sunscreen she wears.

"UVA and UVB-block. At least 30 SPF," she said. "SPF stands for what?" I ask. "Hmm... good question," she said.

There certainly are pros and cons of being out in the sun.

"Definitely one of the pros is the euphoria of being in the sun and certainly being in San Diego. It's one of the reasons we're here," said Vic Ross, a dermatologist at Scripps Clinic. "And the downside is the daily aging that the sun really has on the skin day by day. And living here, versus living somewhere else, you really feel it."

Ross highly recommends sunscreens, which, used correctly, block ultra-violet rays that prematurely age and wrinkle the skin and cause some kinds of skin cancer. But he admits one problem with most sunscreens is they don't effectively block all ultra-violet light.

Let's get back to that question, I asked Mary, about SPF. It stands for sun protection factor. You may have a bottle of sunscreen that has a 50 SPF. But look closely at the bottle and you'll see that protective factor is for UVB rays. The sun's UVA rays are not as effectively blocked by opaque sunscreens.

Vic Ross said, "The FDA has been working on a UVA protection factor for years and there's no consensus among the sunscreen industry and physicians and panels and an adequate UVA protection factor."

Ross added the only way to make sure you're doing a good job stopping UVA rays is to wear zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Unfortunately those can make you look like you're wearing kabuki makeup. One San Diego physician said you might be better off wearing no sunscreen at all.

Dr. Greg Daniels is an oncologist at UCSD whose specialty is melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer. He says there is a link between high sun exposure and some skin cancers. But the incidence of melanoma has actually gone up as our society has focused more on UV protection and and is spending more and more time working indoors.

"Melanoma, 100 years ago, was really a one in 5,000 kind of lifetime experience," said Daniels. "And now in the U.S. for somebody like myself, it's a one in 40 lifetime experience. So something dramatic is going on."

He said pigment and melanin in the skin are protective against melanoma. That's why African Americans have lower rates of that skin cancer. Daily unprotected sun exposure also produces more melanin in our skin and, Daniels believes, better protection against melanoma. He said our society's fear of sun burns and skin aging may actually be putting us white people in particular, in more danger.

"We don't quite know what we're doing to ourselves," said Daniels. "It clearly hasn't worked in Australia where they've been trying this for 30 years with a very strong national campaign of sunscreen, and the incidence for melanoma continues to go up almost unabated."

Back at Mission Beach, a woman with a dark tan is playing with her kids. If Greg Daniels' theory is correct, she may actually be better prepared to avoid a deadly form of skin cancer. But Lisa said she is starting to think seriously about starting to use sunscreen.

"I'm starting to get concerned about sun exposure because I'm getting older. I'm 40, and I'm starting to see wrinkles an so forth," she said.

Dr. Vic Ross says when it comes to avoiding sun damage for cosmetic concerns and for most forms of skin cancer, the rule remains -- the less sun the better.

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Avatar for user 'jencjoseph'

jencjoseph | June 21, 2010 at 6:55 a.m. ― 6 years, 9 months ago

I liked this topic a lot, but I fear that it left out a huge thing that contributes to the rise of skin cancer. Tanning beds. I wish that you had discussed the increase use of indoor tanning and the gender differences in increased skin cancer rates (higher among women due to excessive indoor tanning). Not speaking about this I fear leaves people with a false impression that tanning is somehow better for you without sunscreen than with. Please follow up with something on this important topic.
Jennifer Joseph

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Avatar for user 'dan2222'

dan2222 | June 21, 2010 at 9:02 a.m. ― 6 years, 9 months ago

When i think of how much time I spent surfing PB in my 20s without sunscreen, I definitely regret not being more careful. Agree with above poster, and author, be certain your sunscreen works. Also limit your UV exposure regardless.I'm also using this free UV detector app for my iPhone that gives me forecasts and alerts

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Avatar for user 'sandiego1981'

sandiego1981 | June 21, 2010 at 6:07 p.m. ― 6 years, 9 months ago

I wonder how much of the increased incidence of melanoma also has something to do with people having too much faith in their sunscreen "protecting" them and thinking they can stay out in the sun longer without added protection. It is surprisingly a challenge to find sunscreens that have physical barriers like zinc or titanium oxide and don't contain oxybenzone.

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